DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. The common wisdom about pets is that you can train a dog, but you can’t train a cat. Today’s guest says you can train a cat, but it takes an understanding of how cats learn. Sarah Ellis is the co-author with John Bradshaw of the book, “The Trainable Cat,” which is now out in paperback. Among the things she’s trained her cats to do is come when she calls, voluntarily walk into the cat carrier to go to the vet, take medicine and be friendly to her dog and her baby.
Ellis is a feline behavior specialist at the British charity group International Cat Care, which collaborates with organizations around the world involved with cat welfare. She’s also a visiting fellow at the University of Lincoln in England. Terry spoke with her last year.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Sarah Ellis, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why are cats more difficult to train than dogs, and do you even agree with the premise that cats are more difficult to train than dogs?
SARAH ELLIS: I think, yes, they can be more difficult, but it’s all about having a little bit more patience and a little bit more understanding of what the cat is in terms of its behavior and where it’s come from. And then once owners have that understanding, the patience comes much more naturally, and then they can see that training is possible.
GROSS: But as you point out, you can’t train cats the same way that you train dogs. I mean, it’s similar but different because cats respond to different things and they have different sensory ways of intaking information. One of the things you point out is that dogs are creatures of habit, cats are creatures of place. What does that mean?
ELLIS: OK, so, yeah, I think the fundamental difference between dogs and cats and how it influences the way that they perceive training is that dogs are innately very, very sociable. They have evolved from a social animal, the wolf, and they are incredibly sociable not just to their own species but to humans. The cat, however, has evolved from a solitary ancestor, the North African wildcat, and that process of domestication has also been much, much shorter, if you like. And therefore, the cat hasn’t had the chance to develop these social tendencies that the dog already has.
So because of that, the cat’s a little bit more on the back foot or the back paw, if you like. They’re less likely to understand our – the cues that we may give, for example, things like pointing. They’re less likely to naturally attune to us. So they’re much less likely to look at our faces, to be able to read our expressions.
GROSS: When you say cats are creatures of place, not of habit, what do you mean by that?
ELLIS: OK, so going back to this idea that dogs are really sociable and cats less so – because of that, the primary attachment for a dog is generally its owner. By an attachment bond, think of, like, a mother and their child. It’s that bond being around – a child to be around its mother creates a feeling of safety and security. And when you go to a new place as a child, as long as your mother or your parent is there, you still feel a sense of safety, and that’s the same for a dog. So for when a dog goes to the vet’s with its owner, the dog still feels relatively safe and secure and could cope with the environment because its owner’s there, that security blanket.
For the cats, that security does not necessarily come from a person or another animal. It comes from a physical place. Cats are very, very territorial animals, and they create safety by getting to know a physical place very well and by marking that place and impregnating it with their own scent. So when we take the cat out of that physical environment, we’ve taken away their safety or their security, and that’s why they don’t cope nearly as well in novel environments.
GROSS: And what are the implications of that for training a cat?
ELLIS: Well, the first thing is many of the things that we want to train a cat involve novel places. So you mentioned already going to the vet’s, the boarding cattery, moving house, et cetera. And one of the ways that we tend to move cats is we put them in a cat carrier. And so those things are intrinsically stressful for a cat because they’re taking them away from their place of safety and security.
So the first thing we would want to teach a cat – I think every cat should be taught this as a life skill – is that the cat carrier can become a portable place of safety and security. It is a safe, secure place and is part of the cat’s normal territory. And now we have a portable item of security, just like for the dog, its owner, for the cat, its cat carrier. And that’s the foundation, I think, for training in terms of novelty.
GROSS: So with a cat carrier, to teach the cat that it’s a safe place and it’s safe to be there when you’re taking the cat to a new location, whether it’s the airport or the vet, do you keep your carrier out all the time so that it’s a very familiar part of the cat’s environment, as if it were a piece of furniture in the house?
ELLIS: Yeah, absolutely. That’s what we would really like to encourage cat owners to do. Currently, what most cat owners do is they keep the cat carrier hidden in a closet or in the basement. And the day that the cat has to go to the vet’s, they tend to bring it out. And what that does for the cat is it becomes a very predictive signal that something unpleasant is about to come because they’ve already made this association between the cat carrier and the travel or the vet’s.
