Cat Training

How Do I Get My Kittens to Use the Litter Box?

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Most kittens immediately take to using a litter box and don’t need any training to do so. But what about those who don’t get it right away?

I have six kittens who are five weeks old. The majority of the kitties have litter box trained, but I still have a couple that will just eliminate in the corner. Do you have any suggestions for training? We have cleaned with lemon scented Pine Sol and are trying double stick tape in the corners, but they still go beside the tape.
— Jan L.

Not to be too alarmist about it, Jan, but you must immediately stop using Pine Sol around the cats. Most people just don't realize how EXTREMELY dangerous it is to them. Lysol is equally dangerous. Both products have names that end in "sol" because they contain phenols that can kill cats. Kittens are especially at risk because of their small size.

The best product to use to clean litter box messes is an enzymatic cleaner. Use anything else and the cats will still be able to smell their pee and poop quite easily. Even through heavily scented cleaners. We’ve used the Simple Solution product pictured below, but most any reputable fragrance free enzymatic cleaner will work.

 
 

That said, there are several ways to help the kittens find their way. First, clean up after them with the enzymatic cleaner I mentioned above. Then place the litter box where they want to go anyway. Make sure it's in a location that doesn't have any surprising sounds (like an air conditioner suddenly turning on) and where there isn't a lot of traffic.

There are several things to try in order to help them want to use the litter box:

  1. There should be several boxes for the little ones to use. Even at their young age, some will not use a box with more than a few "deposits".

  2. The box should have low enough sides to allow them to get in and out easily.

  3. Some high-sided or covered boxes can scare cats and make them feel trapped. Automated and covered boxes are generally not a good idea for any cats, but especially for kittens.

  4. Make sure the litter box is as far as it can be from where the kittens eat.

  5. You may want to try some different types of litter. Litter with larger pieces (we like Purina's Yesterday's News) are great for kittens because the kittens can't eat it, but some kittens don't like the large pieces. Clumping litter can be hazardous to kittens if ingested. Plain clay litter is fine if they won't accept the chunky stuff.

  6. Be positive! Never scold a kitten for making a litter box mistake. Praise them and treat them if they so much as go near the litter box. Help them to see that the litter box is a great place to be! Some kittens we've worked with have learned to love it a bit too much. We have one who still comes running to watch us scoop. :) It can take time for some individuals to learn their way, especially if their mother isn't around. It's up to you to be patient with them and help them learn.

  7. As a last resort, you can use a litter box attractant. These products entice the little ones with scent, but it really should be a last resort. Give them a chance to learn without this crutch first, or they may grow to expect it.

Thank you for looking after these babies! With your help, I'm sure they'll be using the litter box in no time!

Help, My Son's Afraid of Our Cat!

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While most of the questions we’re asked are about cat behavior, sometimes we get a question about humans. In this case, a child’s reaction to the family’s new kitten. Kristen S. writes:

I just rescued a seven week old, beautiful male kitten that was trapped in a fence. Luca is now an amazing, affectionate, trusting little kitten. He loves and trusts me so much but I have a 12 year old son who is nervous about him. How can I help my son to like Luca. He sees the kitten bite and scratch me but I try to let him know he’s a baby and doesn’t know better and is just playing. I also let him know it doesn’t hurt. I really want my two babies to love each other

Kristen, our expertise is with cats, not children, but the general training concepts are the same. :) Children are not logical. You can't always reason with them. They learn by association, so you have to associate good things with the kitten. This method is often used in cases with fearful children much more fearful than your son. There's a good overview at the following link: https://www.tagteach.com/What_is_TAGteach . 

Here's a video that illustrates tag teaching with a child who was deathly afraid of the water. Each time he achieved the tag point the teacher gave him, he was rewarded with an immediate click followed by a Skittles candy. The timing of the click is the critical point of reinforcement.

It doesn't have to be a click. It could be the word "good" stated in the same tone each time, but it needs to be an audible reinforcement that indicates that the child has done what was asked of him or her correctly.

I know this sounds a bit odd. It's a teaching method most people only think of using with animals (referred to as “clicker training”), but it works with people too. Try asking your son to pet Luca while he's on your lap. Make it casual. If he so much as touches the kitten, say "good" and offer him a candy from a bowl he can't reach unless you offer. He'll have no idea that you're training him but he'll slowly begin to associate success and joy with the kitten.

The second thing is to begin conditioning Luca to not bite and scratch you. When playing with him, redirect any aggressive tendencies toward his toys and away from your hands. Many people train their kittens to think of their hands as toys. It's cute, right? Well, it turns out to not be so cute when they're full grown and biting your hand because you've basically taught them it's okay. Then they become confused because what was once acceptable is now creating a negative reaction. Begin now and all three of you will have a much happier time together.


