“I have no gift of words, but I speak the truth.” —Mowgli’s brothers, The Jungle Book
IN SPITE OF MY EARLY IDEA OF MYSELF AS A KIND OF ALICE holding tea parties for my cats in a wonderland of my own devising, I suppose in the end I was at least as much Mowgli, from The Jungle Book. There was only one brief period in my late teens when I was not surrounded by a veritable menagerie of different species all at once, including but extending far beyond the feline kind. My friends were onto something when they said that I was raised by animals.
I’m very grateful for the unself-conscious time I spent among the animals in my childhood. When you learn about animals at a young age, as I did, you realize that you can’t really tell them to do anything—not by shouting and not even by “whispering.” And of no animal is this more true than of cats. The secret to being a “cat whisperer,” as it were, is to be a cat listener—to learn to listen to what they are telling you about their needs and desires, and to see the world through their eyes.
Cats have taught me much, including a lot about the human species and, especially, myself. I hope this book brings you at least a fraction of what cats and other animals have given me. I really don’t think I could ever be completely happy without having them around me. They have always been my truest friends.
I know it is possible for you to live in complete harmony with your cats, in a state of mutual calm and contentment. Practice looking at your world through their eyes, and the rest will come.
Clicker Training for Cats
CLICKER TRAINING, A FORM OF OPERANT CONDITIONING, IS A reward-based training system that can train your cat to repeat desirable behaviors in only a few minutes a day. Instead of ineffectively reprimanding your cat when he does something you don’t like, you will use positive reinforcement to promote behaviors that you do like. If you want to discourage him from jumping on the counter, you’ll reward him when he’s on the floor or his cat perch. If two cats who often feud with each other are in the room together minding their own business, you will use clicker training to reward that behavior. If your cat often attacks you in the hallway, you will click and reward him whenever he doesn’t. Cats learn by experience. They will more frequently perform behaviors, or manage to end up in locations, that bring rewards. They will tend to stay away from behaviors or locations that do not (or that are actively unpleasant, such as a counter with sticky tape on it).
Here, very briefly, is how clicker training works: When your cat has performed a certain behavior, or has refrained from an undesirable behavior (such as swatting you as you pass in the hallway), you will click the clicker and immediately give him a treat. When you give your cat a treat at the same time he hears the clicker, he will begin to connect the dots and realize that the clicker means something positive and that it only goes off when he performs a certain behavior. The great thing about clicker training is that you can mark a behavior very accurately, at the exact moment it’s performed, and from all the way across the room. Very efficient!
There is only one prerequisite: Your cat must be motivated by treats or food for clicker training to work. Later, after the initial training, you can experiment with the effectiveness of other rewards, like petting, brushing, or playtime.
Clicker training will stimulate your cat’s mind and help prevent the wide array of behavioral problems that can be caused by a mundane, unstimulating environment. It’s also a great way to build a cat’s confidence, play with him, rebuild damaged bonds with him, and help him release pent-up physical and mental energy (this last is especially useful in eliminating compulsive behaviors). Clicker training can increase your chances of success in introducing and reintroducing cats (see Chapter 4), and can be very helpful in helping feral cats become more relaxed and behave more predictably and pleasingly. If you’re introducing a new person to the household, having that person do the clicker training can provide the resident cat with an experience that’s predictable and positive, so that she views the presence of the newcomer—the click-and-treater—as welcome, a source of good things. So get those husbands and boyfriends, wives and girlfriends on board to do clicker training!
After a few lessons you can gradually ask more from your cat. He will usually experiment with his behaviors to find out which ones receive the click and treat. If your cat loves to roll around and stretch on the floor, you can train him to perform that behavior more, or even to roll over.
