Interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis on the Trainable Cat

An interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis about teaching cats the key skills they need to live in society with us.

A cat plays with a toy
Photo: Xseon/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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This week, I was thrilled to speak with Dr. Sarah Ellis about her new book with John Bradshaw, The Trainable Cat. The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat is published by Basic Books and is a New York Times bestseller. Every cat owner needs to read this book.

Zazie: How did you get into training cats?

Sarah: I started training cats unbeknown to myself when I was a child. I grew up with cats from the day I was born, but I got my first-born cat when I was 7 and he was a Burmese, very very intelligent. I lived in the rural countryside in Scotland with no siblings and not much to do so I spent a lot of time with him. He was very food motivated and very very social. And so I – not on purpose, but I inadvertently trained him to go over little obstacles of furniture in the living room, walk on my shoulder, and he used to go over little trails of jumps in the garden following a lure toy, you know like a fishing rod toy. And these were things that I would show to my parents and show to my friends, and that was that. I never at that stage even really thought about the fact that I was training him on purpose.

Dr Sarah Ellis with her cat Cosmos
Then I didn’t get my own cat as an adult until I was in my mid-20s when I was doing my PhD in feline behaviour. So that first cat had an obviously quite big impact on me. During that time that I was doing my PhD I was collecting data in a rescue group organization. So I was seeing lots and lots of cats every single day and seeing lots of the problems that they face – going to the vet, how they couldn’t cope, couldn’t even cope in the cat carrier, couldn’t cope in the cages in the rescue centre. And I thought it doesn’t need to be like this at all, it’s not like this for my cat, so why is my cat different from all these other cats? But even then I didn’t really realize that I was actually training him. It was something I just did, I still didn’t think about it.

And then when I finished my PhD I moved to the University of Lincoln and I was doing research into feline welfare. But a lot of my colleagues were working with dogs, and they were training dogs on a daily basis, running puppy classes, and I went along to help assist with the puppy classes. It was only really right then that I thought, “Aaah, I totally know what I’m doing with my cat. And why have we never ever formalized this, and why do we think that this is just something for dogs and not something for cats?” 

And yes we might want to do it for cats for different reasons than we want to train dogs, but it was then I started to put terminology to what I was doing and formalize the process I was doing and really bring my conscious thought into it. “This is exactly what I’m doing, I’m actually training them without even realizing.” You know, whether it’s how I change my body language, when I give the food reward, whatever the food reward is, I’m training them. So then I started at that point to actively train cats. Then I started to talk about it quite a bit and then I think it was 2010  - I went to the University of Lincoln in 2007 and it was 2010 I was asked to give my first talk at a conference on training cats. And then in 2012 I was asked to write a year-long series on training cats for a UK Cat magazine. And that was it!

Zazie: When people think about training, usually they’re thinking about things like sit and stay, obedience and things like that. But that’s not really quite what your book is about is it?

Sarah: No, not all. I mean, the book is called The Trainable Cat but for me it’s really about training for better welfare, to improve the wellbeing of the cat. Insofar as teaching the cat the key skills that they need to live in society with us. And without those skills they often struggle. They’re skills that are completely within the reach of a cat, you know. We’re not asking for things that actually destroy the essence of what a cat is. I think there are many of those demands placed on cats, I do think many people ask cats to be things that cats are not. But the training here is about teaching cats to perceive the world that we have them in and the things we have to do to them. Not things we just want to do to them, but things we have to do because it has a welfare advantage to them, but the cat doesn’t necessarily know that at that time, to be able to cope with those things in a better way.

Going in the cat carrier is a definite because every cat that is owned within a responsible owner’s home if you like, or wherever that is, a shelter, will end up in a cat carrier at some point in its life because they will give it veterinary care.  Likewise veterinary care, preventative health care, visitors – there’s no way we can keep pet cats within our home without them having to meet people they don’t know. These types of things for me are absolute life skills. The sits and the stays and the hi-fives are things that can be done to enhance your relationship with your cat, because training is rewarding in its own right. But it’s beyond that, it’s actually about thinking about what you want to train and how that might improve the cat’s life.

Zazie: So for people who are completely new to the idea of training a cat, can you say something about the best rewards to use?

