Merrily Duncan’s cats, Milo and Bill, play the piano. Not only that, they sit, roll over, jump through a hoop and ring a bell — all on command. Duncan, who trained them herself in her Reno home, does not see it as that remarkable.
Duncan saw a clip on TV about a Hollywood animal trainer and she started working with her cat, Milo, trying a variety of different things and discovering what was most effective.
“Any cat can learn, and you don’t need complicated instruction manuals,” said Duncan. “Training increases their safety because it gives you more control; it makes vet visits and medicating your cat easier, too. It alleviates boredom for indoor cats and it’s fun. It gives your cat another way of communicating with you which deepens the bond.”
When Duncan asks Bill, “Where’s my nose?” he gently pats her on the nose with his paw and promptly gets a tasty herring treat. When she says “shake hands,” he puts his paw in her hand as dutifully as any dog.
Duncan described how she trained Bill to shake hands: While the cat was sitting, she touched the back of his front leg gently. When he lifted his paw she placed her hand under it, quickly following up with a treat. Many repetitions and treat rewards later, Bill responds to her verbal request.
Most cats are not born pleasers, so you need to offer a reward at least during the learning stage. While free-feeding of cats is popular, Duncan recommends that adult cats eat only two to three times a day. This is not only healthier, but also makes it easier to use treats as a motivation for training.
Professional dog trainer PJ Wangsness of Reno agrees: “Cats can be taught anything, tricks or even agility training. You want to get success by keeping the training sessions fun, short and consistent — play is part of the training.”
Wangsness offers Kitten Kindergarten classes at Nevada Humane Society that include getting kittens used to going into their carriers, scratching only in acceptable places and cat-training basics.
In case you still have any doubts about the trainability of cats, YouTube videos of Dominique’s Circus Cats, Moscow Cat Theatre and Denis Ignatov’s performing cats will convince even the most skeptical and they are plain fun to watch for the rest of us.