My five year old cats are little terrors. Help me train them!
April 17, 2012 7:40 AM   Subscribe

My five year old cats are little terrors. Help me train them!

I have two cats: Imogen and Baxter. Both are five years old and I adopted them together when they were kittens.

I was in college and living with two roommates when I got them, and there was very little responsible pet training behavior that occurred. As a result, they still kind of have the run of the place. Imogen, especially, is extraordinarily curious and into everything. She knocks thing off of the nightstand all night - I'm lucky to sleep the whole night through. They both scratch anything that is scratchable and have ruined two (admittedly not very nice) couches this way. Imogen lays on the dining room table and jumps on the kitchen counters. She also can make guests nervous because she not only jumps in laps, but likes to sniff people's faces and put her bum in their face.

I'm moving to a nicer, newer place in a few weeks. As part of this move, I'm finally getting a very nice couch which I absolutely do not want to be destroyed by these cats. It also seems like a good time to start teaching Imogen, especially, that sleeping on placemats on the dining room table is not appropriate. She likes water, so the spray bottle doesn't really bother her. Yelling or hissing at her just makes her stop for a second, look at me, then continue her bad behavior.

Help me train my wayward animals, MeFi!
posted by anotheraccount to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Even if she likes water, she may not like ice water; when you're hanging out, keep a few ice cubes in the squirt bottle and see if that adjusts her attitude.

The can-full-of-pennies shaken at them might work for a little while, too -- at least long enough to distract them from their bad behavior.

Good luck!
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:01 AM on April 17, 2012

For the clawing problem, if you don't have multiple scratching posts at different heights, get some.

Trim their nails, if you don't know how, ask your vet to demonstrate. I can't tell with Imogen, but I don't think either of them would have black nails.. so it should be fairly simple. You could also see if the soft paws claw caps are a feasible solution for you. Talk to your vet.

One of the popular mefite suggestions for keeping cats off things they like to jump on is to put down doublesided sticky tape, or aluminum foil. You probably want to try aluminum foil on the table, as the tape might leave residue.

I've had a lot of success yelling "NO!" once loudly and staring at my cats. They usually duck their heads and jump down. Or flop over and look at me in an attempt to be cute.

I also seen some advice where you grab them by the scruff of their neck and push them into the ground for a couple of seconds. Evidently it's suppose to be what mother cats do to kittens. Mostly for me it yields a yowling unhappy cat, but I just started trying this. I don't have results to share, yet.

You probably also need to adjust your behavior. Cats love attention. They will do things because they know it gets your attention. Even if it's what you and I would consider negative attention. So if Imogen knocks things off your nightstand, and you wake up and yell at her.. she's going to learn that she gets your attention when she knocks things off the nightstand. honestly, I'd either stop putting stuff on the night stand, or get a box (maybe a nice ornate one?) and put the stuff in the box. Or get a nightstand with a drawer and put the stuff in the drawer.

Until you can get Imogen to not lay on the table, make sure you're not keeping your placemats there. Put them in a drawer until it's time to eat. Keep a cannister of wipes in that drawer too and wipe down the table.

She might like the placemats because they're soft but on a hard surface. All my cats seem to prefer this to soft furniture like sofas. Do the cats have catbeds? Try getting some.
posted by royalsong at 8:03 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Came in to suggest the methods royalsong listed. I definitely wouldn't buy a new couch until you get the scratching sorted out!
posted by runningwithscissors at 8:08 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I freely admit that I've never really tried to train a cat, but I think the basic techniques are the same. Try to focus more on the positive than the negative; when a cat does something you don't want him doing, distract, divert and reward. Distract him from, say, scratching the sofa and interrupt the bad behavior. Divert him to the scratching post. Praise praise and reward (this is code for FOOD TREATS) the desired behavior.

