How to train a cat in 10 days

Well, maybe a little longer…but it can be done! 😹

There’s a great book out by Sarah Ellis and John Bradshaw called The Trainable Cat. Sarah Ellis was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air which is when this training came to our attention, and we were so impressed that we knew we had to share the insights you! Through training, Ellis is able to call her cat to come, get it to walk into its carrier to go the vet (any pet owner knows that this can be a daunting task!), take medicine and be friendly with her dog and baby. Pretty impressive! Below we share the highlights of this great interview, which you can listen to in full here.

Having a cat as a pet is a rewarding experience—they are intelligent creatures, with bold personalities and offer love and affection, but they can also be stubborn, and difficult to control. Ellis purports that although the process takes a bit more patience and understanding than with a dog, cats are creatures of habit, and will pick on training swiftly. The key is adopting training early, and being consistent.

Cats are a creature of their own kind

Cats and dogs are very different creatures. Where dogs will soak up affection and tend to be sociable and trusting by nature, cats have a tendency to be very territorial and they need to create a place where they feel secure by becoming very familiar with it. This is why when you take a cat to the vet, for example, they have a very hard time adapting to the new surroundings and also are insecure when they return home. Ellis believes that this anxiety can be reduced through a very simple means: familiarizing your cat with its carrier, so that it feels comfortable with it, and sees it as an extension of its personal space.

“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.”

Most people put their cat carrier out of sight when it’s not in use, however, Ellis says that leaving it out in an area that the cat can access is a good way to familiarize it, so rather than it being a signal that change is coming, the cat feels protected by the space, and comfortable within it.

Live in the moment

Rewards and punishments are another way in which cats perceive their human owners and the treatment they receive from them. Cats tend to live in the moment, so you need to create an association between the action and the moment it happens. In terms of rewarding your cat, Ellis explains:

“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.”

Ellis is not an advocate of punishing a cat for poor behaviour as she believes it can be very damaging to the owner-pet relationship. Again, this goes back to the idea that cats live in the moment, so if the timing of your punishment is off it will be misperceived by the animal

“…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.”

Rather than punishing your cat by spraying it with a water bottle, try instead to redirect its focus onto what you would rather it be doing. So if Felix is scratching the heck out of your couch, redirect its attention to a scratching post—something it is allowed to do.

More than just a name

Pretty early in life, cats get to know their name and they associate it with you needing their attention. To train a cat to come on command, rather than just to answer to their name, Ellis recommends thinking of a specific word —come, here, etc.—that you will use to train the cat, and start working with the cat in close proximity to you, about 1 to 2 metres away, with its favourite treat on hand.

“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.”

Cats, and animals in general, respond to trained behaviour so rewarding them for their hard work—remember: in the moment—and showing them all the love and affection they deserve can go a long way in building your relationship with your cat and to them having a happy life.

Again, if you want to learn more consider buying the book The Trainable Cat or listening to the podcast.

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Watch Out For Spear Grass!

Wild grasses with barbed seeds are generically known as “spear grass”, and there are many species of this potentially dangerous plant in our area. Common names include needle grass, foxtail grass, silver spike grass, and porcupine grass. The barbs are the problem, and while they are a clever means of distributing plant seeds, they can cause big problems for our pets.

One common example is Foxtail grass, and while it is green and growing it is a rather graceful and attractive plant. But when it dries out in the late spring or early summer, and the seeds fall from the stems, their spears readily attach themselves to clothing, and importantly for our pets, to fur.

The seeds can easily work their way into feet, eyes, ears, noses, and bellies, and the barbs make extraction very difficult. Once a seed has lodged itself, their design causes them to move forward, frequently piercing the skin causing great pain and potential infection. If not treated, they can be life threatening.

So, what can you do to protect your cat and dog? Vigilance during the summer and early fall is definitely required. After your pet romps in grassy areas, be sure to check his eyes, ears, nose, along the belly, and between the toes, every time. Pay attention: if your pet is repeatedly shaking his head, scratching his ears, licking or chewing at a paw, or whining repeatedly, there has to be a reason, and it might be spear grass. If there is any spear grass that is growing on your property, get rid of it.

There is no reason that our pets can’t get out and enjoy the good weather. Just be sure you are attentive and inspect them for spear grass regularly.