I once trained one of my cats, Jasper Moo Foo, to high-five my hand. My cats tend to use their paws a lot so I just used clicker training to shape that common behavior into the high-five. Because he loves to be combed (so much that he prefers combing even to his beloved treats), I would click and reward him with a brief combing every time he took an incremental step toward the high-five, such as when he lifted his paw off the ground toward me. Jasper Moo Foo had been high-fiving for years when one day a new kitten, Farsi, watched him doing it and imitated it. Because I made sure to click and treat her that first time, and afterward saw to it that any time she touched her paw to my hand a click and treat were immediately sent her way, she caught on quickly and is now as good a high-fiver as Jasper Moo Foo.
You might think of these behaviors as just tricks having no real value. However, when you clicker train your cat, you’re not only teaching him to perform specific desirable behaviors (ideally while using other methods in this book to eliminate unwanted behaviors), but you’re setting up a valuable foundation for modifying any problem behavior that arises later. I have a very quiet, problem-free, high-fiving cat household!
Here is what you’ll need.
• A clicker, which can be purchased at most pet stores. For cats, I recommend the softest-sounding clicker you can find. Your average small plastic clicker usually works well with cats. If your cat doesn’t like the click sound, you can wrap the clicker with tape and a cotton ball to muffle the sound.
• Treats or food that are immediately available, highly desirable, and about pea-sized. You’ll want to break a larger treat into smaller pieces. For the purpose of clicker training, it’s extremely important that your cat desire this food or treat more than any other. The more your cat wants the food reward, the more quickly the training will go. If your cat isn’t a big fan of treats, you will need to experiment with different foods. Canned food usually works very well, as do select brand-name treats . But as always, ask your vet before introducing anything new into your cat’s diet. If you have food out all the time for your cat, you may have to remove it about three hours before a training session so that he will be more interested in eating. Special note: Some cat owners think that their cat doesn’t like treats, but many of these owners expect the cat to take the treat out of their hand. Cats may prefer to take food off a plate or the floor. I have found that if I drop the treat on the floor, and bat it around for them a bit so that it looks like prey, even the most particular cats will usually eat it.
• Especially in the beginning, you will need a quiet room where your cat has no distractions from noise or from any other animals. Sometimes a small bathroom works best.
STEP 1: CLICK MARKS THE SPOT (OR THE ACTION)
You first need to teach your cat what the sound of the clicker means, because at first that sound will be just a sound, lacking any positive connotations or associations. But if the sound (the secondary reinforcer) is immediately followed by a reward (the primary reinforcer), you will be teaching the cat that the click does indeed have some value.
Once you have the cat in a quiet, enclosed space, press the clicker one time (push in and release—this will produce a double click) and immediately give your cat the food morsel or treat—whatever your cat goes crazy for. When I say immediately, I mean it. Timing is everything! You don’t have time to dig the treat out of a bag or your pocket; it has to be instantly available so that the click and the treat occur within one second of each other. Click, treat, click, treat—just like you’re reading this now. The more valuable the reward, the more success you will have with clicker training. Again, make sure the treats are small—one piece of his dry kibble, one treat, or a very small morsel of wet food, each about the size of a pea. If you feed your cat too much too quickly, your training sessions will end too soon, so keep food or treats small. Do this activity with your cat several times. Your clicker training sessions will always last only a few minutes, though you may wish to, and can, conduct them several times a day.
Eventually, when your cat hears the click he will look for the food or treat. When he starts doing this, it means he’s starting to associate the sound of the clicker with food. With my cats it took only four click-and-treats for them to connect the dots. With other cats, it may take a few clicker sessions over the course of a few days. Every cat is different. Be patient. Do not punish or reprimand your cat if he doesn’t catch on right away. Never punish or reprimand your cat!
Once your cat is responding to the sound of the clicker (expecting the food reward to be produced), you can move on to the next step.
