Can Cats be Trained?

Apparently, it is possible to train a cat, according an article in The Guardian. And of course, I know it’s possible, having seen enough movies and tv shows with cats who do what they’re supposed to (or is it all ad libbed, once the cat is in front of the camera?). So I read the article. And spotted several problems, at least in the application of the techniques to our two moggies.

Use food – especially pure protein – as a reward, the article suggests. Problem #1. Our two cats haven’t the slightest interest in pure protein. I can leave salmon thawing on the kitchen counter, and they won’t even glance at it. Cooked chicken? Noses turned. How do humans eat that? you can almost hear them thinking. We have seen Cat # 1 – Pye – eat perhaps half-a-dozen times in the six years she’s lived with us. And then it’s one or two pieces of kibble, and she’s done. Obviously she eats….she’s healthy and the proper weight – but she does it in secret. Cat with an eating disorder.

Except for….wait for it….raw vegetables. Pye loves raw vegetables. Lettuce. Red pepper. Green beans. Zucchini. It’s not for the water content – they have a good supply of fresh water – but she’s loved these things since kittenhood. The last ‘living lettuce’ I bought gave me lettuce for one sandwich and then the cat ate the rest of it. Should I carry around chopped up veggies in my pocket as a training reward for Pye?

Cat # 2, Pyxel, doesn’t have an eating disorder…she’ll eat publicly, at least, but again she has no interest in anything except Purina Cat Chow and Greenies cat treats. So she’s a bit more promising. So what could I train her to do? Number one on the wish list would be to let us clip her claws. The last time anyone tried this, it was at the vets, and Pyxel was wearing a Hannibel-Lecter like leather and wire bite mask, and had two adults holding her, not including the vet. She bit the vet anyway. I’m not convinced all the paw-handling in the world, even with Greenies as a reward, is going to change this behaviour.

The second reward the article suggest is stroking. Now this is Pye’s idea of heaven. And to be fair, it is what we basically used to get her to learn to stay on a box on the kitchen counter, instead of wandering all over it while we were preparing meals. Until BD took it one step further, and started to pick her up instead (truly heaven, to be picked up by BD, and get to lick his beard)…and then the cat learned that all she had to do was fuss around in the kitchen, and bingo, she was picked up by her beloved. Cat trained human, in this case.

Pyxel, on the other hand, hates to be picked up. Or fussed, really, unless it’s her idea. I’ve trained her nicely to come to sit with me on the couch – all I have to do is pick up a book or my iPAD. No, wait…that isn’t what I wanted her to do, it’s what she wants to do. I want to read. She wants my attention to be on her, not that thing I’m looking at. Another training failure, from the human’s viewpoint, at least.

She does respond to aural cues. She gets her Greenies treat (for her teeth and gums) every night when we sit down to watch tv before bed. Usually this is about 8 p.m., but the other night we were watching a game a bit earlier in the evening. All the cues were there for her: we were sitting in the living room, the tv was on – so it had to be treat time. I agreed with her logic, and gave her her treat. Later on, after the game, we watched a recorded Jeopardy, the usual first show of the evening – and as soon as the Jeopardy theme song came on, there Pyxel was, at my side, asking for her treat. Jeopardy theme music = treat. She got two more pieces.

But really, they’re good cats. They don’t walk on keyboards too often, and in the new house the kitchen counters – actually the kitchen entirely – isn’t a place they gravitate to. The wall-to-wall carpet is taking a beating: it’s a lot more rewarding than the scratching post, at least for Pyxel, but they leave the walls alone. And the greenhouse window in BD’s study was just meant for cats. So I don’t think I’m really going to try out the techniques from the article. Maybe down the road, with the next kitten.

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