Attentive cats really can lead to serious injury!
January 24, 2010 1:04 PM   Subscribe

Needed: Cat training genius, or source. Does anyone know how to train a cat or kitten to avoid being a potential tripping hazard, especially when going up or down stairs?

So, we've got two foster kittens. They're very sweet, but one of them, Emmett, loves to go up and down stairs while keeping exact pace with a person's feet, and the other one, Alice, has just gotten kicked a couple of times in random situations. I think Alice is particularly affectionate.

OTHER than just kicking them a few times (which I won't do, and I'm fairly certain would not have the overall desired effect), does anyone have recommendations for ways to prevent this?

Google searches have mainly yielded information on injury rates from people tripping over cats and dogs, so I know I should take it seriously, but not how to address it. In dogs, clicker training, leash training, and sit/stay training seem to be recommended, but I'm not confident this will work for the cats.

I've also corresponded with one cat behavior "expert" (I don't think she has a PhD in behavioral psychology, but she seemed reasonably knowledgeable). Main suggestions: walking carefully when there are small kittens about (the "kitten shuffle"), and her husband's trick of yelling "find a hole" when he's about to cross a room to warn the cats, who do indeed learn to get out of his way. This is slightly different from our problem, and since we're adopting the cats out, I was hoping to train them more than us.

Thanks in advance for any resources or suggestions!
posted by amtho to Pets & Animals (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
how about a spray bottle, keep one at either end of the stairs...used when going up and down stairs on kats that don't know enough to get out of the way... I would think they would quickly learn to get off the stairs when they see people coming.
posted by HuronBob at 1:07 PM on January 24, 2010

OTHER than just kicking them a few times (which I won't do, and I'm fairly certain would not have the overall desired effect), does anyone have recommendations for ways to prevent this?

Well, frankly, that's how I've always handled this.

Mind you, I'm not talking about kicking the cat randomly. I'm not even talking about intentionally kicking the cats while going upstairs. But, rather, letting the natural consequences of getting in your way come to pass. A cat gets in front of your feet while you're swinging them forward, they get kicked. The same as if you touch a hot stove, you get burned. It's hardly cruel to an animal to show that an action has consequences.
posted by Netzapper at 1:09 PM on January 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Good idea, HuronBob, but can I be sure they won't generalize the lesson to avoid humans all the time? I'd hate to make them less affectionate or trusting, especially when they're meeting people who might or might not adopt them...
posted by amtho at 1:09 PM on January 24, 2010

OTHER than just kicking them a few times (which I won't do, and I'm fairly certain would not have the overall desired effect), does anyone have recommendations for ways to prevent this?

Well, frankly, that's how I've always handled this.

This does not work for us. Our beast has this yen for standing directly in front of or behind people, within 2-3 inches but not touching, and he gets stepped on, tripped over, kicked, or otherwise scared multiple times per week. Unsuspecting visitors step/trip on him regularly (even though we warn them) and he is upset and doesn't like being stepped on, but doesn't modify his behavior in any way.
posted by arnicae at 1:18 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Outwitting Cats : Tips, Tricks and Techniques for Persuading the Felines in Your Life That What YOU Want Is Also What THEY Want.

According to the author, the spray-bottle really isn't effective.

Nthing Netzapper's suggestion. Kittens just need time to learn.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:20 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Genuinely "training" most cats is pretty much impossible. I'm sure there are SOME truly dog-like trainable cats somewhere in the world, but by and large they seem to have zero grasp of cause and effect, and so the training process never really even starts. Housecats are, at best, VERY slow learners.

If your cats are like this - and they probably are - then squirting them whenever you don't want them underfoot won't really train them that squirts are associated with getting underfoot. It will, however, train them to dislike the squirt bottle. That much, their walnut-sized brains can figure out. So shortly after starting this sort of chastisement, you'll very probably be able to get them to go away just by waving the bottle at them, or indeed by shaking any similar container of liquid.

The flipside of the lack of trainability is that, in my experience, well-socialised cats also don't bear a grudge. You were waving the scary squirter at me a moment ago, now you're not, must be lap time!

Some cats do have a vindictive streak, though; obviously squirt-bottle discipline isn't the answer if the cat always craps on the bed after being squirted.