STEP 2: PROMOTE DESIRABLE BEHAVIORS
You can now begin clicking and treating any behavior you would like your cat to repeat. If he sits, click and treat this behavior. If he is walking toward his cat tree or scratching post, even taking just a step or two, click and treat these incremental steps that are leading to the behavior you want him to perform—scratching on the post, or climbing on his cat tree. Any behavior that is a step toward the behavior you want to promote is worthy of a click and treat. In other words, the cat doesn’t have to perform the entire behavior all at one time in order to receive a click and treat.
Clicker training is multifaceted and can become much more elaborate and quite specialized. I recommend a book by Karen Pryor called Getting Started: Clicker Training for Cats. So go ahead and start this very rewarding activity with your cat.
Checklist for Curing Outside-the-Box Elimination
THIS CHECKLIST WILL BE A HANDY RESOURCE THAT YOU CAN come back to again and again to remind yourself of how to keep your cat litter-box happy.
• Identify the cat with the problem.
• Make sure he’s not urine marking (see Chapter 9).
• See a vet about possible medical causes.
• Clean the soiled areas with enzyme cleaners.
• Check your cat’s backside hair length and RSVP with a firm “No” to the Fecal Ball.
• Interrupt and address aggression or threats from any dominant cat deterring your cat from the box (see Chapter 7).
• For stool-related behaviors, rule out middening.
• Associate the soiled areas with a competing drive.
• Complete prey sequences in the soiled areas.
• Leave food in the soiled areas (after prey sequence if your cat plays).
• If there are many soiled areas, temporarily make some unattractive by using barriers.
• If you don’t mind keeping a litter box permanently in the soiled area, you can put one there.
• Box number and placement
• Provide at least one more box than the number of cats or floors, and in challenging cases up to double that number during the retraining process.
• Place boxes where your cat has a good view of the territory.
• Place boxes on the way to the areas of former soiling.
• In multicat households, distribute boxes throughout the territory to increase the number of critical pathways to the boxes, decrease feelings of competition for important resources, and minimize the chances of one cat deterring another from using an available box.
• putting more than one box in a laundry room, bathroom, or other crowded or noisy areas
• putting boxes under windows where outside cats could see your cat
• putting boxes in locations not easily accessible or hidden, or a long walk away from the main area of the household
• If you’re using an automated, self-cleaning box, make sure you have some manual boxes available.
• If you’re using a covered box, take off the cover now.
• Make sure the box is roomy—at least sixteen by twenty inches—but low-sided (i.e., no more than five to seven inches high).
• Don’t use plastic liners.
• Box hygiene
• During retraining, clean at least twice a day for thirty days, then at an absolute minimum once a day (though twice is still best), or as needed for frequency of use and preference of your cat.
• Get a new box if the box you have is so old (usually six months or older) that the plastic has absorbed stool, urine, or cleaning-solution odors.
• Type of litter
• Check that the litter is not too hard, too soft, too small, or too large for your cat. Your cat will have his own preferences, so you may have to experiment.
• Use retraining litter for thirty days and then a maintenance litter.
• Litter levels, generally two to three inches high, should not be too high or too low, and once the right level has been achieved, you should maintain that level, replacing the discarded litter with equal amounts of fresh litter when you clean the box.
• Unless you are willing to scoop out pellets twice a day or entirely replace them often generally try to avoid pellet litters.
• Avoid paper-based litters. Most cats dislike soggy litter.
• Litter should not have a smell that is unappealing to the cat, as pine-scented and perfumed litters often do.
• I do not recommend corn litters or wheat litters, which are food substances that conflict with cats’ urine and stooling drives.
• Keep the area well lit, night and day
• Minimize stress.
• Plan ahead to reduce the stress caused by changes inside the home (e.g., introducing a new spouse, see Chapter 7), the addition of new furniture (make it attractive by using the cat’s own and synthetic pheromones), or the arrival of a new baby (have a friend come over with an infant to get your cat used to babies).
• Avoid sudden changes to important resources (change of food brands, litters, or location of food or water, just to name a few).
• pheromones (spray, plug-in, and collars)
• holistic remedies such as essential oils and flower essences