Sarah: If people are completely new to training cats but have trained dogs before, they almost need to take that hat off and start from scratch. Because dogs are so – as you well know – are very very socially orientated towards us and are very very perceptive at reading cues that we give, whether it’s pointing at something or the facial expressions that we make. Cats are not so good at those sort of things, so therefore we need to think about the fact that the cat is not necessarily always focussed on us. They don’t start from that standing point. You know if you stood in front of a dog and they kind of look at you and say “what do you want me to do?” If you stood in front of a cat they’d say “why on earth are you looking at me?!” then turn round and walk off. There isn’t that need to please, so we have to think about what really is rewarding for a cat, because it’s certainly not our social attention, for most cats. And when we first start training a cat that’s not been trained before, the most rewarding thing generally for cats is food.

They are obligate carnivores, so that food generally has to be meat, and by meat I mean meat and fish – animal flesh. And they are solitary hunters, they are derived from solitary hunters so they will hunt small and often, small meals frequently. So actually they are really well suited to training because that’s how we deliver the food. But because they do eat frequently, small amounts frequently throughout the day naturally, food again is a really good reward because it’s not like they  just have one big meal a day and that’s it. So food works well, feeding small and often really works well.

The thing I really would like to point out is many people think about the size of the food reward that they give, and it is so often far too big. Because we sort of think in dog terms or even in human terms and even the size that commercial cat treats come in are far too big to be a single training treat. So I very often recommend that if you are using commercial cat treats, use the freeze dried ones or the semi-moist ones, because you can pull them into much much smaller parts. If we’re thinking about a prawn, not a king prawn just an average normal prawn, I would break that maybe into four or five parts at least.

Zazie: You alluded a bit to differences between training cats and dogs. Something else you mention in your book is that sometimes cats get quite excited about being trained. What can we do if the cat gets excited by the training session?

Sarah: I think one of the big problems is that many owners don’t recognize the behavioural signs when their cats are getting too excited and so it’s too late. Often a cat that gets too excited can become quite silly with its claws, because they can swipe, or they can latch onto you, they can grab you with all their claws. But there are many tell-tale signs before that happens such as dilation of the eyes, often we see flattening of the ears or wrinkling of the skin, and the tail might start to swish or thrash, or their movements might become a bit more jaggy or stuttered, a bit more staccato. It’s teaching owners to recognize these signs so that they stop training at that point before it eludes to an over-excited incident such as the cat swiping.

And it really depends on the individual cat and how skilled the trainer is, so in some cases, for example my cat Cosmos, he can get very excited around food. It’s part of his history because he was, prior to coming to me as a rescue kitten he was starved, and one of his siblings actually when they arrived at the veterinary practice had died of starvation. So he was really quite seriously starved. So he gets – or did, I should say – get extremely excited around food, but training has definitely helped us to cope with that. And now if I see the signs that he’s getting too excited, rather than stop training completely I can lower the value of the reward that I’m using. So let’s say I was using fresh meat for him, cooked chicken or a piece of prawn or whatever it is, I could drop it down to my next reward being just a piece of his normal kibble, parts of dried commercial food.

You can lower the value of the food, or you can stop completely, or you can move onto a different training task that is less exciting. I definitely wouldn’t use the reward of play and toys in situations where cats are getting really excited.

Zazie: In the book you have this idea of a training toolbox and it’s a metaphor but it’s also literal. What’s in your training toolbox?

Sarah: The training toolbox will be slightly different for each individual cat because it is tailor-made to each cat’s likes and dislikes, and depending on which tasks you are likely to train. Your rewards will be in there, so the various types of toys you might use as rewards, the various types of food you might use as rewards, and the various types of ways you might deliver those foods.

So for example, in my training toolbox I have a tin, so I keep some of my dried foods in a tin. I have a number of empty syringes, not syringes with needles on, just the plastic syringe because I would often make a paste, a smooth pureed paste of cat meat, that gives me a constant source of food to deliver slowly when pressed through a syringe. I also have a weaning spoon which is used for children, it’s like a squeezy tube with a spoon on the end, and if I squeeze the food it squeezes it directly into the spoon. I also have a target stick in my training toolbox, and I use that to teach my cats how to follow a target. It’s a stick with a big ping pong ball on the end. Sometimes I’ll use that type of training if I want to move a cat from one place to another, and it’s not offering any of that behaviour spontaneously. So for example you could use a target stick to move a cat through a cat flap or to move it down off a worktop or even to keep it still in a standing position if you are wanting to do some handling.

They’re the main things. Some people use clickers like a marker. We talked about a marker word in the book but some people might use a marker of a clicker instead, so keep a clicker in there. And I have a grooming brush in my toolbox because Cosmos finds access to a grooming brush really rewarding.

Zazie: If someone is going to start training their cat, where would you suggest that they start? Should they work their way through the chapters in order, or what do you think is the best place to start for most cats?