Instead, as you say, if we keep the cat carrier out all the time, it becomes a regular part of the furniture within their territory. They get the opportunity to facial mark it and to sleep in it and to eat in it, so to have positive experiences within it and also to impregnate their own scent onto it, which is how they feel safe and secure. And therefore it’s already a part of their home, so we’re taking that place with them when we take them somewhere new.
I think the main reason, at the moment, that owners don’t do that is that cat carriers don’t look particularly pleasant and people don’t like the look of them out in their homes. And I think really for – to improve that, we really need to think about nicer, cleaner designs of cat carrier that not only function as a cat carrier but that owners would be happy to leave out in their homes at all time.
GROSS: Cats live in the present, and you say any reward or punishment that you use for a cat – and, by the way, you recommend against punishment, and we’ll get to that a little bit later – but any reward or punishment should happen immediately after the action. So what kind of problem sets in if you wait a couple of minutes?
ELLIS: If you wait a couple of minutes, what you’ll, in effect, be rewarding is the behavior that’s happening in those couple of minutes later. So cats really, really are a little bit unforgiving, if you like – as are many other animals – in terms of if you are not good with your timing of your training. And by timing, I mean the delivery of the reward because they need to have the two things happening very, very close in time to know that the association is between those two things. And that’s classical conditioning. That’s not necessarily unique for the cat. That’s the same with any animal. So we need to have a message to tell them that was exactly it, right now, right there, what you’re doing.
If we cannot give the reward at that exact time, and usually the reward is food, we can use other things to pinpoint or reward or mark that behavior that allows the cat to know that food is going to come two minutes later. But the only way you can do that is, first of all, to create an association between whatever your marker behavior is and your reward. So if I give you an example, quite often – let’s say we were teaching a cat to go through a cat flap. I couldn’t give him the food at the moment that he’s going through the cat flap.
GROSS: A cat flap is like a cat door, one of those little cat doors.
ELLIS: Yeah, a cat door. The behavior that we would want to reward, going through the cat door or jumping down, we cannot give food at that exact moment in time because we might not physically be able to get the food to the other side of the cat door or to the cat the minute its – the second its feet lands on the floor. So we can use something that we call a marker. And in this case, very often with cats, I just use a word, and that word’s often just good. But what you have to do before that is teach the cat that the word good predicts that the real reward, the food, is going to come. And you do that just simply by pairing those two things, presenting the word good, so saying it and then giving food. And doing that time again. And then you know the cat has learned the association when you just say the word, good, and the cat orientates towards you. It might meow at you. It shows you all the behaviors that it normally shows you that are indicative that it knows food is on its way. Then you’ve got a tool that will allow you to buy those extra few seconds, but it’s not going to be a few minutes. It’s only going to be a few seconds.
GROSS: OK, so when you’re teaching a cat to respond to a word like good, what exactly is the cat hearing? Do you have any idea? And I have this habit – I don’t know if it’s annoying to my cat or what, but, I sometimes talk to my cat in a falsetto (imitating high voice) like this.
GROSS: I don’t know where that comes from, but I don’t know, like, is it the rhythm of the word? Is it the, you know, like – our cat’s name is Rowdy (ph), and I’ll call him like, Rowdy. And, you know, so is he hearing the melody of that sound or, like – what’s the best way to talk to a cat?
ELLIS: Cats generally cope well with quiet voices. They don’t like very loud voices. That can be frightening for them. And they do tend to like female voices a lot because they attune very well to high pitch. Their auditory system is very much designed to hear high-pitch sounds because prey make very, very high-pitch sounds and, therefore, they do tend to orientate towards high sounds better. So I don’t think it’s a problem at all if owners are speaking to their cats in the more sort of baby-voice-type language.
GROSS: You recommend against punishment. You’re all for reward. Why is punishment bad? And we’re not talking about, you know, beating the cat, but just, like, a negative response like squirting the cat with water or shaking noisy keys at it.
ELLIS: Yeah, the reason that we don’t advocate punishment at all is because it can be really, really damaging to the relationship of the cat with the human. If you get your timing wrong, you may be punishing a very different behavior to what you think you’re punishing, and that can be quite disastrous.