 

Is Your Pet In Pain?

dog with unhappy expressionWhen we hurt, we’ll likely treat it ourselves if it’s minor, or if it’s more significant we can explain it to someone else, such as a doctor, and get help from them. Our pets can hurt too, but they can’t come and tell us, at least not directly. It’s our job to understand how our pets tell us that they are in pain and then to do what’s necessary to ease their suffering.

While pain is sometimes obvious in our pets, such as when they hold up a sore leg, at other times the evidence can be very subtle. Cats are particularly inclined to hide their pain, as they see it as a sign of weakness and vulnerability. Many dogs will do their best to camouflage their pain as well.

To know when your pet is hurting, you need to watch for subtle changes in behaviour and appearance that might indicate he is in pain. It’s vital to always be alert to these signs, as quick action and treatment is the best way to allow your dog or cat to heal and resume their normal, happy life.

Following is a fairly comprehensive list of the signs that your pet may be in pain. None of these alone is conclusive evidence, but a combination may well be indicative. You know your pet best, and therefore you are in the best position to know when he might be in pain.

Vocalization

  • grunting or groaning
  • whining or crying
  • howling or whimpering
  • yelping or growling when touched
  • lack of vocalization when they normally would

cat hiding under furnitureHiding (mostly in cats)

  • withdrawal from social interaction
  • not coming out to eat

Posture Changes

  • shifting position more frequently than normal
  • hunched up
  • sitting or lying in an abnormal position
  • preferring lying to sitting or standing

dog at bottom of staircaseAbnormal Movement

  • difficulty getting up from lying or sitting
  • lagging behind or tiring on walks
  • limping, or not putting weight on a limb
  • reluctance to go for walks or climb stairs or jump up
  • reluctance to move at all
  • repeatedly getting up and lying down

Breathing

  • panting excessively, especially when resting

Changes in Behaviour

  • out-of-character aggressiveness
  • growling, hissing, biting, especially when touched
  • unusual lack of responsiveness to situations, such as playing with a ball, or going for a walk
  • avoiding being held or picked up
  • dog with unhappy expressionseeking more affection than normal
  • changes in bladder or bowel habits
  • excessive sleeping
  • restlessness
  • shivering or trembling

Appetite

  • changed, most likely decreased

Grooming

  • coat lacking its normal shine
  • unkempt appearance
  • licking, biting, or scratching a particular part of the body

Expression

  • staring vacantly
  • grimacing
  • glazed, wide eyed
  • flattened ears
  • enlarged pupils
  • excessive grooming

Remember that the most important thing to notice is when your pet is not acting normally. Our cats and dogs are usually quite predictable, so when they act or appear differently than usual, it may be that they are in pain.

unhappy dog with sign that reads Do SomethingWhat To Do

It might be tempting to give human over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or aspirin to your pet. But the possibility of unforeseen side effects and the uncertainly of determining the correct dose is enough reason not to do so. Take your cat or dog to your veterinarian, get a full and complete diagnosis, and work with them to determine the best course of treatment.

 

Why Dogs And Cats Eat Grass

 grassIt may be difficult for you to imagine your sweet little housecat Hermione as a predatory jungle beast, hiding in the tall grass, hungrily waiting for a snake to slither along her path, grassor a little mouse to make the wrong turn and wind up in her sights. Or perhaps your little dachshund Schnitzel, charging through the forest like a wolf on the hunt. But our domesticated cats and dogs are the descendants of those feral animals, and will sometimes behave just like their ancestors in many ways.

Have you ever seen Hermione nibble on the grass in your yard? What about Schnitzel – sometimes, after an exuberant roll in the muck, have you noticed him chowing down on blades of grass?

Why do they do that?

It is hypothesized that cats and dogs will seek out grass to munch on for a few reasons:

  • They like the taste
  • dogeatinggrass2They need the grass to help them regurgitate
  • They need the grass to work as a laxative
  • Grass was a part of their ancestor’s diets, and is still required in modern animals
  • They are missing some nutrients (which are found in grass) in their daily diets
  • They are suffering from “pica”, a psychological problem

Yum!