Distract-divert-reward works for all sorts of naughty behaviors, and unlike punishment it fosters cooperation and reinforces the bond between you and your pet. Don't escalate bad behavior into a confrontation when you can distract your pet into doing something praiseworthy!
posted by workerant at 8:08 AM on April 17, 2012

Mother cats train kittens by swatting them. I'm not saying beat your cats - I'm a crazy cat lady - but I am saying a loud NO, in MOM ANGRY VOICE, and disengaging the activity is a thing to try. I've done "Ow, OW, OW!" with mine to get them to knead me with less, um, vigor, and it generally works. Now I can just disengage the paws once and say, "Don't hurt me," and he will settle down. YMMV. My cats are sort of doglike.
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:11 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I tried to train my ex's cats by shaking my keys at them or throwing unsharpened pencils in their general area. Both tactics worked pretty well. Just don't hit them with pencils or whatever you toss their way...
posted by dfriedman at 8:14 AM on April 17, 2012

Your cats don't sound bad to me. They just sound like cats. The biggest successes I have had in preventing my cats from ruining things have come from changing my behavior, not theirs. I don't have picture frames on bookshelves. I don't have a lamp on my nightstand. I don't leave breakable dishes and glasses on the kitchen countertops.

If you haven't chosen a couch yet, I would recommend leather. Cats (and not just mine - this idea came from a friend who had similar results) don't seem to like clawing leather furniture, probably because they can't get the same traction as with fabric. And as someone already suggested, clipping their claws helps a lot.
posted by something something at 8:35 AM on April 17, 2012

I used to live in the kind of apartment that had areas where I didn't want my cats to go. (Now my apartment is so small I don't think it's fair to do that). In my former apartment, I found that putting the vacuum cleaner in an area, even if it was off, would make my cats stay away from it. They are smart. They knew it could turn on at any moment.

This lead to occasionally having my vacuum cleaner sitting on the stove, but that's what happens.
posted by millipede at 8:37 AM on April 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Don't let your cats in your bedroom at night. Period. You getting your sleep should have priority over everything else. If they make a huge fuss and wake you up anyway, get up and put one or both in the bathroom and shut the door. If they learn that noise at night = being shut in a boring room they will stop doing it. No matter how willful -- and I've lived with a couple of very determined cats -- they're also smart, and almost always choose to avoid behavior with unpleasant consequences (the essence of "training" a cat).

Please, please don't let them jump up on people and stick their butts in people's faces. So rude. Shut them somewhere else for the duration. Or if they don't mind being sprayed with water, try a very dilute vinegar/water mixture. Being firm and doing whatever you decide to do consistently is a big part of it.

I hate trying to cut my cats' nails. I live in a small town, but there are a couple of pet grooming places that are wizards at working with my (not-very-happy) cats for a small fee. Short nails will help with damage control. Scratching posts are good. One of our cats was very insistent about scratching the frame of our front door; we stapled carpet over the area. Not very pretty, true, but at least the carpet is getting torn to shreds instead of the door. Another one of our cats decided that scratching one of our sofas was a sure fire way of getting us to let him outside. The solution turned out to be draping a large afghan over the back and side of the sofa; too loose to satisfyingly scratch, but interferes with scratching the actual sofa. Again, not the most decorative choice, but it works.

I think all cats like to lay on the dining room table. Yelling is upsetting, reaching to lift off can result in a struggle, but using something like a small decorative pillow with a sweeping motion will get any cat off, and soon only reaching for the pillow and saying "no" will work. No guarantees about when you're gone, though.

You don't say whether they're indoor cats. I know a lot of people very strongly believe that cats need to be kept indoors to be "safe" but I've never, once, known a strictly indoor cat to be anything but at least a part-time "terror." Just like dogs, cats need to get outside. Keeping them shut in a house or apartment, no matter how many toys it's filled with, is a sure way to drive an animal slightly mad.

I will say they certainly look determined in those photos! Good luck.
posted by kestralwing at 8:37 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Honestly they sound like normal cats to me. You can get nail covers to help with the scratching, it's like little rubber covers for their claws so they can't damage things. The claws can still retract etc and the cats can't feel them they aren't too hard to put on if your cats don't mind their feet touched. You have to redo them as the nails grow but it's pretty easy, though can be like threading a needle.

You can get cans of compressed air with a sensor that hisses when it senses movement, they can be very good at getting cats not to jump up on things like counters or tables and easy to move if you have visitors and less visually messy as foil.

