The Trainable Cat

A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat


By John Bradshaw

By Sarah Ellis

Formats and Prices




$17.99 CAD



  1. ebook $13.99 $17.99 CAD
  2. Trade Paperback $17.99 $22.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 13, 2016. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

“I have to hand it to Bradshaw and Ellis: Once you suss out their basic cat-training philosophy, their methods totally work.” — Slate

We often assume that cats can’t be trained, and don’t need to be. But in The Trainable Cat, bestselling anthrozoologist John Bradshaw and cat expert Sarah Ellis show that cats absolutely must be trained in order to enrich the bond between pet and owner. Full of training tips and exercises — from introducing your cat to a new baby to helping them deal with visits to the vet — The Trainable Cat is the essential cat bible for cat owners and lovers.

“I doubt you’ll find a more well-informed or scientific book on cats that better shows you how feline thinking works.” — Times (UK)



How Cats Learn

And what you can do to make it easy for them

TRAINING A CAT IS NOT A MYSTERIOUS PROCESS, BUT IT WILL make sense only with an understanding of how cats learn. Cats may have a reputation for inscrutability, but they are actually very adaptable animals, and they learn in just the same way that all mammals do—including dogs. Cats are just as smart as dogs; it’s just that they have their own motivations and priorities, and because these are less widely appreciated than those of dogs, cats have acquired a reputation for being untrainable. Nothing could be further from the truth: cat owners can easily acquire the skills and knowledge they need to change their cat’s behavior, and not just for their own benefit but for their cat’s, too. Cats can be taught that commonplace situations that they instinctively dislike, such as being brushed or being put into the cat carrier, can in fact be pleasurable experiences rather than something to fear. Moreover, an appreciation of how cats learn is also key to understanding much of their everyday behavior, for cats are much more responsive than their reputation for stubbornness and independence might suggest.

MANY OWNERS SEEM UNAWARE THAT THEIR CATS ARE LEARNING all the time. When we asked Mrs. Smith if she thought that Smoky, her cat, had learned much in the past week, she replied. . . .

Smoky hasn’t really learned anything recently as she has spent most of the week indoors. She usually likes pottering around outside when I am out at work but she hates getting wet and we have had an awful few days of rain. She is a really sweet affectionate cat and we often enjoy cuddles on my lap but to be honest, this week, she has been a bit of a pest. I have had the week off work and have been trying to get some baking done while I cannot get out in the garden. Smoky has, however, had other ideas and has been jumping up on the kitchen worktop as I have been trying to bake. I kept telling her that she was a silly girl as I lifted her off the worktop and gave her a quick but affectionate fuss. Even when the cake was in the oven and I went to check my e-mails, she kept getting in the way and trying to sit on the laptop. You would think that the fact she got some fuss from me would have satisfied her and let me get on with my jobs, but it didn’t. In the end, on both occasions, I ended up feeding her early so I could get on with what I was trying to do. And even though the weather has brightened up today, Smoky has decided to stay in and pester me, rather than go outside and get some fresh air. She is driving me to despair.

What Mrs. Smith seemed not to realize was not only how much Smoky had learned on those few rainy days but also just how much she had unintentionally influenced that learning.

First, we can tell from Smoky’s behavior that she had already learned that going outside when it is raining makes her cold and wet, and so it is better to stay inside where it is dry and warm. She had also learned that her owner does not go off to work every day but sometimes stays at home, and, as she is the kind of cat that enjoys her owner’s company, had found that staying inside in the daytime would give her this reward. However, Smoky had also observed that Mrs. Smith sometimes did things that did not involve her, and as a consequence, she was not always paying her the attention she desired. By placing herself in between Mrs. Smith and the task she was focused on—the kitchen worktop or the laptop—Smoky got some attention. Mrs. Smith thought that Smoky understood when she told her not to interfere, but in Smoky’s mind, being picked up and talked to was positive attention. It did not matter that Mrs. Smith was telling Smoky she was a “naughty girl”: all Smoky understood was the tone of voice—which was gentle—and that jumping up resulted in a cuddle. Even better, when Smoky did this several times, she got fed quicker—the jackpot! Having learned that getting in between Mrs. Smith and whatever task she was doing resulted in attention . . . and . . . (bonus!) . . . food, Smoky was bound to try the very same behavior again the next day. Inadvertently, Mrs. Smith had taught Smoky that behaving in this way leads to good outcomes (generally getting in the way produces food!). If Mrs. Smith had fully understood how Smoky learns, she might have gone about her actions slightly differently, achieving some peaceful baking and laptop time while still keeping Smoky happy.

