When ‘Click’ Means ‘I Love You”: Clicker Training My Cat Zathras Through His End-of-Life

Written by T Hamboyan Harrison, CCBC, ACSB-C, SBA, FFCP

Zathras, a black cat, looking up

I want to start this with a confession: I used to be extremely skeptical of clicker training for cats. It seemed gimmicky and not particularly helpful, outside of teaching shelter cats tricks to entice adopters. 

Through continuing education, especially about inter-cat aggression issues, I began to see how clicker training could be used to teach habits instead of “just” tricks. As a relatively new professional cat behavior consultant, I realized that not knowing how to clicker train cats was a disservice to my clients. Most websites and courses require only one cat at a time to be clicker trained, which was a deterrent to me, as my five cats didn’t like being separated from one another, especially if something fun was happening in another room! So, I set about trying to teach myself how to clicker train cats in my own way.

Thus, in July of 2022, I began my own journey into clicker training, which involved multiple cats, different treats (some of my cats are on restricted diets due to medical conditions), and a flexibility in thinking. Zathras, who was 14 and had always been very food-motivated, was my primary clicker training student. He also had a specific behavior problem that I thought could be worked on through clicker training and positive reinforcement: At vet appointments, he would get very worked up and threaten aggression while they were attempting to draw his blood. Having a specific goal to work toward motivated me to be consistent with his training.

What I didn’t know in July was that Zathras had less than three months left to live. The story I had wanted to share on my Facebook page and website was about how clicker training and desensitization/counter-conditioning led Zathras to overcome his behavior challenges at vet appointments. I had wanted to share the joys of progress, to encourage others to consider using these methods for similar behavior challenges with their own cats (or to hire me to help). Instead, clicker training Zathras became about something different: It became about love and connection, joy and discovery, and — at times — about a way to encourage him to eat.

In July, my household was made up of five cats and two humans, including me; the other human is my husband. Zathras had been with our family since December 2008, when he was “gifted” to us at Christmas by a family member who had bought him from a pet store as a kitten and could no longer care for him. In addition to Zathras, we had Cinnamon (female, now age 13, adopted from an overcrowded rescue facility in 2010), Emily (female, now age 13, also adopted from the same overcrowded rescue facility in 2014), Ethel (female, now age 15+, also adopted from the same overcrowded rescue facility in 2014), and Yato (male, about age 8, who used to be part of the small feral cat colony we TNR on our property and who made the transition to life inside in 2018). 

In July, Zathras’s known medical conditions were stomatitis (in remission), hyperthyroid, chronic kidney disease, IBD, pancreatitis, and hypertension. These conditions all warrant regular blood tests, so there was an urgent need for him to become more cooperative at the vet’s office as soon as possible; in fact, due to his behavior issues, his blood tests had not been done as frequently as would have been ideal for his multiple medical conditions, despite my veterinarian being a feline specialist, cat-only practice, and most of her staff being Fear Free Certified Professionals.

In addition to Zathras, I also wanted to try clicker training Yato, who, as a former 100% outside feral cat, had incompatible play styles with the other senior cats and a very high prey drive. While he allowed all handling, including at the vet’s office, his impulse control around food was sometimes a challenge. My goals for him were primarily to learn patience through stationing — and to expend energy moving between two stations that required jumping to access. 

I started clicker training like everyone does, by trying to find the right high-value treat and teaching the cat that “click = treat.” Right away, a challenge arose: Zathras and Yato weren’t excited about the same treats, and because Emily was on a restricted diet and had a tendency to follow Zathras around like a lovesick teenager, I would need to hand-feed the treats and not place them on the floor. Once the two treats were selected, Zathras and Yato both very quickly learned what the “click” meant. Despite being new to professional training, I had instinctively trained my cats to hand-target, over years of trying to get cute cat pictures. With hand-targeting already an established skill, both Zathras and Yato learned “sit” quickly, in the first few sessions. Once “sit” was solid, I added “come” and “down” (down being nose to floor, not a full lie down).

We progressed quickly to practicing stationing: Zathras had a scratching mat I’d put on the floor with the cue “go-to,” and Yato had the top of a tall scratching post with the cue “UP!” and the top of a small cat tree near the TV with the cue “V!” Working with two cats at once had its own unique challenges; sometimes Yato would get impatient with how long I was working with Zathras and would jump down, or Zathras would get impatient with how long I was working with Yato and start coming over instead of waiting.

Zathras, a long-haired cat with fur such a dark brown that it looks black, and big luminous green eyes, sits neatly on the corner of a small mat

Zathras on his stationing mat, August 8th.