Some cats also have random phobias that you can use to get them to bugger off for a moment. We had one, for instance, who was terrified of cardboard tubes - especially if you made a noise at him through one. In that case, just bowling a toilet-paper tube down the stairs would do the job :-).
posted by dansdata at 1:33 PM on January 24, 2010

I accidentally stepped on a cat while carrying a large box down the stairs one time and we were both injured. She never slept on the stairs again.
posted by RussHy at 1:50 PM on January 24, 2010

My cat did this. Two things stopped her doing it:

1) Me almost standing on her, scaring the life out of her.
2) Me giving her a gentle foot tap on the butt just as I started going down the stairs, and giving her subsequent foot taps if she stopped.

It also helps to switch the light on before you go down the stairs. An obvious point, maybe, but nonetheless.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:54 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seriously, cats are trainable, if you know how to do it—not by punishment, but by operant conditioning.

I've been having a lot of fun clicker training my seven-month-old kittens to touch a stick with their noses, leap on and off chairs on command, and sit on their own little mats. They love it. It's all about how to get their human to give them the treats they enjoy.

The way to train a cat not to run up the stairs underfoot would probably be to train it to sit on its mat and stay there for a minute, whenever you give the command. The clicker is a quick way to teach the cat exactly what behavior you're aiming for. After the cat gets the idea to sit on its mat on command, you could send it up or down the stairs first, or train it to stay behind until you're done climbing.

Here's a short video of a cat showing off her clicker training.
posted by Ery at 1:57 PM on January 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

My cat likes to escort me down the stairs. When we get to the end of the hall at the top, he likes to cross from one side to the other right in front of my feet as if trying to trip me on purpose. If I stop for a second and acknowledge him with a little pet on the head at the top, he'll just run right down with me and not get in the way. I guess he's chosen that particular spot to want to be noticed and interacted with. I've learned to modify my behavior to comply, because he's decided he will be noticed, one way or the other.
posted by ctmf at 2:03 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's a reason why my cat's name is Squish. He's part chameleon and blends in with everything and he's been non-stop stepped on since birth. I have tried everything from kicking away to spray bottles, but he still loves to hang out under my feet. I'm fairly certain that, had cats not been doomesticated, this trait would not exist in felines today.

My behavior has been modified though. While he won't budge, I've gotten pretty good at Squish-detection and am now fairly adept at taking a few stairs at a time and stepping over him, especially when carrying an armload of groceries. He's cute, but he's still an evil little asshole.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 2:13 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

They're cats. You can't train them, and even if you could they'd just find something worse to do instead, like jumping on your back from a higher step as you walk down the stairs, or running straight into your shins as you take your first weary downstairs step of the morning, or just leaving a little trap (dead animal, toy, shit, puke, stone, cat-biscuit) on the fifth step down, waiting there for your unsocked foot, every single day, for years.

Give it a decade and taking 2 minutes to traverse thirteen steps really won't seem so bad. In fact, it'll seem weird when you're walking down someone else's stairs and there aren't any cats to dodge.

Protip: Install hand-rails on both sides of the staircase, and work on your upper-body strength.
posted by SebastianKnight at 2:13 PM on January 24, 2010

I grew up with a cat that was reluctant to go up or down stairs unless there was a human there too. He would wait at the top or foot of the staircase until someone appeared, and then sprint past them. We tripped over him several times; didn't put him off one little bit.

I'm sure you'll get plenty of less-than-helpful responses along the lines of 'eh, cats are weird', but, well... eh. Cats are weird.
posted by Catseye at 2:18 PM on January 24, 2010

Try giving the cat a reason to proceed you, a toy or treat tossed ahead of you.
I used water in spray bottles to keep feral kittens away from my daycare, it worked.
posted by misspat at 2:40 PM on January 24, 2010

Whenever one of my cats gets underfoot, I pick up and carry him or her while gently patting the fur on their back in the wrong direction. They quickly get annoyed, leap out of my arms and indignantly stalk away to rearrange their fur. Over time, they seem to have learned to stay out of arm's reach when I'm moving.

Teaching them to stop stealing my spot on the sofa when I stand up has proved to be impossible, however.
posted by jamaro at 3:07 PM on January 24, 2010

He would wait at the top or foot of the staircase until someone appeared, and then sprint past them.

