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Most people don't contact me because their cat is behaving how they'd like. In fact, that's the majority of what I do: help cat owners solve behavior problems. As you'd expect, I hear a lot of different questions cat behavior. Whether I'm helping with a cat peeing outside the litter box or a cat that is getting on the counters, there are a few things frustrated cat parents seem to repeat:
"My cat won't get down when I tell him too!"
"She knows better than to do that. Why won't she stop?"
"Why isn't my cat understanding when I tell him not to do that?"
The questions may be phrased differently or use words that aren't particularly polite, but they all boil down to "why isn't my cat listening to what I'm saying?" Regardless of the actual question or the behavior the humans are frustrated with, there often is a simple explanation (and thankfully, a solution!)
Why Cats Don't Know What You're Saying
Let's use a human example. It's a bit of a ridiculous one, but it will hopefully help you figure out what the issue is.
Pretend you're sitting on your couch, watching TV or reading or knitting yourself a really cool cat dad dishcloth. Suddenly, there's a loud knocking at your door. It sounds urgent so you quickly get up to see who it could be. In a strange twist of events (which is only going to get stranger, just you wait), it is none other than me, Joey Lusvardi (the author of this blog in case you randomly stumbled upon it), at your door!
Before you even have a chance to process how I managed to figure out where you live, I begin shouting frantically, "Pommes! Il y a des pommes enflammées qui tombent du ciel! Tu dois te cacher!" Unless you happen to speak French, you likely are pretty dang confused at what I'm shouting. If you did know what I was shouting, that there are flaming apples falling from the sky so you need to take cover, you'd probably act on it pretty dang quickly rather than just standing there scratching your head.
Now I'll change the scenario a bit to make it a bit closer to what your cat is experiencing: If I shout at you in French, you'd likely pick up on the fact that I'm trying to communicate something to you. You might not understand the what (at least until you're hit in the face with apocalyptic fruit), but you'd likely understand the urgency and you may even know that I'm speaking French.
Imagine instead that a giant cow comes to the the door and rather than shouting at you in French, the cow just moos. They moo and moo and moo, but you can't seem to grasp why there is such a large bovine there mooing at you until, once again, a brimstone laced snack bops you on the head. It's possible, depending on how the cow moos, that you might understand that there is something bad happening, but you aren't going to have even the foggiest clue of what could be going on.
Silliness of this example aside, I hope it's clear what the problem is: you don't speak French or understand moos. Of course you don't understand what I, whether in human or giant cow form, am saying.
The same thing applies to your cat. They don't understand English/French/Spanish/Japanese/[insert any language you speak here]. Heck, they don't even have the ability to produce any speech themselves! When you tell your cat to get off the counter, you are essentially mooing at them like in the example I just shared. Your cat may understand that you're angrily mooing at them based on your tone or other behavior, but they may not know why you're angry at them or what you're telling them to do.
Your cat isn't listening to you because they don't understand what you are saying. It's really not any more complicated than that.
The same applies when I see people try to train their cat (or dog or any other animal, really) and they don't approach it the right way. Many people will simply repeat a command like "sit" over and over, then become frustrated when the animal doesn't sit. It's not that their cat is being naughty, spiteful, or anything else. They genuinely don't understand what you are trying to tell them. And really, you can't be mad at them for doing that, can you?
Can Cats Learn To Understand Us?
Thankfully, we absolutely can learn to communicate better with cats. In fact, we can learn to understand our cats' meows, too! We may not be particularly good at understanding cats, but with patience we can develop a way to understand each other.
One of the easiest methods to help communicate with a cat is by using clicker training. Clicker training involves teaching your cat a one word language that signals that what the cat is doing is going to lead to something they really like. Cats, much like humans, are very motivated to do things that get them a reward. Clicker training helps them understand what gets them a reward and it can even help them understand a few words if done correctly.
While that may sound intimidating, basic clicker training is actually pretty straightforward for most basic behaviors. Plus, it's much less work than trying to get your cat to do something in a way the cat won't understand. I'm available for virtual clicker training sessions, but if you want to try it on your own, a great resource is the Trainable Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis.
Even if you don't go the clicker training route, cats are pretty dang smart. They'll often figure out what gets them what they want or meets their basic needs on their own. You can figure out how to ask your cat to do certain things (without using a squirt bottle) in a way that both of you understand with some patience. You'll ultimately end up less frustrated with them if you remember that they genuinely don't understand what you're saying and not trying to be bad. It benefits you to think like your cat!
About the author: Joey Lusvardi CCBC is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. He is available for consultation in the Twin Cities or virtually wherever you are located.