A border collie named Chaser has been trained to recognize and respond to 1,022 nouns, according to a New York Times profile published last Monday. The extent of Chaser's vocabulary is astonishing, but it's no surprise that a dog could be trained to sit, stay, or fetch particular objects from under the couch. What about a cat? Is it possible to train your Tabby?
Yes, but it's slightly more difficult. Cats were domesticated about 9,000 years ago, and were originally used to hunt mice. It's likely they were selected for their solitary hunting abilities, not for any particular social acuity or inclination to follow instructions. (Dogs, on the other hand, were selected for those very traits.) That doesn't mean you can't train a cat; it just means they won't always respond to the same rewards as dogs. While some dogs are content with a pat on the head and a "good boy!" in exchange for proper behavior, cats typically work for food and might be slower to pick up new tricks. Even so, both species can be trained with the same methods. (The most common are positive reinforcement, clicker training, and targeting.) Cats can be trained to use a toilet bowl instead of a litter box, follow their owners at a command, or perform a high-five.
Dogs dohave larger brains than cats, both in absolute terms and relative to the size of their bodies. That feature may have evolved to help them meet the social demands of living in a pack. And a heightened sociability could in turn make them better at reading and responding to human facial expressions and commands.
If it's possible to train cats, why don't we do it more often? Cats are less of a bother than dogs when they misbehave. While a hyperactive canine might rip up your curtains and your couch, a problematic cat tends to be disobedient in more subtle ways—like waking you up at 5 a.m. for breakfast. Cats are also quieter and less likely to drool on your belongings or jump on strangers. When cats do develop behavioral problems, their owners are more likely to accept and ignore the issue, rather than embarking on a training protocol.
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Explainer thanks, Christine Bellezza of the Cornell Feline Health Center, Nicholas Dodman of Tufts University, Sandra Sawchuk of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, and Carlo Siracusa of the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Hospital.