Both of our cats have a habit of dashing downstairs as we're walking upstairs (or vice versa). We call it 'cat jousting'.
posted by pointless_incessant_barking at 3:21 PM on January 24, 2010

I used to get a palm full of water from the bathroom at the top of the stairs and dump it on the cat that would lay on the stairs when I was heading down. He very quickly learned not to be there if I was coming down but he'd stick there like velcro when anyone else went down. He'd also get out of my way if I made that tsst! sound with my mouth. It may work better for you since you have kittens though. If you use the spray bottle you'll get that tsst! sound and should be able to just make the noise to get them to move. It's best if they don't see the squirt bottle, you want them to think it's a message from the cat gods.
posted by BoscosMom at 3:26 PM on January 24, 2010

Cats are absolutely trainable, most people just aren't that bothered by their natural behavior to want to bother with training. (All my cats have been training with respect to counters, off-limits tables, okay tables, off-limits sleeping areas, Christmas trees, video game controller wires, and other common cat games that aren't okay.)

We had a cat who actively attacked feet on stairs; throwing a ball down the stairs ahead of him would send him shooting after the ball and let us get down the stairs. This was more distraction than training, but helped him get the idea that people were no fun whatsoever on the stairs. As he outgrew kittenhood, he developed better manners. Now if he's underfoot on the stairs, I'll just stop and give him a look, and he'll go either up or down ahead of me and wait at the landing. A firm "NO" during the bad behavior also helps.

(While this doesn't apply to you, I think the EASIEST way to train cats, without having to bother with actual training, is to already HAVE a cat who knows the house rules. Later additions to the family, providing they get along reasonably well, typically pick up the house rules fairly quickly. My latest kitten spent two days climbing all the bookshelves and tables and leaping up on the kitchen counters (I had forgotten cats could climb bookshelves!) before he learned from watching the existing cat what was and was not cat territory, and that was that.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:31 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cats and kittens are trainable. We're on foster kittens 4 and 5, plus my previous two cats -- all seven have learned to jump through a hoop. I haven't worked very hard at it, but most of the former cats and one of the current kittens will scratch a scratching post on command. They all have learned to come to their names.

The belief that cats can't be trained is somewhat similar to any stereotype that turns out to be self-perpetuating.

However, it can be challenging to figure out how to train a creature that doesn't speak or understand English. If I could just communicate to little Emmett that he should either be two steps ahead or two steps behind on the stairs, and make sure he remembers, I think we'd be fine... but I have no idea how to convey this to the cat!

Thank you for the help so far. Here's the article that makes me think this is really worth thinking about, although it focuses more on dogs than cats. Excerpt:
The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control of the CDC reports that there are 86,629 reported nonfatal falls annually that are associated with dog and cats. This is an average taken from 2001-2006 stats on nonfatal falls. Nearly 88 percent of those injuries were associated with dogs, and women were twice as likely to seek medical treatment for pet-related falls than men, the CDC said.
posted by amtho at 4:43 PM on January 24, 2010

Little Jerk does this too. A gentle nudge in the butt seems to help.
posted by liketitanic at 4:59 PM on January 24, 2010

Problem seems self-correcting with out latest puppy. The last time he got underfoot while I was going downstairs, I accidentally punted him to the bottom of the stairs. (Thankfully only about 4 steps, but he is a small dog (named him "Crumb"))

It's been 3 weeks and he hasn't done it since. Our first dog who has "issues" with stairs, so I give him a gentle starting boost with my foot and ensure he is in front of me at all times. For the 2nd, he must have had some other bad experience (wife, kids, who knows) as he waits at the bottom until the person makes the first landing, then he pounces up to the landing and waits until the person is at the top.
posted by jkaczor at 5:13 PM on January 24, 2010

One of my cats used to do this. Then one day, I didn't see him, stepped on his tail, spazzed out at his shriek and fell down 3 stairs, spilling a full laundry basket. Neither me, nor the cat were seriously hurt, but we were both seriously freaked out. He now always stays two steps ahead of me and I don't rush down the stairs. (I guess we were both trained by that incident.)
posted by Kurichina at 7:52 AM on January 25, 2010

Cats are absolutely clicker-trainable. They not only learn, but enjoy it as entertaining game and communication/bonding. From the cat's perspective, s/he is training you to deliver well-deserved positive reinforcement for all the clever things it likes to do.

The difference in trainability of cats and dogs has more to do with intellect and orientation. Dogs want a sense of order in their universe and want to please you. This happens to align very well with obedience training. Whereas the cat will actually think about it. "Hmm, do I want to do what you're telling me you want? Okay, sure, why not." Focus on the idea of cat training as communicating expectations rather than as compelling obedience, and you'll find that your kittens are highly trainable. They may not display the slavish devotion that a dog would; however cats are plenty savvy about the wisdom of keeping The Keeper Of The Food And Toys very happy.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 11:39 AM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

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