Cats learn all the time, regardless of whether we are intentionally trying to teach them something. Some associations are learned after just a single exposure, especially if the outcome is unpleasant: for example, the cat that strays into a neighbor’s garden and gets chased by their dog will have immediately learned never to enter that garden again, or at least never when it can see that the dog is there. Other events need several repetitions to consolidate the learning to the point where the cat reliably changes his behavior in those circumstances; for example, a cat may need to receive food treats several times from a new visitor to the home before changing the way he behaves toward this person.

Different experiences will have differing outcomes for the cat. Some will be consistently positive, others consistently negative and many will be neutral (i.e., either the cat hasn’t noticed the outcomes or has found them of no concern either way). Further experiences can either reinforce what has previously been learned in that particular situation (if the outcome remains the same) or start to teach something new (if the outcome changes—for example, from something nice to something less nice). All these experiences and outcomes are processed in the brain where learning takes place, memories are laid down and emotions and feelings arise. These in turn will all influence how the cat behaves, not just at the time but also in the future.

THE SIMPLEST TYPE OF LEARNINGCOMMON TO ALL ANIMALS that possess a nervous system, from worms to humans, and so simple that it’s debatable whether it can really be called learning—is known as habituation. This is a way in which animals learn to ignore those parts of their environment that have no special consequences and are therefore irrelevant. Upon repeated exposure to such things or events, cats learn to perceive them as harmless and so ignore them. For an animal as well endowed with sense organs as the cat is, continually focusing on the irrelevant diverts vital attention and energy away from events that may have an impact on survival—for example, nearby prey or predators. Thus, habituation is a vital learning process. For example, a kitten that arrives in a new home may startle when it first hears the ring of its new owner’s mobile phone. However, after several repetitions of that phone ringing, the kitten will have learned that nothing happens at this time of any relevance and therefore will stop reacting to the ringing sound. In technical terms, the kitten has habituated to the sound of the mobile phone. Habituation is therefore an important process of learning, not just for kittens, but also for adult cats experiencing new environments such as moving to a new home. Cats, just like us, have to learn what is important and what is not, if only to avoid sensory overload.

Sensitization is the opposite of habituation. In this process, repeated exposure to an event leads to an increased reaction from the animal, as opposed to the reduction in response and eventual ignoring that characterizes habituation. The crucial difference is that now, the repeated exposure is to something that the cat instinctively dislikes. For example, several visits to the vet’s that include unpleasant experiences, such as an injection, can lead to the cat becoming fearful of the vet, even on subsequent visits when the vet is friendly to the cat and no injection is planned. Also once a cat has become sensitized to one situation, it may show the same reaction in other similar circumstances. For example, the same cat may become wary or fearful of new people who simply look, sound or even smell like the vet. He may even become fearful of new environments that remind him of the trip to the vet. Sensitization is a powerful protective mechanism that helps cats avoid anything they perceive as potentially dangerous. One of our goals in training cats will be to teach them that encounters with vets—and many other situations—do not need to be perceived as potentially dangerous, thereby preventing sensitization before it has a chance to occur.

Both habituation and sensitization change the strength of the cat’s existing reactions, but they don’t help the cat to develop any new responses: for this, more complex learning processes are required. The most straightforward of these, known as classical conditioning, occurs when a cat finds out that some specific event reliably predicts that something else is about to happen. When a cat meows and runs to his owner as soon as he hears the cupboard that contains the cat food opening, he is responding to classical conditioning. The cat has learned that the sound of that cupboard door (in itself, a meaningless sound) predicts that food is on its way. Several repetitions of hearing the cupboard open just before the food arrives are needed for the cat to learn the predictive value of the sound. Once such learning has taken place, that specific sound elicits positive feelings in the cat’s mind similar to those triggered by smelling or tasting the food. The cat does not have to learn that tasty food makes him feel good; this is an involuntary response, built into the cat. What the cat does learn is that things other than the taste and sight of food can create such feelings: in this case, the sound of the cupboard door. Such a learning process relies on a consistent pairing—the sound of the cupboard door always being followed quickly by the presentation of food. To begin with, the cat may make mistakes, such as responding to the sound of any kitchen cupboard opening, but most are then able to refine what they know, by learning that only the distinctive sound of that cupboard is reliably followed by the appearance of food.

