One of the first things I start doing the first day I have a new foster cat is to teach him or her to come when called. This isn’t just a party trick! Just like for dogs, teaching your cat “recall” or to come to you when you make a particular sound or say a particular word can save your kitty’s life one day. While we very strongly recommend that all cats be kept safely as indoor-only pets, accidents can happen. Visitors, a door or window that doesn’t close properly, or even natural disasters can cause your cat to get lost from your home. If your cat gets out unintentionally, having a recall word or sound will help your cat come out of hiding and come back to you. I’ve seen it work for a newly adopted and newly escaped cat who dashed out of his new home’s front door just a few days after going to her new home! Here’s how to train your cat using positive reinforcement to come to you when you call or make your special cat-come-to-me sound.
1. What’s your cat’s reward? Each cat is different, so first you have to find something that your cat really really really likes. Not just *eh* likes, but the likes the most of all. For most cats, a special food treat does the trick. Try wet food in a can or crunchy treats in a bag, and you may have to try a lot of different flavors till you find the one that your cat goes absolutely bananas for when you take it out. If you can’t find a food reward that your cat over-the-top loves, your cat’s reward may be playing with a special toy. You know, the one you have to hide in the closet so they won’t rip it to shreds? Yes, that one! Or maybe your cat loves getting brushed with their favorite comb by their favorite person. Whatever it is, reserve that reward only for recall. That helps make it very special and valued, to motivate your cat.
2. What’s your cat’s recall sound? Cats have extraordinary hearing, but humans aren’t the best at making very unique sounds. Think about how a foreign language sounds when you don’t understand it, the words all sound very similar. That one reason why we’ve found a unique sound works better than a word (like “come” that’s often used with dogs) for training cats. Also, if you designate a unique sound over a regular word, you’re not going accidentally say it frequently in conversation which might confuse or desensitize your cat.
A sound you can make with your mouth is great because in a real emergency, you’re not going to be running around trying to locate that bag of treats to shake, or can of food and a fork to clink, or a clicker to click. Some unique non word sounds we’ve heard people use to train their cat to recall are a high-pitched “ki-ki-ki” sound, a “pssssst” sound, a clicking sound made with the tongue on the roof of their mouth, or a whistle if you’re good at whistling the same tone reliably even if you’re in a disaster panic. If not everyone in your home is comfortable using a unique sound, the treat bag shake or clinking can is a good fallback as long as you always have extra somewhere you’ll be, like in the glovebox of your car.
3. Repetition for association. For the first month, every day, ideally at the same time of day, you will walk up to your cat, and make your sound while you are rewarding your cat. So if your sound is “ki-ki-ki” you might feed your cat 5 treats and say “ki-ki-ki” ten times as she is eating them. Not before, not after — during the feeding. Repeat that once a day every day for the first month. Yes every day, try not to skip any days! If you feed your cat two or three times a day and your cat comes running when you feed her, you can make the sound a few times while you’re feeding her and while she is eating too. (Don’t forget to add some additional exercise to your cat’s day to work off those treat calories!)
4. Distance gradually. After a month, instead of walking up to your cat with the reward in your hand, walk towards your cat, but stop a few feet away, and then make your recall sound. (While the cat is awake, please, not while she’s sleeping!) She should at least look at you, and she may move toward you. Lots of rewards while making the sound again! Gradually a foot or two a day you can increase the distance away from your cat that you make your sound. Soon you will have a cat that will come to you when you make your sound even from far away!
We hope this article helps you and your cat learn to come when called and will help your cat return to you safely if she ever accidentally escapes.