An Interview with Sarah Ellis, Author of “The Trainable Cat”

Sarah Ellis’ life of research, consulting, and educating people about cats has been focused on undoing the decades-long acceptance of many unhealthy behaviors we see in our cats. As Sarah pointed out to me, cats’ behavioral responses to the fear of and discomfort with the life we have thrust upon them has for too long been accepted as cats being cats. As Sarah puts it, “We have normalized it and accept that it’s OK. But it’s not OK for that individual cat’s welfare.” Sarah’s research and subsequent book both show the way to help cats adapt to their life with humans.

Sarah did her Ph.D thesis ten years ago, testing sensory interventions on cats to determine whether they would be enriching for cats housed in shelters in the U.K. Her work on visual and olfactory stimulation is published in Applied Animal Behavior Science. She discusses her thesis as follows:

“I only believe we should use the term ‘environmental enrichment’ if an intervention is truly enriching, and I think that term is tossed around a lot—”try this for enrichment, do this for enrichment”—but unless we actually have objective evidence that it is enriching, it’s purely just an intervention.”

The next eight years were spent doing research on cats and dogs at the University of Lincoln in England. Among the many topics examined were cognitive measures to quantify emotion, studying cat households with large numbers of cats, researching how to handle a cat to get the best behavioral response, and whether individual cats should be housed singly or in groups. Sarah now works for International Cat Care, a charity whose mission is “To engage, educate and empower people throughout the world to improve the health and welfare of cats by sharing advice, training and passion.” Although Sarah had worked for them in a volunteer capacity for a number of years, for the past year she has been employed by them as an educator.

“I do a lot of educating vets, vet nurses, breeders, owners, and people working in welfare organizations. I’m writing online courses in behavior. I do a lot of lecturing and webinars. I also do a lot of advisory work for new decisions we might be making based on welfare.”

Sarah Ellis and John Bradshaw’s recently published book, The Trainable Cat, is one of her newest educational tools. John took the lead on explaining the biology of the cat. Sarah wrote the actual how-to, which is about two-thirds of every chapter. They edited each other’s writing to keep continuity and flow.

I asked Sarah what inspired her to write it, given all of the books on cats that were available for the public when she decided to write hers.

“Through my research I have visited hundreds of cat owners’ homes and worked with hundreds of cats . . . I saw so many cats who were experiencing daily stresses . . . many owners just accepted that because they thought  (1) nothing could be done or (2) this was normal for a cat, and I thought there’s nothing, really, telling them otherwise. But when you start to probe a bit further with that and start to address that, people would say, “Yeah, that is a problem, but I thought there was nothing you could do.” So I thought there needed to be a book that wasn’t just for cat owners who had recognized that their cats had behavioral problems, and wasn’t just a book about fun in training, but a book for everybody that would help their cats develop the skill set they need to live in the life that we’ve provided for them.”

Of the many life skills that Sarah addresses in her book, she stated that the two most important were making sure that the cat was comfortable in his cat carrier, and making sure that the cat was comfortable living alongside people. Sarah was clear that she does not believe unsocialized or feral cats should live in homes. But she stated that there are many socialized cats that are overly cautious because of how their owners handle them and their owners’ unpredictable behavior. Training can help these cats develop a good relationship with their owner, so the cat is confident and comfortable around his owner, as opposed to hiding.

Sarah said that cat-carrier training lowers the stress of veterinary visits while increasing the likelihood that the cat will get these annual check-ups. Sarah devoted an entire chapter of her book to cat-carrier training and has an excellent ICC video about it. She has managed to train many cats to the carrier in one session—confident cats that are food-oriented are the easiest to train. Timid cats are the most challenging to train, but they can actually benefit the most. Sarah told me about one cat that took weeks to be comfortable with the carrier, but after his many training sessions, he was a more confident cat, as seen by his being out and about more, instead of hiding.

I asked Sarah how she recommends we maintain cat-carrier training between veterinary visits, beyond simply leaving the carrier out.  I wanted to know how soon after a veterinary visit to wait before asking the cat to enter the carrier on cue. Sarah replied that if the carrier training was carried out completely, the carrier would be viewed as a sanctuary to the cat, so no special precautions would need to be taken; we could just carry on as usual with the carrier training maintenance. How often we should cue the cat to enter the carrier for maintaining training is very individualized—it can range from twice a week to every other month. But what is important is to practice shutting the carrier door. “Most owners forget about practicing shutting the door since the carrier is out and the cat is going in it often.”  Another tip was to wash the cat carrier out if the veterinary visit was stressful for the cat.

Of course, training requires a reinforcer, and finding one for a cat can be challenging. I asked Sarah how to proceed with a cat that does not like novel foods in novel places. I have found that some cats actually need to be taught to like delicacies such as baby food and boiled chicken!

“So, for a cat that’s always been fed on the same diet, always throughout its life, it may well be more suspicious of other types of food. If it’s had a fairly constant environment in its life, it may be less exploratory and it may view the world more negatively. Some people say to me, “My cat will never work for food.” I often say to them, does your cat never eat? “Oh no, no, no, he’ll eat!” So then, if he’ll eat, he’ll definitely work for food, but probably the problem is you’re asking for far too much too quickly for that single piece of food. You know, if he’s willing to walk over to a bowl to get a piece of food, he’s worked, albeit very minimal work, to get that food because he had to walk to his bowl! I’ve suggested to owners to start in the location where the food bowl normally is and take the food bowl away, because that’s where the cat is going to be expecting to get food, where he’s built up a relationship with food.”