CLASSICAL CONDITIONING HELPS A CAT TO MAKE BETTER SENSE OF its environment, but a different kind of learning, operant conditioning, is needed for the cat’s behavior to change. Operant conditioning involves the consequence of a cat’s own actions influencing how it feels and, thus, what behavior it should feel like performing next. The consequences that result from any behavior can be classified into four different types (see nearby box).1

Operant conditioning explains why Mrs. Smith’s behavior caused her cat to jump up and impede what she was doing, not just once but several times. The positive feelings caused by the stroking, gentle talking and being fed encouraged her cat to repeat the behavior of jumping up and interfering with what she was doing (i.e., Consequence 1). More formally, we would say that the behavior has been reinforced. By this, we mean that the cat has found that the behavior has a rewarding outcome, and, thus, he will be more likely to perform the behavior again, in an attempt to recreate the positive outcome.

For a cat to learn that any outcome is genuinely associated with his behavior, it is usually essential that the consequences (positive or negative) occur immediately. If not, the cat is unlikely to make the connection. However, in some instances classical conditioning can bridge the gap. For example, a cat may wander from the garden into the kitchen. The owner would like to reward this behavior (so that it occurs again) by giving the cat a food treat, but she may have none to hand at that precise moment. However, if the cat has already learned, through classical conditioning, that the sound and sight of the cat treat tin being touched is followed by a food reward, then simply by reaching for the (empty) cat treat tin at the moment the cat comes in from the garden, the owner will be able to “buy” herself some time to reward the cat with food: the action of reaching for the treat tin tells the cat that the real reward is on its way.

Cats do not respond well to anything nasty happening (unfortunately for them, dogs are much more tolerant in this respect). It is really important to be mindful of cats’ natural tendency to withdraw from the slightest sign of trouble. Although learning will undoubtedly occur as a result of something negative, and especially any sort of physical punishment, use of such punishment can have a disastrous effect on the cat-owner relationship. A cat that has been physically punished is highly likely to respond in one or even several negative ways. First, it may become fearful of its owner, and even become fearful of other people, through sensitization. The cat’s fear can be expressed as an aggressive response directed at whoever originally delivered the physical punishment or indeed, at anyone nearby. Fear can also cause a cat to try to escape or avoid further interaction of any kind. Additionally, the use of punishment generally causes a reduction in any kind of spontaneous behavior from the cat in the presence of the owner, thus making future training more difficult. Finally, punishment may tell the cat what not to do, but it doesn’t help him to learn what the right thing might be. Moreover, all of these outcomes are distressing for the cat and likely to have a detrimental effect on his quality of life. For cats, successful training relies on rewarding the desired behavior and ignoring unwanted behavior. Keeping this approach at the center of all training should ensure a positive relationship, as well as a successful and happy learning experience for both parties.


The four types of consequence that trigger operant conditioning2

Scenario: Your cat sits on a laminated floor in front of you. He suddenly jumps up on to your lap.

Consequence 1:

           Something good is presented (e.g., you give the cat a food treat)

Consequence 2:

           Something good can end or be taken away (e.g., you stop feeding the cat treats and ignore the cat)

Consequence 3:

           Something bad can start or occur (e.g., you stand up and walk away—or you push the cat back onto the floor)

Consequence 4:

           Something bad can end or be taken away (e.g., while he is on your lap, he is off the cold floor)


Although cats learn a great deal from their owners, they can also learn from other cats that they get along well with. Kittens naturally learn a lot from their mothers. Both kittens and adult cats will learn to perform a task quickly, after simply watching an experienced cat complete the same task. Cats that live together are often believed by their owners to have “taught” one another particular behaviors—for example, how to use the cat flap. It’s not clear whether the second cat actually learns how to perform the behavior directly from the other cat or whether the more skilled cat’s actions simply draw the other cat’s attention to the cat flap as something worth investigating. It’s also not known whether cats are capable of actually imitating our actions (probably not), but we can easily use their natural curiosity to draw their attention to those features of their environment that we want them to learn about. Then, by providing the appropriate consequences, owners can make sure that desirable behavior occurs again and unwanted behavior does not.

Cats learn spontaneously, all the time, mostly by discovering reliable associations between events or features in their environment, just as Smoky did. Thus, it is good practice to start observing your cat, paying attention to his body language after he performs certain actions and noticing whether you see the same behavior occurring over and over again. For example, can you decipher whether a particular action your cat performed led to a positive, neutral or negative outcome for your cat? Can you start to see patterns in your cat’s behavior? What do you think might have been the cause of your cat’s little quirks and idiosyncrasies?