Sarah: I think it’s a really good idea to read the introductory chapters because they really tell you, what is a cat, and give you a full understanding of your cat before you even think about training. Then I would definitely read the key skills chapters, and have a play with the different activities within those key skills, so you’re mastering the skills on behaviours that are not really that important to you. So if you don’t get your timing quite right, or the reward you used was not high enough value, or low enough value, it doesn’t really matter because you’ve not ruined a behaviour that it’s important for you to teach, because they’re just practice activities.

Then it’s very very dependent on your own individual circumstances and what things are about to happen in your cat’s life. If you have a cat that is not good with visitors for example, that would be something I would work on straight away. If you have a cat that you know hates the vet, and his booster vaccination is in 5 months, now’s a brilliant time to start working on that. Don’t leave it until a few weeks before, give yourself plenty of time. Cat carrier again is one for everybody, preventative healthcare for everybody, but introducing a baby, introducing a dog, that’s very dependent on your own circumstances.

Zazie: Thank you. One of the other things I wanted to ask you about is one of the key skills you describe, which is collecting the cat’s scent. So for people who are used to training dogs, they won’t really know what that’s all about. How can we use scent when we’re training a cat?

Sarah: So cats like dogs do navigate the world very much through their sense of smell, their sense of olfaction. But they also use chemicals known as pheromones. Each pheromone is specific to one species. And these are deposited from their facial glands, predominantly; from other areas too but the ones we’re thinking about are the ones from their facial glands. For people that don’t know cats so well, when you look at a cat’s face and you can see those balding patches in front of their ears, between their eyes and their ears, that’s a big area of scent glands. Behind the whiskers and under the chin and just at the corners of the lips as well. They’re areas that produce a lot of these pheromones, and the chemicals have a specific function.

An interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis about her book The Trainable Cat. Here, A cat rubs scent on a tree and deposits pheromones, something Ellis explains
Photo: plastique (
And we believe – there has been some research done  although we do need a lot lot more – but we believe that cats facial rub on objects, protruding objects like the corners of walls or protruding parts of furniture, because they are depositing these pheromones. We know that they do reinvestigate areas that they have rubbed, so it’s not just a chemical message that they put down for others, we know that they will keep going back and investigating those areas and re-rubbing them, putting down more pheromones. It’s difficult to know the exact function but we believe it’s something to do with enhancing their perceived security within an area, and their perceived familiarity within an area. Certainly we have observed cats performing this behaviour at the periphery of their territory.

And so if that’s the case, and if it means that the cat feels more secure and more familiar when something is impregnated with these pheromones, and when they do that it won’t just be the pheromones that go down it will be their scent that’s related to their identity as well. We know that cats can discriminate based on urine output, based on faecal output, and actually we’re just starting to look at research to suggest whether they can on scent from the body as well as from the facial gland region. So what we’re doing is we’re basically collecting those pheromones and all the scent of that cat and then placing that onto something that is new or novel. By doing that it’s like the cat pre-facial rubbed that object, and therefore it is less daunting to the cat. It should be perceived as slightly more familiar. A little bit like, I say to people when we take a child out of their comfort zone of their home, they’ll often take a comfort blanket with them or their favourite teddy. They’re taking something that is safe and secure and familiar, and then when they hold it or when they smell it, or whatever they do with it, it brings them feelings of comfort and safety.

Zazie: That’s a great analogy.

Sarah: That’s why we collect the scent and we do it simply by rubbing those facial gland areas and then rubbing whatever it is we want to impregnate with that scent. You can also do it, if you were taking a cat to a new location, you can just use the bedding that that cat normally uses.

Zazie: Thank you. So throughout the book it’s all about using rewards to train cats, but unfortunately some people sometimes use punishment like spraying water. Why is it so important not to use punishment with a cat?

Sarah:  There’s a few reasons. The first thing to say is that it’s not that punishment isn’t effective. I think to get people on side they have to understand that punishment will, by the very nature it’s called punishing a behaviour, it will stop a behaviour. But if that punishment is seen to be coming from you, you are also then perceived as punishing, therefore you are not perceived in a positive light. And therefore it can really damage the relationship that you have with that cat because for a punisher to really work it has to be really aversive. To stop that behaviour it has to be stronger than the motivation to perform the behaviour. Therefore if it’s that aversive, and the cat associates you as being that aversive, you’re going to really damage your relationship with that cat. Now, you’re in your cat’s life all the time, you feed the cat, you do other positive things with the cat, so you’re suddenly giving this cat very very ambiguous signals that ‘sometimes I’m nice, and sometimes I’m not.’ That can put the cat into a state of anxiety and in extreme cases the cat could even begin to fear you. So you actually can then begin to create a situation where the cat hasn’t just stopped performing the behaviour you wanted it to stop performing, it’s now actively avoiding you or actively fearful of you.