Crime & Punishment & Cats

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When a cat feels threatened, they often urinate outside the litter box and scratch things in order to feel better. Nicole F. writes:

My cat, Ghost, pees on my dog’s bed and in front of his litter box. We have three cats and three litter boxes. He does it sometimes out of spite. He was told “no” the other day and was pushed off something and then he went over to my dog’s bed and peed. He pushes the screens out on the patio and gets out all the time no matter how many times we fix it and I don’t want my cats outside. He shredded the carpet to the point it looked like spaghetti. Aside from Ghost’s disaster qualities, he is actually a pretty cool cat. How can I stop him from peeing everywhere?

It sounds like Ghost is feeling insecure. That can be difficult when a cat is as smart as Ghost is. He's going to find a way to make himself feel better, even if that means getting outside. He will also feel better if he spreads his scent around by urinating and scratching improper areas.

It's important to remember that cats don't act out of spite, ever. They simply don't have the capacity for that. It can be easy to interpret their behaviors that way because we're so used to looking at them as if they were small humans. They aren't, so the first step is to try and imagine the situation from Ghost's point of view.  He's clearly agitated, so what's upsetting him? 

Many times, there's a less visible aggressor in a multi-cat household and Ghost may be getting bullied. He may even feel bullied by you. You should never, ever shout at or push a cat off of anything. That's physical aggression in cat terms and most cats will respond negatively to it, just as Ghost has. When you get physical with him in any way, especially when you're upset, he will see you as a predator. All he will learn from those interactions is to fear you. He will not connect your aggressive responses to his own behavior. Cats do not have a pack mentality. They look upon us as equals, not as masters to be obeyed.

It will help if you offer more positive reinforcement. Instead of chastising him when he does something you don't like, treat him when he's behaving. When he uses the litter box appropriately, offer him a small treat. When he lounges in a spot you like him in, offer him a small treat. If he does something you don't like, overwhelm him with love and gently move him away. He may not enjoy being handled in this way, but he won't see it as aggressive, especially if you do it in a happy way. Be consistent in this behavior and you'll see change.

Think about altering your own behavior toward Ghost. You obviously care about him enough to reach out to us. Just take some time to consider how you might make him feel more secure. It will take time, but he will respond to your efforts.

There are even more good ideas in this previous post about helping a shy cat feel more secure: http://kittyhelpdesk.com/help-desk/helping-your-cat-feel-secure

Best wishes to you and Ghost!

Help, My Cat is Driving Me Crazy!

This is Buddy. 

This is Buddy. 

While many cats are just happy to have a warm lap, a good meal, and a little playtime, there are those who demand extra attention. Pam C. writes:

I am having a problem with my two year old male ginger, Buddy. It use to be cute when he would try to get me up to feed him but lately he has become destructive. Now, if I don’t get up, he will knock pictures off my wall and knock over my lamp. I’ve never had a cat like Buddy. He’s been a challenge from day one. He’s killed all my plants and he’s killed three water fountains by tipping them over. By the time I got home from work the pumps had burned out. I’m just at my wits end. I don’t what to do with him. Getting a playmate is not an option and when I do play with him he has to stalk the feathers or red dot for ten minutes so I get tired of waiting. One day he stalked for so long that he fell asleep in his tunnel. What can I do?

Pam, it would appear that Buddy is bored and he's asking for help. Right now, he's training you, not the other way around. Buddy clearly needs more stimulation in his life. While another cat friend would certainly help, there are things you can do to help Buddy. We should warn you, though - some of these things are concessions on your part. With cats, we often have to give up certain things in our lives that don't quite jive with the life of a cat.

Our first suggestion is for you to stop reacting to the things Buddy does to get your attention. When you react, you show him that his method is working. Smart cats like Buddy know what buttons to push in order to get what they want. If you allow him to continue to succeed, you're just reinforcing the behaviors you dislike. If you ignore his antics, they will eventually stop. Yes, he'll probably try something else, but you have to be strong and not react.

Second, you need to start Buddy on a daily schedule. It will help him to be able to anticipate what's coming next in his day. Feedings should only ever be at particular times of day. Play times should be once in the morning and once in the evening for at least 30 minutes. His bedtime should be consistent and should happen right after he has his evening play time and feeding time. The natural rhythm of a cat's life is hunt, eat, sleep. You can take advantage of this by playing (hunting), then feeding him, then crashing with him. Use consistent words or phrases like "time for play" "time for food" and "time for sleep" every time so he learns to anticipate the order of things. He'll probably continue to ask to eat or play early, but if you're firm with him and only do so when it's time, he'll soon learn and be comforted by the routine. We like to use the phrase "not time yet" when food time is anticipated and requested by a cat. 