CATS LEARN ALL THE TIME AS THEY GO ABOUT THEIR EVERYDAY lives, but we can boost their chances of learning what we want to teach them by ensuring that they are in the right frame of mind. Just like us, cats learn best when they’re comfortable and free from distractions. They are naturally sensitive creatures that flee from any threat or uncertainty; thus, the best place to teach a cat is somewhere he finds quiet and familiar. Just like people, cats need to be free from distraction if they are to learn effectively. Although most of us find it hard to ignore a ringing telephone, cats, with their acute senses of smell and hearing, can be distracted by things we barely notice. For example, both owner and cat may find it hard to focus when the noise of the washing machine indicates that it is on full spin cycle. However, the average person would barely notice the faint odor of a piece of frozen meat defrosting on the kitchen worktop, although it can be overwhelmingly enticing for a cat, tempting him to jump up on the worktop and investigate (cats are opportunists, and the chance of a free meal is something they rarely pass up). For a cat, distractions do not include only sounds that we might deem to be loud, irritating or unexpected but also enticing or unfamiliar smells and sights. For example, training in front of a window that looks out onto bird feeders may appear to be no problem to you, but the sight of birds fluttering around may engulf your cat’s attention, particularly if he is partial to hunting. Thus, before starting any training, it is important to think of what may be distracting from the cat’s perspective.

Also, just like us, cats learn best when they feel comfortable: not too thirsty, not too hot or cold, not too tired nor in need of relieving their bladder or bowels. Thus, when selecting where in your home to begin training your cat, make sure there is fresh water and a litter box available (or access to the outdoors if your cat does not use a litter box). The temperature should be comfortable, and your cat should have the opportunity to retreat or rest if he so desires. Herbie, for example, found it hard to concentrate on any training task when the log burner was well stoked; the warmth was just too irresistible. As an Asian (a breed that has a single coat, as opposed to the traditional double coat of the domestic short hair), Herbie was always seeking out a heat source. It was never long before he opted out of training in favor of lying full stretch, fast asleep in front of the stove when it was lit. Thus, I always carried out his training sessions before the stove was lit and we settled down for the night.

Cats don’t usually learn well immediately after they’ve eaten: a certain degree of hunger is needed before a food treat becomes rewarding. A food treat delivered immediately after a specific behavior acts as a positive outcome for a hungry cat, encouraging the cat to perform that behavior again. Thus, it is important that your cat is feeling hungry so that he is motivated to engage with you for a food treat. However, how hungry your cat is can influence how well he learns, and this in turn depends very much on his personality. Being too hungry can inhibit training, as the cat may be more focused on the food itself than on learning which specific actions of his are being rewarded.

Once the environment is set for minimal distraction and maximum comfort, the next stage to consider is the construction of the teaching toolbox. And not just metaphorically: it is literally a good idea to have some form of robust box in which to keep most of the training aids. Having everything in one handy place makes it possible to do a few minutes of training here and there, and to take advantage of teaching opportunities whenever they arise. Because cats spend a great deal of the day asleep, it is important to be ready to seize the moment for a short training session whenever you find they are awake and alert. Luckily, cats learn best in short bursts, and so taking advantage of these small windows of opportunity will naturally lead to the greatest success. As the cat learns that training is part of his daily routine, you may find that when you are around, he spends more time awake: after all, he now has a new, exciting, stimulating and engaging pastime to share with you.

By having all your training essentials in one portable container, the box itself can act as a signal to your cat that you are going to do some training. Very quickly, your cat will learn that when the box comes into view, he will soon have access to the exciting rewards inside (in itself, an example of classical conditioning), and, as a consequence, he will be engaged to work with you.

The rewards are the most important items in the training toolbox: successful teaching of a cat is ultimately based on being readily equipped to reward the behavior that you desire with something the cat really values. Rewards can take many forms. Cats, just like people and dogs, often become disinterested if they receive the same reward over and over again; therefore, it really is important to have a variety to hand so that the reward can be changed before the cat has had enough of any one type. This exact point is superbly illustrated by a study we conducted in which cats were repeatedly offered a toy to play with. When the toy presented was the same each time, the cats reduced the amount they played with it to almost nothing, showing they had become habituated. However, when the toy was changed for a different one each time, the cats continued to play, illustrating they were not “bored” with playing; they simply needed a fresh stimulus to remain motivated.3

At the beginning of training, the most important rewards are those known in the training world as primary reinforcers. These are things that cats instinctively find rewarding, and the most universal example is food. Being a carnivore, rewards comprised entirely of animal protein will be valued most highly by your cat. An ideal reward therefore consists of a tiny piece of cooked meat or fish (such as a quarter of a cooked prawn). Rewards with a high proportion of animal protein may also be useful, for example, a very small portion of the cat’s normal diet (a single biscuit or a single meat chunk from a foil pouch or tin) or shop-bought cat treats—semimoist or air-dried meat snacks are often preferred. If part of the cat’s daily food ration (treats or regular diet) is reserved for training rewards, training your cat using food should not result in him putting on weight. Part of his normal allowance can be weighed out or counted out for use in training and his regular feeds reduced correspondingly.

When teaching your cat something new, the rewards should come little and often. It is important that the rewards are small; first, so that they can be eaten quickly to allow you to speedily take up training where you left off before delivery of the reward, to keep learning momentum (cats generally eat more slowly than dogs), and second, to stop your cat from getting full too quickly. Cats generally prefer to eat small amounts often—recall that a free-ranging cat may eat ten small meals a day. As a guide, a single reward should be approximately half the size of your smallest fingernail.4

Cats, as a species, are often considered to be fussy when it comes to food, unlike dogs, many of which will eat anything and everything. Therefore, before starting training it is important to assess which food types your cat likes and just how much he likes them. There are lots of ways this can be done, from simply placing a selection of small pieces of food in front of your cat and seeing which he chooses to eat first, to trying different food types in puzzle feeders and seeing which ones motivate your cat to work at getting them out.

In fact, puzzle feeders are a great way to gear your cat’s brain for some human-led teaching. By extracting food from a specially made device, such as a food-dispensing ball or maze, your cat inevitably learns that it is his behavior that has resulted in the reward appearing, whether that behavior is rolling a ball or pulling the treat through a maze until he can reach it with his mouth. This learning comes about in three stages: identifying that there is food in the device, usually by smelling it or seeing or hearing you place it in there; the desire to obtain it; and finally, trying different ways to access the food. As your cat successfully obtains pieces of the food, he will learn that the action that immediately preceded this is the one he needs to try again in order to get more food. The same process occurs during more formal training, the only differences being that the trainer is the dispenser of food and that the way the food is presented can be adapted to help the cat learn the correct behavior more quickly than would happen through simple trial and error. Obtaining food rewards through puzzle feeders does involve considerable effort on the cat’s part, but evolution has designed cats for this, because even greater effort is needed when hunting for food in the wild. Thus, the process of working for food is intrinsically rewarding for a cat and thus something we can encourage through formalized training. Puzzle feeders help your cat learn that his behavior can have rewarding consequences, “switching on” those parts of the brain devoted to making new connections.


  • "Interesting premise.... The goal here is not to get your cat ready for the Big Apple Circus, but to make it easy for you to get your cat to do all the things many cats resist: swallow a pill, go to the vet, take a bath, or stop trying to disembowel your new cat."—Judith Newman, New York Times
  • "Do you want your cat to come when you call it, stop destroying the furniture or killing birds, and enjoy taking a walk on a leash? Then this is the book for you."—Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals
  • "You can train a cat to do just about anything a dog can do, except a cat may do it better! John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis illustrate how cats are trainable, but, more importantly, the authors bust long-held myths about cats and cat behavior along the way. As a result, both experienced stronger bonds with their purring pals."—Steve Dale, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant and author of The Good Cat!
  • "This book should be required reading for all cat lovers, including all veterinary professionals who work with cats."—Ilona Rodan, DVM, board certified feline specialist and coauthor of Feline Behavioral Health and Welfare
  • "Read this book. Your cat will thank you."—Julie Hecht, MSc, author of the Dog Spies blog on
  • "John and Sarah have demystified cat training, making it accessible to all cat lovers--from professionals to owners alike."—Miranda K. Workman, clinical assistant professor, animal behavior, ecology, and conservation, Canisius College
  • "I love this book! We often greatly underestimate the capabilities of our pet cats, and The Trainable Cat is a thorough yet completely accessible resounding YES in response to the question: Can you train a cat?"—Mikel Delgado, certified cat behavior consultant, scientist, and blogger

On Sale
Sep 13, 2016
Page Count
352 pages
Basic Books

John Bradshaw

About the Author

John Bradshaw is the foundation director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol, and author of the New York Times bestsellers Cat Sense and Dog Sense and coauthor of The Trainable Cat. He lives in Southampton, England.

Learn more about this author

Sarah Ellis

About the Author

Sarah Ellis is a feline behavior specialist at the charity International Cat Care and a visiting fellow at the University of Lincoln. She lives in Wiltshire, England.

Learn more about this author