Once a cat understands that his behavior can control his owner, the behavior we have trained can become its own reward.

“They start to learn that “Oh, I control my environment now; if I do this, this happens, and if I do this, that happens!” And for want of not being completely anthropomorphic, it’s empowering, you know? Cats are control freaks, and suddenly giving them a sense of control back on their environment—  like, they are controlling when you dispense the food, rather than having to sit and wait until you decide to put it in their bowl—that becomes quite addictive, and that kick-starts all those positive endorphins, and that in itself inflates the value of the food.”

I asked Sarah to elaborate on intermittent schedules of reinforcement. When we cue the cat and a reinforcer is not scheduled, what do we do? Can we say “good boy” or the like?

“First of all, if you don’t reward, don’t click. This is a classically conditioned response so you don’t want to weaken the association of the click and the reward. Often people use “good boy” as a bridge before giving the treat. But if you are not giving a treat then don’t say anything . . .  Recall is a good example. I have placed this on an intermittent schedule, so sometimes I call him, let him in, and shut the door with no click or reward. However, on the times I do use a marker, I make sure always to follow it with the primary reward, which is usually food in this case.”

Sarah said that for recall, she does not often omit the reinforcer—she may only skip it every six or seven times.

Sarah’s book focuses on training cats and kittens to be comfortable with the people, pets, and procedures they are likely to experience throughout their lives, but it does not mention kitten kindergarten.  When I asked her about it, Sarah said she has a mixed opinion. She likes the part of the class that focuses on owner education, teaching owners how to play with their kittens, or how to prepare them to take medicine and such. But she noted that this can also be done at home, or at a nonmedical visit to the veterinarian. Her concern is based on the fact that cats can only have a positive learning experience if they are not nervous, and cats that missed out on key skills when young are likely to be nervous in a group class with a lot of strangers. She has reservations about having kittens that are over 8 weeks old being put in a play group with kittens they do not know, or being passed around by people they do not know. Since they are outside the window of early socialization open between 2 and 7 weeks old, this could be stressful for kittens with little experience with other kittens and people.

“If we’re out of that early socialization period, how much benefit that will have, we don’t know. We know it starts to diminish. But also the research tells us that they need [handling] little and often, and not in big chunks of time if [in kitten kindergarten] there are three or four periods of a few minutes where the kitten is given the opportunity to interact with people if it wishes, and is rewarded for positive interactions, then I think that’s got value, definitely.”

Our next topic was reintroducing cats that had not been getting along, particularly ones that had been improperly introduced. In her book, Sarah starts reintroductions by dividing the house into separate territories to end the hostilities, and allowing time for the cats to relax. I asked Sarah to address how to divide the house—if the TV room is of high value, which cat should get it, or can it be time shared?

“I can say never have the cats share a room, moving them in and out of it at certain times. This is stressful for them. You are taking them out of their core territory and putting them in a space that has the other cat’s scent. I find that this if often requested as a convenience to the owner. But she is the one that must move to spend time with each cat, not the cats.”

In general, the resident cat should be the one to get the core areas of the house, so that cat would get the TV room. In the case where an owner obtained two cats at the same time and they ended up not getting along, Sarah suggested finding out which cat was the instigator, and why. If it turned out that he felt threatened, give him the core area with the TV. But the important point is that the owner has to find a way to spend time with each cat. Sarah feels that Feliway can be a good tool, but she emphasized that it is something to use in conjunction with training.

The Trainable Cat has a chapter on training an indoor/outdoor cat. An important skill is a good recall, so the cat can be called in when needed, for example before night time. The book counsels us to establish a good recall indoors before taking the cat out and practicing there. But how long should the cat be allowed to play and explore his first time out in your yard, before you call him? “Minutes. I wouldn’t give him much time at all before calling him, and I’d have a good food reward.” She said that a lot of cats are cautious the first time outside and recall easily. But some get excited—there’s so much to see! For these cats, she does not even try the recall. She uses a wand toy, channels that excitement to it, and lures them back to the house. Also, when practicing recall, she advises us to not always call the cat into the house. Just like with dogs, we should call them and then let them go back to playing, sometimes just calling the cat from one end of the yard to the other end, and then letting him go back to what he was doing. It’s important that we don’t always end the fun when we call him.

I ended our interview by asking Sarah to choose one thing that she would like to see researched. Sarah replied that there is so much research yet to be done, but if I wanted her to just pick one, it is scent swapping. There is research that shows that cats can discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar individuals based on urine and feces, but none that indicates they recognize each other’s body odor. Case studies using cloths scented with a cat’s body odor are often used when introducing cats to each other. The success of such cases suggests that cats do recognize each other’s body scent, but it would be good to have research verifying this. Sarah explained that if we knew this to be true, we might be able to find out ahead of time if one cat would be a good match for another. Shelters do this all the time with dogs—they have the owner bring her dog to the shelter to meet a dog she is thinking of adopting, and they can sniff each other and we can size up if it is a good match. But we don’t have any method for cats, so this research is what Sarah feels is really important.

I said that I thought that verifying the usefulness of scent swapping would be very helpful to adopters, shelters, and most of all to the cat! Sarah replied, “Yes, wouldn’t it?”


Patience Fisher owns a feline behavior consulting business based in Pittsburgh, PA; she also owns a nonfiction editing business. She holds a Bachelor’s in Biology, a Master’s in Engineering, a Diploma of Feline Behavior Science Technology, and is a certified veterinary assistant. Visit her on Facebook at Patience for Cats.