And, secondly, if you’re delivering that punishment – so you are holding a water sprayer, or you are throwing something at the cat, or you are physically, you know, smacking its back end off the kitchen counter, whatever it is, the cat will associate that punishment with you and may not associate it with the actual act of what it’s doing because you’re very salient in that environment, at that time, and you are the one delivering the punishment. And so all you’re doing then is teaching your cat that you are not a very good person to be around, that you deliver quite unpleasant consequences and, therefore, the cat will start to avoid you rather than stopping to do that behavior.
GROSS: So how do you teach a cat not to do something, to stop doing something?
ELLIS: So it very much depends on the behavior. But what we would do is try and teach on incompatible behavior. So we would teach the cat to do something else instead that meant they couldn’t do the behavior that was undesired. And we would make a different behavior very, very rewarding, so they were very, very motivated to do it. We would also find out what the particular behavior was that they were doing that was undesirable and why they were motivated to do that behavior.
And we have to think about is it a behavior that they actually need to do for their own welfare? So, for example, let’s say, scratching, and they’re scratching the furniture as opposed to scratching on their scratch post. We couldn’t just stop that behavior completely because it’s a natural behavior for cats, and it’s something that they should be allowed to do, and we should accept that they do as part of being a cat. So, therefore, we think we would want to train the cat to redirect that behavior onto something that we would consider much more appropriate, rather than stop it completely.
GROSS: Like a scratching post?
ELLIS: Like a scratching post, exactly.
GROSS: My experience is cats love the furniture and the scratching post.
GROSS: You’re just adding more joy in their lives, but you’re not discouraging them from scratching the things you don’t want them to scratch.
ELLIS: And, I think, for cats that are housed indoor only, they will often scratch in multiple places within the home because they will often scratch at multiple places within their territory, at the boundary of their territories. So for cats that are allowed outdoor access, that’s often outdoors. But for cats that don’t have outdoor access, those multiple points are often within the home. So it’s a case of educating owners that, actually, one scratch post is often not enough. Most of us just don’t have one chair in our house. We have several chairs, and we’ll sit in different ones and, therefore, we need to think about being providing extra resources for our cats – more than one scratch post.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Sarah Ellis. She’s a cat behavior specialist and co-author of the new book, “The Trainable Cat.” Let’s take a short break, and then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you’re just joining us, my guest is Sarah Ellis. She’s a cat behavior specialist and her new book, “The Trainable Cat” is all about how to train cats. And she says, yes, cats are trainable.
OK, so let’s start with, like, a basic training thing, teaching a cat to respond to the cat’s name and to come when you call it. So as a positive reinforcer, you recommend, you know, a treat. And one of the things you do is have meat paste in a syringe. I mean, I don’t even know where to get meat paste. I’ve never even heard of meat paste.
ELLIS: (Laughter) So I…
GROSS: Oh, and, by the way, I should mention the syringe, it’s not to inject the cat. You just kind of squirt it out of the syringe, and so the cat can lick it off the end of it. There’s no needle in it.
ELLIS: Yeah, absolutely.
GROSS: Is syringe the right word to use?
ELLIS: Yeah. Yeah. We would call it a syringe, certainly. And then it’s a syringe without a needle, so the plastic part of the syringe, if you like.
ELLIS: But actually, I have a 2-year-old and during weaning off my little boy, I discovered these, like, squeezy tubes that have a spoon attached to them that you can squeeze the tube, and it squeezes the baby food out onto a spoon. And I thought, these are fantastic for training cats because you can squeeze it straight into a spoon, and the cat licks it off the spoon.
So it’s amazing what things you can find (laughter) which you’re not expecting in life at all. But meat paste – there are some cat food that comes canned, and it’s like a patty. And you can loosen that patty with a little bit of water to make paste. And I also have a separate very small food mixer, so that I can blend my cat’s regular cat meat into a paste, which it sounds a bit disgusting, but trust me, once you’ve done it once or twice, it’s not a problem. And you can buy human-grade meat paste as well. In the U.K., people spread it on their sandwiches, and these kinds of things. You just have to make sure in the ingredients, it doesn’t have any additional ingredients that could be toxic to cats. It’s worth definitely checking with your vet.
GROSS: Spreading it on sandwiches does not sound great to me, but thanks for the advice.
ELLIS: No, it’s not.
ELLIS: It’s not something I would eat (laughter), hence why the cat gets it.