Some veterinarians and animal handlers surmise that cats and dogs may eat grass simply because they like the taste. This opinion is based entirely on observation and anecdotal information, of course.

Both feral dogs and cats ate live prey, many of which themselves fed on grass. It is hypothesized that domestic cats and dogs, who no longer need to hunt for food, still retain the genetic association with grass to their “wild days and ways” and will seek it out as a normal part of their diets.

cateatinggrass2Purging

Cats are very particular when it comes to preening and cleaning themselves, and use their tongues frequently during the day to lick themselves.

While Hermione stays clean by doing this, she can also swallow a substantial amount of fur, which can then develop into a fur ball. The fur ball can lodge in her throat or digestive system, causing a blockage. Cats may instinctively seek out grass in order to help rid themselves of fur balls. Because cats do not have the necessary enzymes to digest grass, they will vomit it up – hopefully along with the stuck fur ball! In layman’s terms, grass becomes ipecac for cats!

Have you ever watched Hermione pounce on a bird in the garden on a lovely spring afternoon? She is demonstrating the same instinctive behaviour her ancestors exhibited while on the hunt for food. When the feral cat caught her prey, she would quickly eat it whole – bones, fur, and feathers! Unfortunately, not everything was digestible, and the wild cat might have sought out blades of grass in order to help her regurgitate the “leftovers”.

Dogs are omnivores and scavengers, and their wild ancestors hunted and ate prey whole, too, just like the cats. Perhaps they also nibbled on grass to help rid themselves of the indigestible remnants of their food.

dogeatinggrass3Wild dogs ate whatever they could forage, and then might find themselves in distress, with very upset tummies. If Schnitzel has consumed something bad for him, you might find him galloping out the door, making a beeline for some tender stalks of grass, stuffing himself until he purges and alleviates his discomfort.

Beneficial nutritional elements in grass

Female cats and dogs may seek out grasses prior to oestrus, as the additional vitamins and minerals will assist in the healthy development of their embryos.

Some pet stores sell grasses as nutritional aids. For example oat grass, (whether dried in powder form, or freshly-cut stalks), is well tolerated by most animals, and should not trigger an allergic reaction.

cateatinggrass1Oat grass’s benefits include:

  • A high vitamin B content
  • A high content of folic acid (an essential vitamin which assists in the production of hemoglobin, a protein that helps move oxygen in the blood)
  • Digestive enzymes
  • Chlorophyll
  • An interesting theory states that animals seek out young, green shoots containing chlorophyll in order to sweeten and lessen their odours. Feral cats and dogs often give birth in the spring, and chlorophyll from the new green blades might help their newborns mask their scent, and thus avoid being detected by an animal hunting for food.
  • Beta carotene, which helps boost the immune system

barleygrassOCD and your pet

There is one more reason why your pet might be eating grass—a condition called “pica”. Defined as an obsessive-compulsive disorder, this condition may have an organic cause (ranging from a diet lacking in a few nutrients to a severe deficiency in the animal) or inorganic (stress or boredom-induced).

If you notice that your pet has begun to eat non-food and/or indigestible items, such as plastics, string, yarn, grasses, etc., he might be suffering from pica.

Pica is the manifestation of a larger problem, and it is important to find the cause of this problem and treat it quickly. Pica can cause physical harm to your pet (a foreign object can become lodged in the animal’s system, requiring emergency surgical removal), or chronic behavioural problems, requiring medication and/or psychological treatment.

dogeatinggrass1A few things to remember

A little salad with a meal is no cause for worry!

However, if you notice your pet constantly needs grass, has urgent and consistent problems eating and digesting, it’s time to see your veterinarian. Never allow your pet to eat grass from a field treated with herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. These products are toxic, and while a few blades may not be a sufficient dose to be poisonous, consistent eating will definitely cause a dangerous build-up in your pet’s system.

Be very careful if you have houseplants and are introducing pets to your home, or if you are considering bringing a new plant into a house with animals. Your cats and dogs may naturally want to nibble on the plant’s leaves, and some plants are very toxic and even lethal to cats and dogs.

Your daily interactions with your pets give you a unique perspective on what is normal for them. Cats and dogs will naturally graze on grass from time to time, and you should be confident that your pets are using their instinctive behaviour for healthy and beneficial reasons.