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Is Your Cat Motivated by Food? Of Course!

If you’re interested in training you understand that motivation is important. Just as with dogs, dolphins and elephants, cats can be motivated for training with food as well as attention, petting and praise. Are they more difficult to motivate than dogs or other animals? Not necessarily. As with all training, it depends on the individual, their environment and some other related factors. Each animal has a unique set of things they find motivating. That is to say, things they will do work for. As a general rule, food is very powerful, convenient and reliable motivator for training. This question of food motivation in our kitties is actually not the right question. The reality is that cats MUST be motivated to get food or of course they would starve! So where does this idea (that cats are not able to be food-motivated for training) come from? Two common contributors stem from our typical habits in caring for cats:

  1. We generally free-feed our house cats
  2. Kittens are generally not introduced to a variety of foods while they are young and so develop narrow and less flexible preferences from an early age.

So, it’s not really accurate to say that a cat (or any other animal for that matter), is not food motivated. It’s just that the cat is not particularly motivated given certain environmental conditions and/or past experiences. These factors can both be addressed to help build food motivation for training or enrichment in your kitty.

Scheduled feeding

Switching from free feeding to scheduled feeding can be just that simple. Be sure to offer meals at least twice per day, but 3 or 4 smaller meals may be even better. Scheduled feeding brings additional benefits. Knowing exactly how much your cat eats will help to maintain a healthy weight. You will be able to make sure everyone in a multi-cat home is getting their fair share. Since your cat’s appetite is one of the most important indicators of how she is feeling, scheduled feeding will help tip you off early if there are any health concerns.

Introducing variety

Introducing new food items can be really easy and straight-forward for many cats. Experiment around with a variety of flavors, odors and textures. All of these are important food attributes that cats have preferences about. Even appearance can be a factor for some cats so consider this as you find foods your cat likes.

With that being said, there are many cats who are not such easy-going chow-hounds but who are more discerning and resistant to trying new foods. If you have a young kitten, you can prevent this problem by introducing a variety of foods early on. If you missed the kitten-hood window with your adult cat, it may not be too late, it just may take a little more doing.

Get on a food schedule first to help build motivation to try new stuff. From there it may be as simple as leaving the new food item available while regular food gets pulled away between feedings. You can also just try offering the new item along with the regular food for several days. Often cats just need a little time to get used to the presence of the new food and they will eventually get brave and try a taste. Place the new food in a separate dish to allow your cat a choice. Rather than being forced to contend with a new food, it is just available nearby when they are hungry and enjoying their meal. Additional benefits of broadening your cat’s food preferences are that it may help if you need to transition to a prescription diet at some point in life. Also, it definitely helps to have options if you need to disguise medications in food.

Introducing training

So your cat is eager for the food treats but you still are having a tough time getting the clicker training to work? Well, many cats are very easily food motivated but they just aren’t used to having to do anything in particular, in other words,  work for food. It’s important to introduce the idea gradually and always in a fun way.

The most important thing to remember when training any animal, is to take small enough steps to build the confidence and clarity of understanding for your learner. If you are starting with teaching your cat to touch its nose to a target maybe you need to click and treat just for whiskers on the target, making a slight motion toward the target, even just looking at the target. Just learning to take food from your hand or off the table or floor may be the starting point for your shy kitty. Don’t get married to instant understanding and you will likely be surprised when your cat’s interest in training or enrichment really starts to take off.

After training exotic animals in zoos and aquariums since the early 1990’s, Megan began consulting dog, horse and cat owners in 2006. She achieved her dog training certification in 2007 and received her Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant credential from the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants in 2013.

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