Even Shy Shelter Cats Can Learn Tricks

Researchers show that even old or shy cats can learn new tricks like high five or sit.

Scientists clicker trained cats to do tricks, like this kitten doing a high five

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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If you think training cats is all the rage lately, you might be right. Recently I wrote about a study that found the best way to train cats was with food (rather than click-then-food or just click). Now another study, by Dr. Lori Kogan (Colorado State University) et al, investigates training shelter cats to do four different behaviours.

Not only did most of the cats learn the tricks, but it shows this is possible even in a shelter setting which is inevitably stressful for the cats.

100 shelter cats were taught to nose-target either a chopstick or the trainer’s finger, to spin, to sit, and to high-five (touch the trainer’s hand with one of their front paws). The trainers took the traditional clicker training approach, in which the click is a bridge that marks the behaviour and predicts a food reward.

Fifteen 5-minute training sessions took place over a 2 week period, at the end of which the cats were assessed to see how well they performed the behaviour on cue:

  • 79% of cats could nose-touch the target
  • 60% could spin
  • 31% could do a high-five
  • 27% could sit on cue.

This was significantly more than could do those behaviours prior to the training sessions. And when you include the cats who had learned to ‘almost’ do the behaviour – for example, almost sat but did not quite have the tailbone on the floor – you realize just how well the cats did. Considering the training was time-limited and took place in a stressful environment, some of the cats probably just needed a little more time.

Even old and shy cats can learn tricks, like this old ginger-and-white cat sitting
Photo: Juli Hansen; top, Sue McDonald. Both Shutterstock.

I asked Cheryl Kolus DVM, one of the authors of the study, what she would like shelter staff to know about the findings. She told me,
“I think the most important thing for shelter staff is that they can now reference the scientific literature that proves shelter cats can be clicker trained if they need to get buy-in from management about starting a clicker training program. 
“A couple other important things to note is that even if a cat appears fearful initially, many are still trainable, and that the social interaction can really help a cat adjust positively to the shelter environment.”
There are some really interesting findings to do with food motivation and shyness too. The cats that were rated as more highly food motivated at the start of the session did better than those who were not at the two behaviours of high-five and nose-touching the target. Cats who were rated as shy prior to the training did just as well at training as those that were not. And the age and sex of the cat did not make a difference either.

This shows that any cat (even those that are shy or older) can take part in a training program.

The cats had two training sessions a day using a standardized plan, and one trainer took the morning shift while another trainer did the afternoons. For the duration of the study, the cats were housed in a separate unit within the shelter at which they were based. Cats were trained in their cage or in a small or larger room, depending how comfortable they were with the situation and what else was happening in the unit at the time (e.g. the presence of volunteers spending time with the cats).

"Any cat (even those that are shy or older) can take part in a training program"

Food motivation was assessed prior to the training by offering each cat a lid with chicken baby food on and a lid with canned tuna. This was also used as a preference test as whichever food the cat went to first was then used as their reward during training. After the scientists had made some choices for cats who seemed unsure, 62% of the cats got canned tuna and 38% got chicken baby food.

Some cats were not very interested in these foods, and they were offered a variety of different foods including cat treats during the training sessions, until the trainers found one the cat liked. A few cats seemed uninterested in the food but very keen on petting and so got petting as a reward instead.

You can see the second author, Cheryl Kolus, demonstrating how to teach a cat to touch a target in this video.

Other research has found that training sessions for shelter cats are linked to more contented cats with better physical health, as assessed by behavioural signs such as normal grooming and by levels of Immunoglobulin A in stool samples.

The authors of this study suggest that clicker training could be a useful enrichment program for shelter cats. The results show that any cat can be trained, and age or shyness should not be considered exclusion criteria for training sessions. The researchers also showed flexibility in training the cats where they felt comfortable (in their cage if necessary). They say training sessions may help cats cope with the stressful environment of a shelter – and they may also help make potential adopters more interested in the cats.

They also point out that positive interactions with humans may help simply by encouraging the cats to come to the front of the cage or out into the room, where they are more visible to potential adopters.

Although studies that trained shelter dogs have not necessarily resulted in increased adoptions (see here and here), it may be different for cats, since it is quite unusual for a cat to have a party trick. It could make for some great “adopt-me” videos. I look forward to seeing future research on this!

If you want to know more about training cats, you might enjoy my interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis about her book (with John Bradshaw), The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat. And Cheryl Kolus DVM has some helpful resources including videos (such as the one above) on her website.

If you liked this post, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Modern Cat magazine calls it "a must-have guide to improving your cat's life."

The paper is open access and you can find it via the link below.

Kogan, L., Kolus, C., & Schoenfeld-Tacher, R. (2017). Assessment of Clicker Training for Shelter Cats. Animals, 7(10), 73. 

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