GROSS: So getting back to teaching a cat to respond to its name and to come when you call it, walk us through the process for doing that.
GROSS: That seems like the very basic training.
ELLIS: Yeah, definitely. So most people’s cats know their names already, but where people tend to go wrong is they think, oh, he knows his name. I’ll use his name to get him to come to me. But because we use their names all the time, it’s not a command to say come to me. It’s just a word that we say to them that they know they need to give their attention to us. So the first thing we need to do is think about what word are we going to use that actually means I want you to move your body over towards me and stop when you get to me?
We tend to use come or here or any word that works well for you. So the word of the cat – the cat’s name, let’s say I’m training Cosmos, my cat. I would say the word Cosmos to get his attention, but then I would always say the word come to tell him the command of what I’d like you to do, now I’ve got your attention, is to come towards me. So you have to think about what that word’s going to be, first of all. But we don’t use that word until a little bit further down the training. The first thing we do is we make sure the cat is actually really quite close to us when we start teaching the recall. And when I say close, I’m meaning like within a meter or two meters, definitely within the same room. And we show the cat that we have something that it really likes – so most commonly food.
And so if you’ve got your food in the paste, you might need to squirt a little bit of that paste out and let the cat smell it or if you’ve got food in a tub, if you’ve got some biscuits, you can rattle that to show the cat that you’ve got it. The cat should come to you purely because it knows you’ve got food, and it’s motivated for that food. So choose a time when the cat’s hungry. Choose a food it really, really likes. So as soon as the cat gets up and starts to walk towards you – and we’re only talking, at this stage, a few steps – you then give that cat that reward. And you repeat that in different locations, in different places in the house, and you gradually increase the distance between you and the cat.
After doing that in different locations within the house and doing it at different distances which are increasing, we can start to do it when the cat can no longer see us. It can just hear us. And so that’s quite good fun. When you really know that you’ve trained well, you can be in a completely different room of the house, call the cat, give your cue word and see if the cat comes. Only once you’ve got it that good with it then I take it outdoors. So we’re generalizing all the time what the cat’s learned to different locations. And that’s what makes it really strong.
GROSS: So once the cat has mastered this training and comes when you call it by saying come, at what point can you stop giving the cat food each time the cat comes and will the cat at some point think like, well, I’m not going to come any more, there’s nothing in it for me?
ELLIS: (Laughter) Yeah. OK. So it’s a little bit like – imagine the food – it’s a little bit like your pay for going to work. We wouldn’t go to work for nothing ever, really. There has to be some reward at some point, but that reward doesn’t have to come every single time once the animal has learned what the cue word means and has got the behavior mastered.
What we tend to find in animal training – and this is not just the case for cats. It’s for all animals – is that once you’ve taught a behavior, in order to maintain that behavioral response really strongly, intermittent reinforcement is the best kind. And by that, what we mean is that you don’t give a reward every single time. It sort of keeps the cat guessing. They don’t know if running toward you this time will get the food or it will be the next time. And that actually makes the behavior more likely to happen.
BIANCULLI: That’s Sarah Ellis speaking with Terry Gross. Ellis is the co-author of “The Trainable Cat,” which is now out in paperback. We’ll hear more of their conversation after a break, and film critic David Edelstein will review “Novitiate,” the new movie about an order of nuns set in 1964 during the early years of the Vatican II reforms. I’m David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli in for Terry Gross back with more of Terry’s interview with feline behavior specialist Sarah Ellis. She’ co-author of the book “The Trainable Cat,” which is now out in now out in paperback.
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GROSS: So cats are – they’re very demanding about certain things, like when they want food. They know that you feed them and they’re hungry, and they want you to feed them. They will tell you either by meowing a lot or by biting your foot or scratching your leg – or there are sweeter ways of doing it than that, but there are the more (laughter) assertive ways. So how do you train a cat to, like, not bite you or scratch you?
Oh, let me get to another example. This is the best. When you’re sleeping – it’s your day to sleep late. It’s Saturday. You want to sleep late. Your cat doesn’t know it’s Saturday. Your cat doesn’t care that it’s Saturday. It wants to be fed at 6:30 in the morning. And so it jumps onto the bed or walks up to the pillow, sticks its paw in your eye (laughter) and says time to get up. How do you train a cat not to do that?
