Cat high fiving human

How to reward your cat with and without treats

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You want your cat to do something specific? Or stop doing something specific? You can achieve this by rewarding her – with or without treats.

Don’t use punishment

Let’s get one thing straight right from the start: do not punish your cat! Punishment, such as spraying with water, making unpleasant noises, throwing objects, etc., will not make your cat do what you want. Instead, it’ll lead to your cat ignoring you or being stressed, with potential aggressive reactions and behavior problems. Also, your bond would suffer tremendously as you scare your kitty and lose her trust. Positive reinforcement is the best answer to the question of how to make your cat listen to you.

What is positive reinforcement?

In a nutshell, it involves giving your cat something she likes when she displays desired behavior. The reward will increase the likelihood she’ll show the behavior again.1

It works with your cat’s natural behavior learning patterns. Once your cat learns a behavior, such as opening a door, she’ll remember and try it repeatedly. However, it’s very hard for cats to unlearn behavior.2 So you absolutely must avoid inadvertently reinforcing negative behavior.

The golden rule of timing

Cat sitting on command and waiting for her reward

Be quick with rewarding wanted behavior. Definitely follow up within 3 seconds, or don’t at all. If you wait too long your cat won’t be able to connect her action with the reward. So, you need to promptly decide whether the action you’ve observed is moving in the right direction or not. Obviously, for that, you’ll need to know what this behavior should look like. Now, let’s dive into how to reward your cat effectively, whether with treats or without.

How to reward your cat

1. Define what good behavior you want to encourage

If you don’t necessarily want to teach your cat a cool trick, you probably want her to do something different, i.e., exhibit more or less of a certain behavior. You’ll need to provide her with alternatives. For example, if you don’t want your cat on the kitchen counter, you should offer a replacement that provides her with the same benefits: A dedicated shelf or chair that features elevated height, stability, or a specific view (over the kitchen or outside the window). You’ll want to talk in your “baby voice” when your cat uses this replacement, or pet her, and ignore her if she uses the counter. She will soon start to seek out your attention from the shelf or chair.

2. Choose the right reward

Many trainers emphasize the effectiveness of treats as a primary training reward, and they are often the go-to choice. However, there are occasions when you may prefer not to use them for various reasons. Let’s explore which reward option might be the best fit for your cat.

Rewarding a cat with treats
  • Treats
    • Great when your cat is motivated by food. To find out if that’s the case, you can just grab a treat, show it to her, and then walk a few steps, and see if she’s following you. If she’s walking to you or running on your side, maybe even meowing, treats are a great choice to reward her (don’t forget to give her that treat).
    • Avoid if she’s not food motivated, obese, or too greedy / food aggressive. (This can happen when cats grow up without getting enough food or had to fight for it. Read our post about the right amount of food for cats at any age if you want to know more about it.) You don’t want her to grab your hands or try to snatch anything out of them. Also, if you are scared because your little tiger is too greedy, try one of the other reward options.
  • Attention & voice
    • A joyful “good kitty” or use of “baby voice” can be a reward in itself. Cats often respond positively to praise and a gentle tone.3
    • Probably not the most efficient if your cat is deaf.
  • Petting
    • Goes without saying, most cats love to be pet.
    • Some cats don’t like to get much physical stimulation, especially if you are trying to be quick about it (remember the 3-second rule). If your cat flinches, or tucks her head into her shoulders when you try to quickly pet her, this reward is not for her.
  • Grooming
    • Some cats love a good brushing, and if yours does too, it can be a fantastic reward.
    • Be careful! Since you need to be quick you’re in danger of poking your kitty with the brush.
  • Play
    • For cats who aren’t as food-motivated or are on a restricted diet, a short play session with their favorite toy can be a great reward.4
    • Playing can be kind of distracting, since usually cats are in “training mode” instead of “play mode” while you teach them. Also, most seniors play less and might not continuously want to play in a training session.
  • Catnip
    • Lots of cats love the smell and taste of this natural treat.
    • It makes quite a mess, and not every cat reacts to it. It’s also hard to use it for continuous training. We suggest this as a rare treat because it’s very distracting. Also, catnip tends to have a calming effect when eaten, and you do want your kitty’s attention.
Rewarding cat with catnip

3. Implement the reward system

  • Start in a quiet environment to minimize distractions.
  • When she exhibits the desired behavior, immediately reward her with your chosen method.
  • Be consistent. If multiple people live in your home, ensure everyone knows the desired behavior and how to reward it.
  • To keep your cat engaged and identify her favorite rewards, you can occasionally switch up the rewards. Once you find the perfect one, stick to it.
  • Adjust based on her health and age. For example, an older cat might prefer more gentle grooming to play.

Now it’s your turn to try it out

With a clear understanding of how to reward your cat with or without treats and the right techniques at your fingertips, it’s time to put your newfound skills into action. You’ll enjoy rewarding your cat as it is a simple and effective tool for creating a positive environment where both you and your cat can thrive. Remember, patience and consistency are the keys to success. Celebrate those small victories, and cherish the stronger bond you’re building with your beloved feline companion.

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