Zazie: Towards the end of the book you have a lovely section about things to do with your cat and which might stop your cat from getting bored, like cat agility and a sensory box. Can you just say a little bit more about that and why it’s so important?

Sarah: It’s really important because if we look back to the animal that the cat has descended from, we see an individual that spends a huge part of its day exploring its territory, investigating the environment and hunting and working for its food. Now although we have domesticated the cat, and although in many cases through pedigree breeding we have changed how it physically looks, rightly or wrongly, we haven’t actively selected for specific behavioural traits in the cat. So we haven’t bred out of them the need to be territorial, we haven’t bred out of them the need to hunt. These instincts still exist in the cat and therefore they still have a motivation to actively explore their environment and to be searching for food and finding food. When opportunities for these behaviours are not freely available, we can put the cat at risk of poor welfare because they can be motivated to do something that there’s not an opportunity to do. And this is particularly so for the cats that don’t have outdoor access and that are indoors-only.

By using training, we can set up situations where we provide an alternative outlet for those behaviours the cat still instinctively wants to perform. So through training the fact that they are actually working for their food, they are having to problem solve, they are learning that their behaviour has consequences, and it is much of what happens when a cat is hunting. If a cat makes the wrong move in hunting, and it lets the prey escape, there are no rewards. The consequence is that the prey has gone and the cat will not perform that behaviour again. It’s having to constantly think and readjust its behaviour. And that’s exactly what we provide through training. And with food there is the same ability for consumption.

An interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis about her book, The Trainable Cat, and how to train cats. It's important to provide enrichment like here, a ginger and white cat in a box
Photo: Belozerova Daria; top, Xseon; both Shutterstock

By using things like agility we can add in that element of exploring the physical environment. So often owners don’t want their cats to climb on the furniture, on any shelf or mantel piece where we put up knick-knacks, pictures frames, whatever it is that we don’t want the cats to go up there because we’re worried about them knocking those things off. But if we talk to owners about doing agility with their cats in their home, then they start to think about their home in a different way. They start to imagine how their home could be utilized more by their cat. So I think it gives them that little change of perception and gives the cat that opportunity for that physical activity.

The sensory box again is a little bit like bringing the outdoors in. It’s really important for indoor-only cats. Cats are used to their environment – although they like to keep their inner circle, their core territory, familiar to them by constantly scent marking on it, they are used to lots and lots of change in their environment. Because naturally their environment would be outdoors. One of the reasons that they patrol is that they’re checking to see what changes have happened. The indoor environment can be incredibly stagnant and there isn’t this sort of sensory change. And we so are providing some of that stimulation by bringing some of the outdoors into the home.

Zazie: Fantastic. So if somebody reads the book and they’re really keen to learn more about cats, presumably you would refer them to International Cat Care. What kinds of resources can people find there?

Sarah: Yeah definitely. International Cat Care has a vast amount of free resources on our website, within our advice section, on all areas of behaviour, including clinical behaviour if people are experiencing problem behaviours with their cat. We also on our youtube channel have a number of how-to videos including some videos for training. There are three videos on how to train your cat to go in a cat carrier, one video on how to train your cat to do a recall, and we will be producing over time more training videos. For those that have really got hooked on behaviour and training now and want to do a lot more and understand cats a lot more, we are producing two new distance education online courses on feline behaviour. One of the courses is for vets, vet nurses and vet technicians, and the other course is for cat owners, and pet professionals working outwith the veterinary profession, in rehoming and welfare organizations, breeders, cat-sitters, all those types of jobs.  Both of those courses have a full module on training so we will be covering it in great depth and having the opportunity for a lot more support, and getting the opportunity to get feedback on your own individual training skills. Our first course runs in mid-November but the registration is open until the end of October. And then we’ll run again in May next year.

We’ve got people registered at the moment from 14 different countries. It’s really great, because we really really want to encourage peer support across the world and keep disseminating information amongst each other. Once the courses are finished we hope to set up an alumni group so people can keep supporting each other in all the different ways they work.

Zazie: Brilliant. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me! I think your book is wonderful and it’s going to make a huge huge difference to so many cats. 

Dr. Sarah Ellis is Feline Behaviour Expert at International Cat Care. You can follow her on twitter and facebook, and find more information about the feline behaviour courses

The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis is published by Basic Books.

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