Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant in Northern California, is still able to train her 19-year-old cat. Krieger, also known as the Cat Coach, asserts that any cat’s trainability is more a matter of personality and history than age. She weighs in with training tips and special considerations for senior cats.
Can Your Cat Be Trained?
There are pros and cons to training both young and old cats. Kittens have shorter attention spans, and older cats have greater physical limitations. If your older cat has an obvious motivator — such as a favorite food treat or a petting session — and has never reacted poorly to training in the past, then Krieger believes the potential is there.
Is Training Good for Your Cat?
The answer is a resounding yes. Krieger believes that working with your senior cat can actually help offset cognitive decline. In much the same way that doing crossword puzzles is thought to help human brains remain more flexible, your cat’s gray matter may maintain its optimal condition by being repeatedly challenged with the concentration and focus required for training.
However, Krieger cautions that you must respect your older cat’s physical limitations. An arthritic cat, for example, is probably not going to enjoy learning to jump through a hoop. “You don’t want to put any stress on your cat during training,” she emphasizes.
How Do You Train a Cat?
Clicker training is the method of choice for most cat behaviorists, says Krieger. It is based on both classical and operant conditioning. Think Pavlov’s dogs and you’ve got the basic idea. The owner responds to the cat’s target behavior with the click of a clicker quickly followed by a motivator, either a food treat or petting.
“The click communicates to the cat when in the instant that they’ve done something correct. Then the treat reinforces the behavior,” explains Krieger. “It usually takes between five and 20 repetitions.”
Krieger says that training should only go on for as long as the cat enjoys it, and that cats should never be punished for getting it wrong. “It should be fun for the cat and the person,” she emphasizes.
What Can You Train an Old Cat Not to Do?
Most of Krieger’s clients are interested in keeping their cats from doing certain things, like shredding the furniture and jumping onto the counter. She lets them know that cats need to scratch and jump, and that it’s necessary to provide alternatives to furniture and countertops in the form of scratching posts and climbing towers.
Once those alternatives have been offered, block off the area you’d like your cat to avoid (with double-sided tape or other covers) and begin clicker training to encourage your cat’s use of these.
“It depends on what an owner is willing to do. Environmental changes, like a scratching post or additional litter boxes for cats having trouble with incontinence — those things work. Willing owners have success,” she says.
And How About Tricks?
Senior cats may not be as steady on their feet, but they are perfectly able to give high fives, sit, stay, shake hands and touch targets. “It has to be a natural behavior. Cats put up their paws, for example, so high-fiving and handshaking come naturally to them,” says Krieger.
Older cats likely benefit from not only the cognitive aspects of training, but also the emotional ones. “Training strengthens the bonds between cat and owner and leaves your older cat feeling more secure, which is more important than ever as it ages,” says Krieger.