It's easier to change your set up than to change the cats, less stressful too. Lock them out of your room at night or keep your beside table stuff in a drawer. Push them down if they jump up while you have visitors that sort of thing.
posted by wwax at 8:50 AM on April 17, 2012

a loud NO, in MOM ANGRY VOICE, and disengaging the activity is a thing to try.

Alternately, if you can manage a convincing cat-hiss sound, you can substitute that for the angry voice NO. With either vocalization though, the immmediate disengaging is at least as important as what you say, maybe more so.
posted by radwolf76 at 9:00 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree about the immediate disengaging. I got my cat to quit scratching me while we're playing this way--whenever she got wound up and started scratching me I would immediately stop playing with her, turning my back on her or even walking away. She eventually took the hint. Sometimes no response is the best response.

Also: your cats are adorable and look like troublemakers (as all cats should be)!
posted by orrnyereg at 9:08 AM on April 17, 2012

I dont' know what you can do with adults, but cats in general can be trained. (I did once adopt a cat a 4 years old, and it took a long time to convey to him that shouts or hisses were directed *at him,* but he did learn.) The way to make the initial cues (clap or shout) effective is to follow them with things that the cats dont' like. If water isn't enough, then you can walk across, scoop up the cat, tell it "no" (for cats, this involves a flat hand held across the middle of the face -- imagine a flat paw that one annoyed cat gives another -- I usually span eyes, forehead, nose -- you don't need to hit, just touch or move toward face in a repeated manner, while saying NO; they hate it), then drop it (not set it gently, not hurl it) on the floor. Will take some repeats for them to realize you're serious, but it will get through. Always use clear vocal tones (sharp, single syllables are good, as are a good imitation of a hiss) and unceremonious intervention. *Never* pet the cat when it's sitting in a place you don't want it to go; only chase it off. Do set up some places that cats are welcome to come and be friendly (an easy-to-reach cat tree, say) and always dote on them there.

As for clawing, I dont' know what to say. Again, hard to break them in as adults, but I'd say (1) lots of pleasant scratching posts (sisal!) in a couple of different rooms, and (2) get them used to trimming, probably weekly or so. I grew up with declawed cats, so I don't have as much experience with this as others might...
posted by acm at 9:24 AM on April 17, 2012

(p.s.) It also helps to think about distinctions that animals can and can't learn. For example, if they are allowed on some tables but not others, they're unlikely to get it -- we don't let them on any hard furniture (or counters, or whatever) and that seems to have stuck. We also try not to leave out temptations on any of those surfaces, to be fair. The night stand is right next to the bed, which is probably allowed, and probably a similar height so that will be a hard distinction to teach. Maybe try to get some chances during the day, so you can make your point without having to be all kinds of active when you'd rather be sleeping. And/or make the gap between bed and night stand a little wider, so there's no continuity as an excuse. And just throw the bugger off over and over until it's not worth it to him to go there!
posted by acm at 9:27 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Untrained cats can be disruptive, it doesn't mean they need to go outside. There are a lot of hazards for a free roaming cat, and many of them lead to injury, illness or death. I know this from personal experience.

You're starting late, so it's going to take longer to get them out of their ingrained habits, but as long as you persevere and they don't have medical/emotional/severe behavioral problems that need to be dealt with first, you should be okay. There's no reason that cats can't learn to stop doing things. Sure, they're independent, but they're also able to learn what's appropriate and what's not.

Don't train with punishment, use rewards and praise to encourage your cat. That doesn't mean you can't tell them "no" in a stern voice, distract them with noises, physically remove them from places they shouldn't be, or otherwise stop them from misbehaving. It means you shouldn't scream at them, hit them or rub their faces in waste. Appropriate positive and neutral feedback works so much better with animals than negative feedback (or positive feedback given at the wrong time). Don't reward bad behavior with negative attention, don't pet the cat when it's misbehaving.

There are natural, good cat behaviors that don't need to be stopped, but instead need to be refocused. Like scratching, which is good for cats, but should be done on (multiple) scratching posts rather than furniture. Others have given good suggestions for covering surfaces. There are unpleasant flavorings that can also discourage your cat. If your cat doesn't respond to those ideas, physically remove it from the area and put it somewhere neutral where it can't do any damage (most likely the bathroom). Keep a scratching post or two in this neutral zone so if it wants to scratch, it has an outlet. Don't confine the cat indefinitely, just long enough to understand that scratching the couch will end up with it in the boring old neutral zone again. Do this every time to reinforce the consequences of scratching the couch.