Over the first few weeks, we established a fun rhythm. Learning to stay on their stations came naturally out of the patience required to wait their turns for cues. The best sessions were ones that flowed like water, with me feeling like a conductor directing a feline orchestra of movements. 

In addition to stationing, I was trying to encourage Zathras to tolerate more handling, with the goal of making vet appointments easier and less stressful for everyone. In the beginning of August, I added the first passive cue, “paw.” The first step was for Zathras to be sitting, usually on the “go-to” mat. I’d give the cue, and then would lift one of his front paws with my hand, and hold it elevated for several seconds. Quickly I realized he had a preference for his front right paw to be lifted instead of his left. I also added this cue for Yato as another activity to do with him.

By early August, Zathras was purring through most of the clicker training sessions, had mastered “come,” “sit,” and “down” so completely that I could occasionally use finger cues only and make him go through all three cues in a row before clicking and rewarding. He was eager for clicker training and would often “cue” me that it was time for training, by sitting on the floor in front of me on the sofa, looking up at me expectantly, waiting for me to get up, pick up the treat pouches and clicker, and toss the “go-to” mat on the floor to start training.

By August 11, one challenge of trying to clicker train only two cats in a family of five had manifested; unsurprisingly, Emily had started taking interest in the treats. Since she’s been on a restricted diet for years, she was extremely interested in Zathras’s clicker training treats. She began pushing onto the “go-to” station when Zathras was cued, which led to him sometimes sitting on a small corner of it to be out of reach of Emily’s draping. 

I added a second-floor station for Zathras at this point, a cardboard box bottom from a canned food case; the cue was “box.” When Emily was crowding the “go-to” mat, I would cue Zathras for “box” instead. 

This had the unintentional effect of encouraging Zathras to walk away from Emily during clicker training. Some sessions were clunky, with Zathras trying to follow my cues and Emily — despite her arthritic, slow, limping gait — beating him to the stations. 

On August 12, clicker training took a turn. Zathras wasn’t feeling well and wasn’t eating well. Instead of our usual 10- to 15-minute clicker training sessions, purring the whole time, he would walk away, leaving treats in the treat pouch and my heart in my throat.

Loss of appetite is a common and challenging symptom of chronic kidney disease; in Zathras, it was also impacted by his IBD and pancreatitis diagnoses. He had been receiving fluid therapy at home since June, usually three to five times a week, varying between 50-150mL depending on how he was tolerating it and how fast the fluids were flowing. We began giving Zathras fluid therapy daily, which would continue until his last few days.

Clicker training changed at this point. It became not only a way for Zathras to learn to accept more handling at the vet’s office, but also a way for him to get badly needed calories. I swapped out the low-calorie treats for his high-calorie dry food, and began measuring out ⅛ cup per session, hoping to get him to eat at least that.

One unexpected consequence of my clicker training Zathras was that he became more affectionate with me outside of clicker training. He used to very much be my husband’s cat; he would tolerate my attention if Rob wasn’t around, but always very clearly preferred Rob. He would almost never seek out attention from me. After clicker training started, he began sitting on my lap or lying on top of me in bed, purring loudly. 

Knowing now what was to come, I am grateful to clicker training not only for the magical moments we had when everything was … clicking … but the moments outside of training, where I felt like I was getting to know my cat for the first time in 14 years. 

The shift from treats to his dry food unfortunately also had the effect of increasing Emily’s motivation to try to steal them from Zathras, who was sometimes having trouble swallowing them on the first try and could drop the kibble pieces. (At the time, I thought this was due to the awkwardness of hand-feeding. That wasn’t the cause.) In addition to being on a restricted diet for her IBD, Emily was also pre-diabetic and hadn’t had a piece of kibble in four years. For a former kibble-addict, the temptation of fallen kibble pieces was too great. She began inserting herself into clicker training in a way that made it hard for me to focus just on Zathras and Yato. I didn’t feel confident enough at the time to want to add Emily to the clicker training sessions, especially with how much attention Zathras was needing and the added importance of him eating well during clicker training — because this was fast becoming his most reliable daily “meal.” To cope with Emily’s increased motivation, I began letting her lick the “crumbs” of the kibble off of my fingers, as a way to distract her from bothering Zathras too much. This at least held her attention enough, for the time.