Play time is an important part of this for an intelligent cat like Buddy. He needs activity and stimulation in his day. If his current toys don't stimulate him to chase as much as you'd like, try something else. I've had tremendous success with "Da Bird", but there's a bit of trial and error in finding out what kind of play each cat reacts to. The laser toy is okay, but only if he's given a food reward when he "catches" the dot. Otherwise it can be highly frustrating because there's nothing to catch and satisfy his hunting instincts.

Once you get his play routine down, a smart cat like Buddy will usually respond well to clicker training and may even adapt to wearing a harness for outdoor adventures, but let's get him settled down a bit first.

It will also help Buddy if he has some vertical space, especially near a window. A tall cat tree beside a window that faces animal or human activity, even if it's traffic, will give Buddy something to focus on when you're away.

Environmental enrichment and novelty may help as well. That's just a fancy way of saying put some boxes around for him to explore. Add some holes and use the boxes during your play times with Buddy. Rearrange or replace the boxes fairly frequently. Every time you receive a delivery, think of the box as an added bonus - a toy for Buddy. Cats need new areas to be curious about and investigate. Outside, this is easy because the world is always changing. Indoors, you need to help provide him with that stimulus.

We'd also suggest involving Buddy in the things you do day in and day out. When you come home, offer to let him smell your hands so he can see where you've been. Scents are like stories to cats and they can be very entertaining. When you pick up something at the store, offer to let Buddy investigate it before you put it away. These little moments will add up to seriously enrich Buddy's world.

We hope that these suggestions help and give you even more to think about. Try to see the world from Buddy's point of view and it's very likely that you can get along quite well with your feline roomie! 

Help! My Cat Runs Outside Every Time I open the Door!

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Most indoor-only cats are quite content to live their lives in comfort in our homes, but those who are transplants can sometimes be a hard sell. If they've lived outdoors and enjoyed it, they may constantly try to get back out there. Dan C. writes:

I try not to let my cat Oscar outside too often. However, when people come to the door or the grandkids go and come outside, the cat rushes out. How do I teach Oscar not to rush out every time the door opens?

Dan, door darters like Oscar can really be worrisome as we all know what can happen to them out there in the world of mean people, predators, and traffic. Some people simply try to distract their cat when the door is opened, or put them in another room. We feel very strongly that it's possible to train a cat to observe this boundary through positive reinforcement. Of course, it will be much clearer to Oscar if he's never allowed outside at all. It'll be much easier for him to understand consistent rules that everyone in the household enforces. 

It's important to understand why Oscar might want to run outside. Many indoor cats are bored with their surroundings and see a lot of cool stuff happening on the other side of the window. You can help by making Oscar's indoor environment more interesting. This doesn't have to be expensive. If you get a package in the mail, cut the box flaps off and share the box with Oscar. When you come home with groceries, leave a paper bag out for Oscar to sniff and explore. Take every opportunity to add temporary playthings to Oscar's world. Smells are like stories to cats and bringing in interesting scents from the outside world can be highly stimulating.

The next step is to make the doorway less attractive to Oscar. Please note that cats do not respond well to negative reinforcement, so punishing Oscar in any way will only communicate to him that he was right to try and get away from you and your home. Instead, you want to get a good supply of his favorite treats ready. You're going to need them.

A lot of cats rush to the doorway when their humans leave or come home because they receive generous amounts of attention then. We want to change that by moving the area where Oscar gets greeted and given his farewells. We want him to associate positive things with that new spot in place of the doorway. It can be a bed, a cat tree, a mat on the floor, or any clearly defined area. 

Begin by calling Oscar over to the spot where you'd like him to be. When he gets there, offer him a treat and pet him. Once he's wandered away again, call him back and reward him again. Do this a few times each day until he eagerly runs to the spot you've chosen when you call him there. You can even give the spot a special name so he'll understand what you want. If he isn't interested, let it go for the time being and try again later. You want this to be a fun interaction for Oscar, not a forced training session.

Now, repeat this behavior each time you leave the house and each time you come home. Oscar should soon learn that being in the right place at the right time earns him attention. It also shows him that when the door opens, being at the door earns him nothing but a set of grabby hands intent on keeping him inside.

If his behavior persists (some cats can be very stubborn about this), a deterrent can be used. Our preference is for a citrus sachet made of fresh orange peels in a mesh bag that can be hung from the doorknob. One whiff of that should have Oscar recoiling from the door without blaming any humans for the offense.

Good luck, Dan. We wish you and Oscar all the best!