If your cats are constantly climbing and knocking things down, you can compromise with them and move things out of their way. You can also encourage them to find other outlets for this behavior. If they want to climb, why not find them something to climb? Build/buy them a cat tree to explore and enjoy. If they have too much energy and they're playing roughly while you're asleep, they're not getting enough attention in the day time. Wake them up when they're sleeping during the day and play with them so they're tired at night. They'll be more likely to sleep while you're sleeping. If they do manage to stay active at night, keep them out of your room. As long as they're not creating major catastrophes, ignore what they do. Don't get up and give them attention or they'll learn they can get attention on their schedule rather than yours.

If you don't want them on tables, you have to be committed to keeping them off of all high, hard surfaces. Don't let them on some but not others, acm's advice about understanding what cats can learn and not leaving treats on counters is great. Work with your cats and not against them, you never want to set your cats up to fail.

This site has some good suggestions.

Good luck.
posted by i feel possessed at 9:57 AM on April 17, 2012

If you don't want your cats on your tables, do you have anywhere else they can go? Cat shelves? Cat trees? Cat beds? Cats are territorial, and if they don't have a place to call their own, they'll claim yours. My Mister loved his cat bed because it was by the window and he could watch the birds. It's the same with scratching, if they don't have scratching posts, they'll scratch the furniture, though trimming and capping helps too. Some cats prefer horizontal posts while others like vertical. It's a hit and miss.
posted by patheral at 9:59 AM on April 17, 2012

Get a cat tree rather than a scratching post - ours has multiple scratching areas and several padded beds - they love it - scratch it to bits, play king of the mountain, sleep in it. It has completely stopped any other scratching with my 3 indoors cats. We don't have big issues with them climbing where they shouldn't be be, partly because they can get up high with the tree.
posted by leslies at 10:06 AM on April 17, 2012

Nthing the scratching post / cat tree suggestions. Cats *need* to scratch and if you don't give them something they're allowed to claw, they'll pick something of yours. Couches are a popular choice for cats because they are sturdy and generally tall enough to allow for a nice full-body stretch. So whatever scratching post / cat tree you get, make sure it's super solid. Look for a wide, flat base or some sort of system for attaching to the wall and/or ceiling.

In my four-cat household we are also quite fond of those cardboard scratching pad things. The ones at Trader Joe's are awesome AND quite cheap and long-lasting, but you can find them in most pet stores as well (in a variety of shapes and sizes, but most cats I've met are fine with the plain rectangular ones).

Since you're getting a new couch, I would highly recommend getting the scratching posts at the same time and making sure the cats have them available immediately in the new place. I had very good luck using Feliway spray on the sofa when my guys were younger -- I used that on the couch and then put catnip on the scratching posts/pads so they had very clear scent signals indicating "this is where we play/scratch" and "this is where we relax/rest".
posted by aecorwin at 10:34 AM on April 17, 2012

I can't believe no one has talked about Ssscat!

I put three around my couch and within a few hours, the cats wouldn't even LOOK at the couch. I know it doesn't work for all cats, but for mine it was AMAZING. (Also saved their lives. Heh. From getting strangled.)

That being said, all the advice above is also great, and your cats look TREMENDOUS. They need a happy scratching place, they need a good nail-trimming, and they might need to be locked out of the bedroom at night.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 10:44 AM on April 17, 2012

Oh, and I'd also like to recommend the Way of Cats site as a great resource for anyone looking to address cat-quandaries or just get to know their cats better. The author often covers "why is my cat doing this weird thing?"-type questions and does a nice job of helping humans empathize with their cats and understand things from the feline perspective.
posted by aecorwin at 10:52 AM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Try giving them alternatives to some of those behaviors before you get the new couch. A sisal wrapped post or cardboard scratchers are good. If they scratch the couch take them to the scratchers, praise them if they use it and give them a treat. Most things I've read say that positive reinforcement works better than negative. I don't give mine carpeted cat trees because I think they might not be smart enough to get that carpet on the tree is ok to scratch and carpet on the floor is not.

