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Five essential kitten training tips: A vet's guide

kitten training
(Image credit: Gettyimages)

Although kitten training differs significantly from the training that you may provide to a dog, it is no less essential and just as important as giving them the best kitten food.  Similar to puppies, kittens can be trained to respond to a number of commands. Additionally, training can be used to train your cat to avoid obnoxious behavior, such as scratching on furniture and other similarly frustrating things. 

By beginning the training early, during kittenhood, you can encourage good habits that will make your feline friend a better companion throughout his or her lifespan. You can find more good advice among our top six kitten care tips.

1. Choose the right reward to increase your chances of success 

Dogs are specifically bred to seek out social interactions and to please humans. Because dogs are so easy to please, they often respond well to a wide variety of rewards, including dog treats, play, and even simple praise. 

Cats, on the other hand, are wired differently. They are typically less motivated to please than dogs, which impacts on their behavior and how they respond to training. When training a kitten, it may take a bit more effort to find a reward that is truly motivating for your pet. Test a variety of tasty treats to determine which treat your cat prefers. Favorite options include commercial cat treats, diced chicken, tuna, and meat-flavored baby food. (If you choose baby food, read the label to ensure that the food doesn’t contain garlic or onions; both garlic and onions are toxic to cats. Check all the ingredients carefully.)

Although it may be tempting to train your kitten using punishment instead of rewards, studies have shown that rewards-based training is the most effective option. 

2. Acclimatize your cat to being handled regularly

Properly caring for your kitten will require a lot of handling. First, there’s routine grooming. Over the course of your cat’s life, you will want to be able to brush your cat, trim claws, and remove mats or debris that may be caught in your cat’s coat. Acclimatizing your kitten to this type of handling from the start will make these tasks easier in the future, as your kitten continues to age. 

Next, it’s important to be able to thoroughly check over your kitten. Every day or two, take the time to hold your kitten and look at his or her coat, eyes and ears. Open your kitten’s mouth and take a look inside. These steps will ensure that your kitten will allow you and/or your veterinarian to perform a hands-on exam when there are medical concerns. 

kitten training

(Image credit: Gettyimages)

3. Encourage appropriate methods of play

Kittens love to chase and pounce on anything that moves. Unfortunately, this sometimes may include your hands and feet! While this behavior may seem cute (or at least tolerable) while your kitten is young, it may be less charming when your kitten reaches adulthood.

Although kittens require a lot of play, it’s important to use the best kitten toys. Small toy mice on a string or a teaser wand (a feather on a string at the end of a pole) can provide an excellent way to help your kitten burn excess energy while preserving your delicate skin. Reward your kitten for playing appropriately with these toys and others, while ensuring that you aren’t doing anything to encourage rough or violent play that includes teeth or claws contacting your skin.

4. Provide socialization, beginning at an early age 

Animals are the most receptive to new people, places, and things when those items are introduced at an early age. The critical socialization period for kittens, or the age during which they are most receptive to new people, places, and things, is from three to nine weeks of age. If you obtain your kitten before he or she reaches nine weeks of age, you have an incredibly valuable opportunity to socialize your kitten. Even after nine weeks, however, your kitten is still more open to new experiences than she will be later in adulthood, so it’s important to start socialization as soon as you are able to do so.

Ensure that your kitten’s exposures to new people and places are as positive as possible. When you have guests, encourage them to interact with your kitten. Use tasty treats to make those interactions positive. When you take your kitten for a veterinary visit, seek out a veterinarian that will make that visit as low-stress as possible, and use food rewards to encourage a positive response to the veterinarian. These measures will ensure that your kitten remains friendly and open to new situations in adulthood, instead of being a shy kitten that runs and hides every time someone sets foot in your home. 

5. Acclimatize your kitten to a pet carrier

Regardless of your lifestyle, there are likely to be times when your kitten must travel in a pet carrier. Whether you are taking a short drive across town for a veterinary visit or a cross-country road trip, keeping your cat confined during travel decreases the likelihood of your cat causing a car accident or escaping from your vehicle. 

Most cats, when placed in a carrier for the first time, do not enjoy the experience because they are afraid. They may cry and meow for the entire duration of a trip, becoming increasingly stressed. If you acclimatize your kitten to the carrier from an early age, however, you can decrease the stress associated with travel, resulting in a more positive experience for you and your cat. 

Place your kitten’s carrier in the main area of your home, and leave the door open. This will encourage your kitten to explore the carrier and to not associate it only with veterinary visits or stressful trips. Next, consider feeding your kitten its meals in the crate, in order to further increase positive associations with the crate. You can also toss a few treats into your kitten’s carrier periodically, as an additional reward for entering it voluntarily. 

Think about the long term

Kittens are so sweet and adorable that it’s easy to focus only on the present when spending time with your new pet. Instead, make a conscious effort to think about the long term. You will have this kitten for the rest of his or her lifespan, so you will want to take steps during the early days to make the rest of that lifespan as enjoyable as possible!

Catherine Barnette DVM

Dr. Barnette is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received both her B.S. in Zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). She has 15 years of clinical experience as a small animal veterinarian, treating dogs, cats, and occasional exotic patients. She now works as a freelance veterinary writer, creating educational content for veterinarians, veterinary team members, and dedicated pet owners. Dr. Barnette lives in southwest Florida with her husband and daughter (plus two cats, a dog, and a rescued dove!) and enjoys kayaking, biking, and hiking. Learn more about Dr. Barnette at