Cat Training Corner

Written by Victoria Blais, Julie Posluns, and Cheryl Kolus, DVM

This new column will highlight some of the great training you and your cat can do together. We’ll start with how to train a foundational behavior, and build up to showing off some of the fun and useful tricks that build on that groundwork. Our first installment will cover how you can help make veterinary visits and medical treatments less stressful by starting with one simple behavior.

Foundational behavior—go to mat

Here’s an example of training “go to mat,” from Julie Posluns and Jones the cat:

Training your kitty to go to a mat is a great way to start your training journey together, because you don’t have to be an expert with timing and you’re not likely to need too much patience to capture the behavior you’re looking for. We call “go to mat” one of the foundation behaviors in training because it can be used as a starting point for a lot of other more complex tricks, and because the mat can be moved around and therefore has a lot of potential uses in different locations like the vet’s office.

Chaining multiple behaviors for low-stress veterinary visits

Victoria Blais uses “go to mat” as one part of a chain of behaviors that can help a cat feel more in control during visits to the vet. In this guide, she suggests a different way to train “go to mat,” using a target stick. Touching a target stick is another example of a foundational behavior that has a wide variety of uses. Victoria writes:

To make vet visits a low stress, familiar event, chain three simple, basic behaviors:  enter carrier, exit carrier onto a mat, and touch a target stick. The carrier, mat, and stick each become a target.  The mat and target stick become a cue for the cat to exit the carrier.  A reward is given at the end of the behavior chain.

Train each behavior individually

  1. Train the foundation behavior of touching a target stick.
  2. Train “go to mat”, presenting the target stick over the mat. The reward can be tossed away from the mat to reposition the cat for returning to the mat and target stick.
  3. Train the cat to enter and exit the carrier. Tossing a treat into the carrier positions the cat inside.  Next, place the mat in front of the carrier door, and present target over the mat.  When the cat comes onto the mat and touches the target stick, mark (with a clicker or a verbal marker) and reward.  Toss the reward inside the carrier, mark and reward as the cat enters the carrier.  Giving the reward while the cat is on the mat trains the cat to stay on the mat, while giving the reward inside the carrier trains the cat to enter the carrier.

Here’s an example of training in action:

And here’s evidence that even the professionals have things go wrong sometimes!

These principles are taught by IAABC, Fear Free Professionals, and Better Veterinary Visits (Karen Pryor Academy):

  1. A soft non-slip mat is used for the cat during the veterinary exam (yoga mat, kitchen mat etc.).
  2. The cat’s own scent is on the mat providing calming affect at the vet clinic. (Feliway can be sprayed on the mat and in the carrier 15 minutes before departing for the vet visit).
  3. A familiar activity is performed for systematic desensitization and counter conditioning.
  4. The mat is a familiar target, motivating the cat to willingly exit the carrier for a reward. (With the mat set on the weight scale, the target stick can be presented to direct the cat onto the scale.)

As you can see, Victoria’s cat Mallory is putting all her new skills into action at the vet’s office:

Cat Mallory at the Vet

Using chains for advanced husbandry skills

What kinds of advanced things might you be able to encourage your cat to happily participate in if you work on training foundation behaviors, the ability to chain some of those behaviors together, and developing a sound relationship of trust? You might be surprised! Even things that look like no cat could possibly want to be involved with can become a source of pleasure (or at least, can be willingly done for the promise of a tasty treat!). In this video, Cheryl Kolus talks us through how she taught her cat Peanut to take part in—of all things—hydrotherapy!

Even if your cat doesn’t need medical treatment now, laying the groundwork for making visits to the vet stress-free using a few simple tricks will be a huge benefit later in their lives. Besides, Kitty doesn’t need to know why she’s learning that she can make you give her treats just for standing on something, she’ll just be having fun working out all the new stuff she can get you to do!

Got a question about training cats? Something you’d like to see in a future issue? Or maybe you’d like to be featured with your kitty? Leave a comment below!