Zathras reaching towards T's hand. T is holding a treat and Zathras has his nose right up against it

Zathras enjoying a treat on his go-to mat on August 21st

By August 21, Zathras’s energy level was noticeably lower for clicker training sessions. He wasn’t as willing to walk around a lot, sometimes refusing to move once he was sitting. To cope with this, and to continue working on him tolerating more handling for vet appointments, I added a second passive cue of “leg.” With this cue, I would touch around one of his back legs; after a few seconds, I’d click and treat to reward him for allowing the handling. 

Despite how he was feeling, he continued coming out to the living room for clicker training, and he continued purring through most of the training sessions. I began feeling optimistic that we’d get him to the point of easily allowing blood draws at vet appointments. He had even started lifting his front paw and holding it up for me for the “paw” cue. 

By early September, his appetite had continued to decline. Clicker training became even more important as a calorie source for him, though he had begun leaving clicker training early to drink more water. He stopped coming out to ask for clicker training sessions; I’d have to call him to get him to come out to the living room for a session. I contacted the vet to ask if we could increase the amount of fluid therapy he was getting, from up to 150mL to up to 200mL daily. The vet agreed, and we began giving him 150-200mL fluid therapy daily.

The fluid therapy increase seemed to help. On September 5, he came out to ask for clicker training for the first time in a week. For a few days, he seemed almost back to normal. On September 9, he had very low interest in clicker training, despite barely eating all day. That persisted through September 10. On September 11, he was a little more energetic with clicker training. I hoped we were past the worst of it and he’d begin to enjoy full training sessions again.

Despite my wish to have his next vet appointment be a “victory appointment,” his plummeting appetite and reduced energy levels made a vet appointment necessary on September 13. Because of clicker training, I suggested they try a blood draw on his front right leg instead of his back legs. Unfortunately, his veins were not cooperative; they had to use his jugular vein for the blood draw, as he was not cooperating for his hind legs at all. While at the vet, they gave us a sample of Purina EN dry, which has 600 calories per cup — significantly higher caloric density when compared to most dry foods.

That evening, he didn’t want to eat his usual kibble for clicker training. I had to try a different kind, which he ate reluctantly. He began to spend a lot of time crouched down, in a classic pancreatic pain posture. He was showing symptoms of nausea too, despite being on prescription medications already to treat nausea. I noticed he was extremely reluctant to follow any “down” cues, most of the time refusing outright when cued to bend down. I attributed this to his increased nausea and focused more on the passive cues, “paw” and “leg,” when he wasn’t feeling well enough for the active cues of “go-to,” “box,” “come,” “sit,” and “down.”

His blood work results came back on September 15. They showed severe, life-threatening levels of anemia and increased kidney levels. The vet recommended a treatment for the anemia called darbopoetin, which was an injection to be given at the vet’s office and had to be paired with a complete blood count level at each injection. Unfortunately, the medication had to be ordered and delivered. Until it could be started, the vet instructed us to reduce his daily fluid therapy from 150-200mL to 100mL, starting immediately.

On September 16, he refused all clicker training treats I offered him. He went to the “box” station and didn’t want to move. I attempted using praise and attention as a reward, but it wasn’t enough, and he walked away after we did a few “paw” lifts. Watching him walk away from clicker training, I felt my heart sink and an ominous foreboding rose up in my brain, feeling his loss before it had manifested. I asked the vet if we could increase the steroid dose he’d been on for the IBD and pancreatitis; she agreed, and his dose was increased up to 10mg daily.

Three cats on a cream and red patterned mat. One, a dark tabby, sits in the background facing right. One, a handsome smoke grey, is lying to the right of Zathras, who is sitting in a shallow cardboard box looking up.

Zathras in his stationing box, September 16

He didn’t come out for clicker training the next few nights, choosing instead to stay resting on our bed with my husband, who often listened to audio books or podcasts while I was doing clicker training and enrichment time with the cats. I began hand-feeding him the EN dry kibble pieces; despite hand-feeding and constant meals, on September 18, he only ate cup of the dry for a total of 100 calories, which was not enough calories for a cat that normally weighed 13 pounds. During hand-feeding, I noticed that he often struggled to swallow the kibble pieces, sometimes requiring several attempts before the kibble would be swallowed. 

The darbopoetin medication arrived on September 19; on September 21, Zathras went to the vet to receive his first injection. This medication had been shown to increase red blood cell production in people with chronic kidney disease and has been used off-label for cats with chronic kidney disease-induced anemia. We were all hopeful that this medication could help Zathras have at least a few more months left of happy life. At the appointment, he was very restless and could not settle down anywhere. Though he wouldn’t eat, he was willing to follow a few cues of “come,” “sit,” and even “down” while we were waiting for the technician to come in for his injection. When the technician began to start the injection, I gave him the “leg” cue and touched around his leg to distract him; he received a click and praise when the injection was finished. With the injection on board, we were allowed to increase his daily fluid therapy amount to 150mL. 