ELLIS: OK, so those behaviors happen in the first place because the cats have trained us. We may not be aware of that at the time, but that’s basically what’s happened. Cats are not necessarily born meowing and screaming at us for food. It’s a behavior that they learn. They’re also not born innately to bite our noses when we sleep and scratch our eyes when we sleep. Again, it’s another behavior that they try out through trial and error, learn that it has a very, very – it’s very effective ’cause it gets exactly the response they would like, and therefore they use it again and again.
So the first thing I would say is that owners who have found that their cats are meowing incessantly for food and driving them bonkers is to think about what have you done in the past when your cat has done those behaviors? It is likely that you have gone, oh, goodness me, he’s meowing again, just give him some food for him to be quiet. What we’ve done, remember, is we’ve reinforced the meowing behavior. So we’re just going to make it worse and worse and worse for ourselves ’cause our cats are going to go, oh, that is a behavior that I need to do to get food.
And if one day we think, I’m not going to do that anymore, I’m really sick of him meowing for food and I don’t want him to do that, I want to try and stop him doing that, and day one, he meows and he meows and you’re really strong and you think, no, he’s not going to get food for that. And day two and day three – and then by day four, you’ve had a really, really bad day at work and you’re really tired and you’ve got a bad headache and he is still meowing for food and you think, no, no, I’m going to be strong-willed here. He’s not going to get food now. He’s going to have to wait until he’s quiet another time and then he can have food. And you let him meow for much, much longer than normal, and then you just can’t take it anymore and you give him the food. You’ve made the whole situation even worse because now the cat’s learned, oh, I have to meow for, like, 20 minutes instead of 10 minutes for you to give me the food.
So what we have to warn owners in that situation is we have to put the behavior on what we call an extinction schedule, if we want to use a real scientific term. That is that this behavior is no longer reinforced. So if you wake me up in the middle of the night, I will no longer get up and feed you just so I can go back to bed. What we need to explain to owners is if they can be really strong with that extinction schedule and just make sure at every occurrence of that behavior they do not reward it, is that it will stop.
GROSS: I think a common problem that a lot of pet owners face is that, you know, they have, say, a cat and they want to also adopt another cat or a dog or they have a new baby that’s about to arrive, and you have to acclimate the cat that you already have to the newcomer and vice versa. And you have a lot of suggestions for training the cat to deal with the new baby or the new animal that’s coming to the house. Can you take us through some of those steps?
ELLIS: Yeah, sure. So as humans, we’re really naturally very, very sociable. We like extending our families, we like having – if we love cats, we want more cats. The cat doesn’t see the world like that at all. Remember, it’s evolved from a solitary animal. And so suddenly being asked to share its territory with somebody or something that’s very unfamiliar to it can be a real – really quite stressful experience for a cat. So while we might welcome with open arms a new baby or a new cat, and we have an understanding that this already is a family member for us, the cat doesn’t. For the cat, it’s – the analogy would be like if a – you just came home from work and a stranger was sleeping in your bed. It’s really quite a sort of freak-out situation.
But when cats – they do have the ability to form social relationships with one another, and it really depends on the individual cat to what extent they can. The way that they do so and the way that they maintain those social relationships is very often through scent, through – they have very, very good sense of smell. And while we generally recognize our family members through sight and through the sound of their voices, for cats, it will be through their – how they smell.
So the first thing that we try to do when we’re trying to introduce them to a new cat or a new baby, et cetera, is to think about all the sensory information that that new being brings, particularly smell but also sight and sound, and gradually introduce the cat to them over a slow period of time and in a way that the sensory elements are, in their first instance, quite dilute and then come right up to their sort of real level of what they are.
GROSS: How do you introduce a new person’s smell or a new animal’s smell to a cat?
ELLIS: OK, so we’re going to use an example of a new cat. If we brought a new cat home from the shelter, we would want to keep it in a completely different part of the house from the resident cat, ideally a single room so that that new cat gets a chance to get used to one area that’s not too big before we introduce it to other areas. And one of the first ways that we can introduce the two cats to each other’s smell is simply by swapping the bedding, taking the bedding that they’ve been sleeping on, which will be heavily impregnated with their scent, and placing that in each other’s territories, making sure that they still have some bedding of their own, as well ’cause, remember, they feel safe and secure when the area smells of them.
