As you know, I’m food motivated when it comes to training (and just about anything else!). But I get asked pretty often, What can I do if my cat isn’t food motivated? How to train cats that turn up their noses at tasty tidbits can be tricky. But it can be done.
The secret to training a cat without treats is finding something that they do love, and reward them with that. It could be praise, affection, playtime with their favorite toys. Or it might just be that they really can be trained with food, and you just haven’t figured out the right formula yet. Let me help you with each of these scenarios.
Is your cat really not food motivated? Let’s find out.
Are you free feeding your cat? That could be one reason they are indifferent to any food offerings during training. When your cat has access to food all the time, chances are they are overeating, or at least they are never hungry. In other words, the concept of “save room for dessert” has just never occurred to them! So they will be less than enthusiastic about food rewards.
If you really want to to train your cat — especially if you are working on something practical, like harness and leash training, or getting used to a pet carrier — you may want to stop free feeding them. Put them on a feeding schedule instead, and only give them enough food for one meal. Don’t overfill their bowl. Also start introducing a variety of foods, if your cat is used to just one food, and see if you can broaden their palate. That’s also helpful.
Another reason your cat may not care about food during training is that you aren’t offering something that is high value enough. My human has a variety of treats for me, with a variety of values. If one type of treat doesn’t work that day, she tries something that I get more excited about. When she really wants my attention, she’ll use a squeeze up treat or fresh roast chicken. I really, really love those! But usually the regular treats work fine. See if there’s any food or treat your cat goes crazy over during non-training times and try that.
Food still not working? What other reward can you offer?
The important thing to remember when training a cat is that you must reward them with something they love. Not something you think they might like; something they for sure adore. So what does your cat like that you can give them? For non-food motivated cats, it usually boils down to praise and affection or playtime.
Praise and affection
In spite of the popular misconception that cats are aloof, a surprising number of us kitties love to be praised. We also usually have a couple of spots where we especially love being petted. Positive reinforcement is not just a training tool, it’s a way to deepen your relationship with your cat, and encourage better behavior.
See if your cat responds to emphatic and sincere praise, and maybe a skritch under the chin, or butt pat. Whatever they love physically that doesn’t overstimulate them. Cats that respond to this kind of reward are often awesome, loving kitties, and your training sessions should be joyful and pleasant.
Here’s thing to remember — in general, but especially with this type of cat. Never get mad at your cat during training or when they misbehave. It’s damaging to your cat’s spirit, it can cause them to lose trust in you, and it will make them less likely to want training sessions with you.
Playing as reward
Especially if you have a kitten or younger cat, they may love to play and never get enough of it. So take their very, very favorite toy and instigate a play session with them…but add a training session in the middle of it. Introduce the new element, such as sit and stay, ringing a bell, or becoming familiar with a harness, as if it is part of the game you are playing with them. (Which, really, it is.) Make it fun, and when they perform well, praise them and go right back into using the toy. They may be a little puzzled at first, but if you persist, they may catch on that the thing you want them to do is part of game.
What does your cat enjoy?
All cats are different, and yours may have things or routines that nobody else would possibly consider. So think about what your cat enjoys, and come up with ways to include that as part of a training session. Doing this takes all the drudgery out of training — for both of you. Because what’s more enjoyable than having a good time with your cat? And that’s what training should really be about.
Here are more cat training posts you may find helpful: