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STEP 34 – It

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Use training and a process of conditioning to create positive associations as a means to introduce your cat to new things around the home, rather than expecting her to ‘put up with them’ which, more often than not, will not work.

In this step I will show you how to introduce new things to your cat by creating a positive association. Make sure your cat is always below her threshold of arousal, otherwise she will not learn anything.

Cats make an association between 2 things that always take place at the same time, e.g. a collar and wet food, getting groomed and receiving a treat, you getting up and getting wet food, etc.

This is different from habituation, where you expose your cat to e.g. grooming or the carrier, without combining this with something she thinks is fun or tasty. So habituation is simply about exposing your cat, while your cat is below her threshold of arousal (otherwise she’ll make a negative association) and about hoping that she thinks it is ‘okay’. That is why, with adult cats (cats older than 1.5 years), we do not want to take the risk of letting them ‘get used’ to new things, but need to train them to make a pleasant association.

From now on we almost exclusively talk about training, so pay attention! I love talking about training!

What happens when you’re teaching your cat to make an association? There is always one of 2 items that do not mean anything to your cat (yet), such as a collar or a carrier (of course this will only be the case if your cat was never exposed to either before). And on the other hand, you have something that your cat intrinsically likes, such as eating or playing (or being petted but only if she is very well socialised and loves this. Do not jump to conclusions too easily here).

When you offer both of these items to your cat over and over again at the same time, after a while your cat will feel and show the same physical and emotional reaction when she observes the non-significant item as when she observes the intrinsic motivation. This gives that new item value, which is the goal of our training.

Simply put: you associate something you NEED your cat to like with something fun or tasty so that she learns to like it of her own accord. That is the basis of what we want to achieve.

Practical step-by-step plan – Training your cat to like something

Step 1: Start training your cat when she is completely at ease, in a place where she is alone with you and where she feels good. You can leave your cat on the floor and get down to her level, or you can put her at a safe height and train her there. I think the best height is anything above chest level.

Step 2: Look for something your cat intrinsically likes. Usually this will be wet food, treats (depending on the association you want to create), dry food with high levels of protein, chicken breast, sour cream, something liquid (like a healthy liquid snack) or a tasty dry food etc. It must be something she really loves. You can also change this throughout the training as your cat may need variation.

Step 3: For cats who do not respond to food, it becomes a little more challenging. Here you need to research what is a powerful and cool way to reward your cat. Alternatives are:

  • A spoonful of cat milk or liquid sweets from which she can take 2 to 3 licks per reward moment
  • A short petting session or a scratch under her chin (max. 10 seconds)
  • A hug at the place the Cat Scan (STEP 15 of the Cat Matrix®) showed she prefers.
  • A little toy mouse you are holding and play with for 10-15 seconds before putting it behind your back again
  • A twig or a feather you move across the table or floor your cat can have a swing at
  • Think of something yourself, you know your cat best

Step 4: Put whatever you want her to associate with something nice or tasty, e.g. a collar, a comb, the new cat carrier, near your cat, yet at a safe distance so that it doesn’t startle her. She will probably want to come closer and smell it. Let her! As soon as she has smelled and processed it (after licking it with her tongue, yawning, whiskers pointing forward again), put a plate of wet food about 20 centimetres away from the item. Repeat this for a few days over a few sessions.

Step 5: Hold the item (collar, comb, brush, pair of scissors) in front of her, let her smell it and give her a reward immediately afterwards. Make sure you give the reward in such a way that she can eat it easily and quickly. I like to use kibble with a high fresh meat content because cats like the lovely strong smell. Not all cats like to eat out of your hand, so put the reward in front of your cat, on the floor if necessary. You may have to let her smell it first because, as you remember, cats do not see sharply at close distance. If you work with a cat carrier or a certain area in your home, put treats in the carrier or in that place when she is around.

Step 6: Build on from there by making further, more intense and longer contact with the item and reward her immediately afterwards with a single and short treat. Take little steps, go further and go back, make it fun! Repeat this a dozen times.

Here are a few examples:

  • Hold the collar close to your cat’s neck
  • Hold your comb or brush close to her coat, combined with touching her coat with the back of the brush; first 1 second and gradually extending
  • Hold her paw or gently push her paw pad to make her nail appear.
  • Put the nail scissors against her paw

Make sure you don’t build up in one straight line, but take one step forward (a bit closer, a bit longer) and one step back (further away from your cat, less long), then 2 steps forward again and one step back again, etc.

Step 7: Keep building up but always split up the steps so that you can reward each small step until your cat is happy to go through the whole process or at least not showing any signs of stress. Even though you have built up, don’t repeat the process more than 2 or 3 times. I mean e.g. a few short strokes, cutting one or 2 nails, but no more than that. And spread this out as much as possible over time. Do everything you can to prevent her from getting above her threshold of arousal.

Good luck!
Love, Anneleen

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