Cats produce scent, which we cannot detect. Our noses are not strong enough to be able to – or good enough to be able to detect it. And then they also produce these chemicals known as pheromones that are species-specific. So we – they mean nothing to us. We cannot detect them. And they’re produced from in between the toes, at the base of the tail, down the flanks but primarily around the face. So do you know under the chin, they love to be scratched and just behind the whiskers on the cheeks, and do you know those areas in front of their ears where there seems to be a lot less hair between the ears and the eyes?
ELLIS: That area there is a very concentrated area where – of sebaceous glands that produce these facial pheromones, these specific chemicals that cats use to communicate with one another. So rubbing a cloth over these facial regions will impregnate that cloth with a scent of that individual cat, which if we smelt that cloth, we would smell nothing. But if we put that into the environment of the other cat, they would very much be able to detect the presence of another cat there.
GROSS: And you also have pictures of how you trained your cat at home to accept a second cat. So you have both cats in walled-off spaces but in the same room. So, like, there’s some kind of, like, little fence between them or their own – they’re each in their own little crates. So they’re in the same room, but they’re completely protected from each other so that they learn to acclimate to each other without fear of being attacked.
ELLIS: Yeah, so once they’ve got used to the smell of each other and they’ve heard each other and they’re happy with all those things, then we would physically introduce them so that they could see each other. And by this stage, they should be able to recognize each other by smell. So it shouldn’t be like, oh, my goodness, who is this creature in my house because they’ve already smelt this animal and they’ll match the smell. But as a safety measure, we would always make sure that they can’t physically interact at the beginning beyond just a nose-to-nose greeting. When cats tend to meet each other, they do so by sniffing each other at their noses. And then if they are well-known to one another and part of the same familial group, they may go on to then facial rub.
But for cats, when we’re introducing them to each other, a nose-to-nose touch or sniff is simply enough that that’s all we would be really looking for with no agonistic or hostile behaviors. And so they’re able to do this through a barrier, through a mesh door or through a baby gate. But we’ve prevented the opportunity for any hostile behavior in the eventuality that it did occur because we know from scientific study that if at the first true meeting, cats fight, then the chances of us being able to get those cats to live together is really, really difficult. And the first meeting is really crucial.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Sarah Ellis. She’s a cat behavior specialist and co-author of the new book, “The Trainable Cat.” Let’s take a short break here, then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is cat behavior specialist Sarah Ellis. She’s co-author of the new book, “The Trainable Cat,” and she insists cats can be trained. A lot of people who have cats have problems with the cat urinating outside of the litter box, and that’s an example – like, I have no clue how you would train a cat to not do that.
ELLIS: Yeah, the – one of the things is people often think you have to teach a cat to use the litter tray or the litter box, and you don’t. You don’t have to teach kittens to use the litter box. When they feel a substance under their feet that’s very fine and rakable, instinctively they will toilet on it. So the reasons that sometimes they don’t use the litter box is because the litter box is not clean enough. Remember, they have this really, really good sense of smell. And while we might not be able to smell the odors coming from it, the cats certainly can. Their noses are closer to the soiled litter and that they have this much better, much more acute sense of smell. And they’re fastidious about being clean. So if that litter tray has not been – a litter box has not been scooped in the morning or in the evening, they might choose not to use it.
Often, cat litters are designed with us as a consumer in mind rather than our cat, and they are not desirable to our cat in terms of the sensation they create on their feet. They might not be fine and rakable enough or we may place the litter box in an area that the cat doesn’t feel is safe and secure. Lots of people put them in their basement next to their tumble dryer or their laundry machine or the washing machine. And for a cat, it’s horrible to have that vibration or that noise right next to when they want to go to the bathroom.
So these are some of the reasons that cats might not want to use the litter box. There is a whole other range of reasons that are medical related. And so we always, always advise if your cat is not using the litter box, to make sure the first thing you do is to take it to the vet’s. So it’s not just a simple case of being able to train the cat to use the litter box, it’s more that they instinctively know how to do that. It’s just that the litter box provided to them is perhaps not desirable because of cleanliness, the substrate that’s in it or its location or that it has to share it with another cat. And if those two cats in the home do not consider each other part of their same social group, then they were not going to share a toilet together.
