When a customer has problems training their cat, the #1 excuse I hear is:
"I can't train my cat because it's not food motivated"
Cats, like any animal, are programmed for survival. Some motivators and emotions allow us to thrive in the world. There are 5 motivators in all animal behavior and food it's one of them:
- Not be harmed
- Produce Offsprings
- Get more of the good stuff
- Get less of the bad stuff
Cats that are not food motivated or don't like treats can still be trained. They are usually not food motivated because they are eating too much outside the training sessions, the treats we are using are not appealing enough or they don't understand clicker training altogether.
Let's review what you can do to train a cat that's not food motivated:
Why is My Cat Picky With Treats?
Stop Free Feeding Your Cat
Free feeding is to allow your cat to eat whenever they want. In other words, if there’s always a bowl of dry food or kibble available for them.
Not limiting the amount of food or the moments when your cat eats is not a good idea if you are working hard to clicker train them. Free feeding impacts not only your cat’s health but also your bond with them and their food motivation.
Because we are going to use food as a reward when doing clicker training, we want to control when our cat is eating. If you are free feeding your cat, my recommendation is that you put your cat on a schedule.
There are a bunch of mistakes people make when training a cat, free feeding being one of them. I put together a video helping you train your cat up to 3X times faster:
I feed my cat Mia 3-4 times a day, every 6h to 8h. I am aware that not everyone is home all day waiting for their cats meal time. If that’s your case as well, there are automatic feeders available for both kibble and wet food.
By feeding your cat on a schedule, you can strategically place the training sessions before feeding time and that will increase your cats appetite and interest for the rewards you offer.
It is very important that your cat eats enough food during the transition period to scheduled feeding. Cats are not metabolically designed to use fat stores and they livers get easily overwhelmed.
Switch to a Wet or Raw Diet
Because cats are not designed to eat kibble, commercial brands enrich it with lots of flavor and smell so that our cats will eat it. Kibble then it's very strong in flavor and can sometimes be as rewarding as a treat.
By switching to raw or wet, you are helping your cat eat a more moisturized meal at the same time you increase the value of the enriched kibble or treats.
I have a full post talking about cat food, you can check it out here.
Stop Creating Negative Associations With Treats
One very useful training method to get our cats to feel more comfortable when doing things they don't like, like trimming their nails or putting them on a carrier, is counterconditioning.
Counter conditioning works the same way as clicker training, it's based on opperant conditioning. We reward a cat with treats after something they don't like so that they create a positive association and eventually, with time, the bad experience is liked to a positive one, a treat. It goes as follows:
- We expose the cat to the experience they don't like
- We finish the experience
- We reward the cat
The goal is to allow your cat that after a “bad experience” comes a “good” thing. That is called anticipation. Your cat begins to anticipate the “good” thing (treats) and feel positively about the “scary” thing.
"Oh, I'm getting my nails trimmed again, well, at least I'll get a yummy treat"
When done wrong, counter conditioning can have the opposite effect. If we offer the treats as a distraction for a bad experience or to lure the cat to a bad experience, the cat is going to create an association between the treats and something bad.
"Oh, yummy treats are out, I bet they are trying to get my nails cut"
The order seems like doesn't matter but the effect on the cat it's completely different. If we offer the treats before a bad experience, you can even train a cat to not like treats.
If you have done this in the past, the best is to change your treats and start doing counterconditioning the right way.
What To Give a Cat That Doesn't Like Treats?
Try Higher Value Treats
Food is inherently motivating, but not all food is created equal. I don’t always have chocolate at home because I crave it all the time. If I have chocolate, I keep going to the fridge for more. Chocolate is to me a very strong motivator to go to the fridge. Cauliflower, for instance, doesn’t produce the same effect.
If you want to get your cat motivated, you need to find what food your cat goes crazy for. I can tell you it’s not chocolate. Chocolate is toxic for cats.
I started clicker training using kibble, that to Mia is a strong motivator because she always eats raw food, so kibble to her are like cookies.
When I need her to focus because I’m trying to teach something more complex, I use freeze dried chicken instead.
A cautious note here, using treats for training can make your cats fat! I would recommend you to make them snack bite size so that you don’t overfeed your cat.
Try Different Texture Treats
Sometimes it´s not about the quality is about the texture. Some cats will go bananas for raw meat but some will prefer lickable treats.
There are mostly 3 treats I recommend for training your cat:
- Kibble: If you have your cat on a wet or raw diet, kibble will be reinforcing enough and it's cheap and small. As it's not a big part of their diet, feeding a little kibble for training is a great way to increase variety.
- Freeze Dried Chicken: This is a super high value low calorie treat that most cats will love. It comes with 2 problems though: It's expensive, it's hard to break into smaller pieces.
- Lickables: This treats are easy to deliver and most cats will love them. Because it's a new texture for them, it's also enriching and provides variety to their diet. I've seen people struggling to deliver this treat without making a mess so if you are a little clumsy, might not be for you.
How To Train a Cat That's Not Food Motivated?
Break Treats Into Smaller Pieces
Cat's stomach is the size of a pingpong ball (about the size of a wallnut).
This means that if we use regular size treats, we will get our cats full fairly quickly and as they get full, the reinforcement power of the treats goes down.
Break the treats into the smallest pieces you can so that your cat is motivated to train for longer. In this article, I talk about the best treats to clicker train your cat.
Make Sure The Clicker is Charged
There are many food related problems that might make it difficult to train your cat but the #1 problem I find people make is that they did not charge the clicker properly.
Take a look at this video to really understand what's clicker training and how to increase the value of the treats:
Stay Wild, Stay Safe, See You Outdoors!
Albert & Mia