Scat may keep them off the table but make sure not to have breakables on it the first time they activate it. Having some good beds and places for them to sleep that are not the table will be very helpful too.

It may take a while to change their behavior especially with a move mixed in there.
posted by oneear at 12:12 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Put aluminum foil anywhere you don't want them jumping. Use double-sided tape to stick aluminum foil on any vertical surfaces you don't want them scratching. They really hate it and it's been a life-saver when we first got our cats.
posted by bookdragoness at 12:53 PM on April 17, 2012

For the scratching and counter-surfing, you've got some good advice already, but if you haven't looked into it, Karen Pryor's clicker training methods work wonders with bored, crazy kitties.

If they make a huge fuss and wake you up anyway, get up and put one or both in the bathroom and shut the door.

I came to say this. One of the things I've been ruthless with our furball about is sleep time. Any deviations on his part after bedtime invoke banishment. When we're in our house and he gets the 3AM crazies, he gets sleep-marched into our (finished, nice, non-dangerous-stuff-containing) garage, which is at the opposite end of the house, where he can howl or sulk to his heart's content until a more reasonable hour without bothering us.

What I've found to be the key in reprimanding cats is a combo of immediacy and detachment. For a cat to realize that their behavior is undesirable, you need to quickly and efficiently stop them from doing [whatever], then immediately disengage from them. A lot of what we consider "negative" reinforcement (yelling, throwing stuff, etc.), in the minds of cats, morphs into "tee hee hee, aren't these hairless monkeys fun to fuck with!". So you want to be as boring and un-fun with your solutions as possible. And yes, I've known cats who thought the vaunted can of pennies trick was an invitation to play chase. I've had a cat who thought sheets of tinfoil on the counters was just our way of giving her a new, shiny, rattly kind of trampoline.

Due to a house remodel we are staying (with furball) with friends, and owing to logistics all 3 of us have been shut in a (large, but still smaller than many apartments) bedroom / guest suite for much of the time. Since our cat has been more rambunctious than usual due to the combo of strange territory and the presence of another cat with whom he would dearly love to play with if she wasn't such a snippy little tortie bitch... but I digress we've taken the expedient of shutting him in the guest bathroom when he acts up in the middle of the night. Since it's 2 rooms removed from anybody he can whine all he wants and no one will hear him.

mr. lfr informs me that Naughty Cat has taken to sleeping in the sink in protest, and judging from the fur load when I go to put my contacts in every morning, I reckon he's right, but yanno, it's a sink, therefore it washes.

posted by lonefrontranger at 1:15 PM on April 17, 2012

My approach is generally to provide them with preferable alternatives and take sensible precautions.

Our cats used our twill-covered sofa and chair as scratching posts (and repairs were costly) until we bought four vertical, carpet-covered scratching posts and set them at each end. They no longer touched the furniture and shredded the scratching post instead. (You can just buy plywood and 4x4s and staple carpet remnant to them--probably much cheaper.) You might also want to invest in a slipcover, which will eliminate that nice, taut, scratchable surface and help keep hair off the sofa besides.

My brother has had good luck with a floor-to-ceiling, carpet-covered cat tree, which provides the highest vantage point in his apartment--higher than counters, tables, dressers, etc.

Keep fragile things in inaccessible places (an unreachable shelf, a glass-fronted cabinet) and just accept that there are some things you probably won't be able to have when you are owned by cats. For me, it's cut flowers in water--I come home to find them half-devoured and/or the vase knocked over and water all over the floor. They KNOW what they are and are not supposed to do, and they will DO IT ANYWAYS when we're not around to be the enforcers (and then look all guilty and cute when we discover their transgressions).
posted by tully_monster at 2:43 PM on April 17, 2012

I've been trimming my cat's front claws weekly for 10 years. The good news: It doesn't hurt when she kneads my flesh. The bad news: She still managed to destroy a couch's arms by sharpening her claws on them. Just so you know that trimming doesn't solve the couch problem.
posted by exphysicist345 at 5:09 PM on April 17, 2012

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