Five essential kitten training tips: A vet's guide

kitten training
(Image credit: Getty Images)

To many people, the phrase “kitten training” sounds like an oxymoron. After all, cats are untrainable, right? Wrong! In fact, proper training is every bit as important as feeding your kitten the best kitten food

Like puppies, kittens can be trained to respond to a variety of simple commands. More importantly, training can be used to help your kitten avoid obnoxious, risky, or otherwise problematic behaviors. 

Beginning training early can encourage good habits, making your feline friend a better companion throughout their lifespan. You can find more good advice among our top six kitten care tips.

1. Use positive reinforcement 

Dogs are bred to please humans. In many cases, a simple pat on the head is just as rewarding to a dog as a food treat.

Cats, on the other hand, are wired differently. They don’t necessarily care about pleasing humans, and this has important impacts on training.

In order to train your cat, you need to identify a reward that is truly motivating for your kitten. Food is usually your best bet; the way to a cat’s heart is through their stomach. Try commercial cat treats, diced chicken, tuna, and even meat-flavored baby food, to identify your cat’s favorite treat. (If you choose baby food, read the label to ensure that the food doesn’t contain garlic or onions! Garlic and onions are toxic to cats, so it’s important to check all of the ingredients carefully.) 

Once you find a treat your cat loves, training will be much easier. 

Also, avoid the temptation to use punishment-based training techniques. Studies have consistently shown that rewards-based training is the most effective option.

2. Teach your cat to tolerate handling

Caring for a cat requires a lot of handling. First, there’s routine grooming. Over the course of your cat’s life, you will need 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 grow. 

Also, 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. Doing this a few times a week will ensure that your kitten will allow you and/or your veterinarian to do a hands-on exam when necessary.

kitten training

(Image credit: Gettyimages)

3. Teach appropriate play

Kittens love to chase and pounce on anything that moves. Unfortunately, this can include your hands and feet! While this might be cute (or at least tolerable) when your kitten is young, it can be a serious problem when your kitten reaches adulthood.

Use the best kitten toys to play with your kitten. Toy mice or a teaser wand (a feather on a string at the end of a pole) can help your kitten burn excess energy while preserving your delicate skin. Reward your kitten for playing with these toys and others. Make a point to discourage rough or violent play, by redirecting your kitten towards more appropriate activities.

4. Socialize your kitten, starting early 

Animals are most receptive to new people, places, and things when they are young. The critical socialization period for kittens, or the age during which they are most receptive to new situations, is from three to nine weeks of age. If you obtain your kitten before they reach 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 they will be as an adult, so start socializing your kitten right away.

Ensure that your kitten’s exposures to new people and places are positive. 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 make the experience a pleasant one. 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

There will probably be times when your kitten must travel in a pet carrier. Whether you’re driving across town for a veterinary appointment or embarking on a cross-country road trip, confining your cat decreases your cat’s risk of injury and escape. 

Many cats dislike carriers because they are afraid of them. They may cry and meow during travel, becoming increasingly stressed. Acclimatizing your kitten to their carrier from an early age 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. Toss a few treats or toys in the carrier, to encourage your kitten to enter the carrier and explore. Consider feeding your kitten a few meals in the carrier, in order to further increase positive association. Doing this gradually can help make the carrier a less frightening prospect of your kitten. 

Invest for the long term

Kittens are so sweet and adorable that it’s easy to focus only on the present, neglecting to think about kitten training. 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 want to take steps during the early days to make the rest of that lifespan as enjoyable as possible!

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 www.linkedin.com/in/catherinebarnette.