GROSS: You know, we’re talking about, like, training cats and why that’s good for the cat and good for the people. Cats, especially indoor cats, need exercise. And so play is not only, like, a fun activity for the cat and the person but it’s also, like, really healthy for the cat. I sometimes wonder if my cat understands that he’s engaged in a very Sisyphean activity because (laughter) once – (laughter) like, especially, like, with a laser toy, like, there’s no way you’re going to actually capture that laser beam, you know?
And even with, like, the feather toys – the wand feather toys – like, what do you do with it once you’ve captured it, you know? You play with it a while and then I’m going to whip it around again and then you capture it again and then I’m going to whip it around again. You know what I’m saying? Like, do cats get frustrated by the ways we play with them?
ELLIS: Yeah, they can. And I’ll come onto that. But first of all, I think – I’m really pleased you brought up the subject of play ’cause for me, it’s not an optional extra in cat ownership. It’s not a fun thing to do if you have the time. It is as important as feeding them and providing them with a litter box. It’s an absolute basic welfare need, particularly for cats that are indoor-only because the cat, as it’s evolved and as we’ve domesticated it and even as we’ve selectively bred it and got these pedigree cats, we’ve never selected to get rid of the predatory behavior and the hunting behavior. And so they still have this desire to perform predatory behavior. And in the wild, they would hunt, you know, approximately 10 times a day. So you imagine they’ve got this instinct to do this behavior. But in an indoor-only environment, they’ve got no outlet for it. So really for welfare point of view, we have to offer the cat an appropriate outlet and play is a brilliant, brilliant way of doing that because when they play, they’re using exactly the same predatory behaviors. The idea that play could be frustrating for a cat really comes from the idea that we are not allowing the cat to express – or an opportunity to do all of the different predatory behaviors.
So if you’re chasing a laser beam, a little laser light that’s produced from a little box or your cat is chasing feathers on the end of a wand, the chase is only one element of the predatory sequence. There is the locate, the stalk, the stare, the chase, the pounce, which is part of the capture, the killing bite and the consume. And so it’s important that we, during play and during feeding, we provide opportunity for all of these behaviors, then we’re much, much, much less likely to cause any form of frustration. I think we find it quite amusing when we’re playing with cats to make sure that the cat actually can’t catch the toy that we’re playing with, if it’s the feathers on a wand, because then they do these beautiful acrobatics for us as they attempt to catch it.
GROSS: Exactly, yes (laughter).
ELLIS: But it’s so, so important we let them catch it because that is the reward, not every time. Remember, this sort of intermittent reinforcement. They wouldn’t catch a mouse every time they hunted. They wouldn’t be that good. But we need to think to ourselves when playing with cats, let them catch it now and again, especially when we end a play session. End it on a session where they’re allowed to capture it and really have a good chew and bite at it.
GROSS: So sometimes what’s frustrating for the person is that the cat obviously really wants to play. And you get out the wand toy and you start kind of flipping it around, and the cat is spending, like, minutes just kind of watching it intently. And it’s like, come on, play.
GROSS: Do something (laughter).
ELLIS: Yeah. So quite often what’s happening there is that the owner is making the pretend prey, so the feathers on the end of the wand, behave in an unrealistic way that a prey item would not normally. So I’ve never seen a mouse, for example, you know, fly through the air doing 360 degrees.
ELLIS: But yet we expect our cats to chase that and capture that. So it’s about teaching owners to make sure that a toy on the end of that wand mimics what a mouse or a bird would do. And then you’ll find that the cat really gets engaged. And the more they’re allowed to capture it – remember they’ve been rewarded for that behavior – the more they’ll think, this is achievable. I can capture this pretend mouse or pretend bird, but to them, it probably feels real at that moment in time. I’m going to have a shot at going for this one because it’s within my ream. So it’s just about adjusting our expectations a little bit.
GROSS: Sarah Ellis, it’s been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
ELLIS: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Sarah Ellis is a feline behavior specialist and co-author with John Bradshaw of “The Trainable Cat.” She spoke with Terry Gross last year when the book was published. It’s now out in paperback. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews “Novitiate,” the new film set in a convent during the early years of the Vatican II reforms and featuring Melissa Leo. This is FRESH AIR.
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