Zathras lying inside a grey plastic cat carrier with the door open. He's resting on a blue patterned cushion and looks alert.

The day after the darbopoetin injection, Zathras did not participate in clicker training, but he did eat a little more and seemed a little more energetic. On Friday, September 23, Zathras had a follow-up vet appointment, to discuss our options and see if there was hope. Despite his lack of appetite, he had gained a small amount of weight. We were hopeful the darbopoetin was starting to work. He had started sneezing a little, which we were going to keep an eye on. With his appetite challenges, adding in an antibiotic would be risky.

During his vet appointment, Zathras expressed interested in the treats they had there and had a mini-clicker training session, in front of the vet and the technician! He came, sat, and did a down. Hope rose up in all of us, and I was so proud to see how much more relaxed he was and how much improved his tolerance for handling had become. 

That night, Zathras came out for clicker training. It was a short session, but he participated. He sat on the “go-to” mat, licking his lips and purring.

That Saturday, he had a good day. He ate so well that I gave him his regular canned food instead of just the dry he’d been surviving on. We thought he was turning around. But he didn’t come out that night for clicker training.

That Sunday, his nasal discharge and sneezing had dramatically increased. He barely ate and was very quiet and lethargic. 

On Monday, he returned to the veterinarian, for what I expected to be a discussion of what antibiotic to give to him. When he was weighed, he had gained a shocking 1 pound over the weekend. The technician who weighed him tried to contain the panic in her face, but I caught it before she left the room to alert the veterinarian. They did a brief ultrasound to check for fluid buildup, and found it: free fluid around his heart and in his belly. A snap proBNP blood test confirmed congestive heart failure, not the upper respiratory infection I was expecting. 

With Zathras’s previous diagnoses of chronic kidney disease, treating the congestive heart failure wasn’t an option. And due to the congestive heart failure, we could no longer continue the fluid therapy he needed for the chronic kidney disease or the steroids he needed for the IBD and pancreatitis. He received one Lasix injection while at the vet, in an attempt to make him slightly more comfortable.

We scheduled euthanasia for Wednesday, September 28. His last full day, September 27, was an awful mess of coughing, struggling to swallow, and liquids leaking out of his nose, mouth, eyes, and even his ears. He licked Emily that evening, what I saw as his last goodbye to her.

At his last appointment, he was so tired he stayed in the carrier. We made him comfortable on the vet’s table. I watched him as the sedation was kicking in, waiting for the last moment before he would fall asleep for the last time. I wanted him to know how much he was loved and how proud of him I was. There wasn’t enough time to say all that to him, but he probably wouldn’t understand the words, and I was crying too much to speak clearly. What I could give him instead was a tongue-click. When I saw the sedation just starting to work, I gave him the last click. His eyes closed; he was finally at rest.

While I can’t say for sure that clicker training improved his behavior at the vet appointments instead of end-of-life behavior changes, what I can say for sure is that he loved the clicker training sessions. It was always his choice to participate in clicker training, and in his final few days, when he couldn’t participate in training any longer, the emptiness foreshadowed what life would be like after. 

Clicker training doesn’t always have to be about teaching a cat new tricks or reinforcing desired behaviors.

It can be about giving joy to a senior cat.

It can be about getting an ill cat to eat.

It can be about paying attention to all the little moments.

It can be about love.

T Hamboyan Harrison is a cat behavior consultant at “A Cat’s Purrspective, LLC”. As a disabled person, T especially enjoys helping cats with chronic medical conditions. T has spent over a decade volunteering with cats in local rescues and shelters and has several cats of their own at home. T has certifications through IAABC (CCBC, ACSB-C) and Fear Free Pets (FFCP, animal trainer) and is an active participant in online cat behavior conferences. T also serves on the Board of Directors of Diabetic Cats in Need, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping diabetic cats and their caregivers. T completed UVM’s Companion Animal End-of-Life Doula Certificate Program in February, 2023, and is now offering Cat End-of-Life Doula services. T is also passionate about human rights, fighting invasive plants, and character-driven video games.

TO CITE: Hamboyan Harrison, T. (2023) When ‘click’ means “I love you”: Clicker training my cat Zathras through his end-of-life. The IAABC Foundation Journal 26, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj26.4