Using Food and Treats for Training Cats

When you welcome a new kitten or cat into your home, when you introduce new tricks, or when you need to adjust unwanted behaviors of your longtime companion, training is an important tool, and can help create a strong human-animal bond. The preferred training method is positive reinforcement training, which often involves treats or food rewards.

Is it ok to use “people food” for treats during training?

Commercially produced cat treats are a good option to provide positive reinforcement during the training process. In addition, some whole foods or “people” foods can be good options to support positive reinforcement training.

Often, “high value” treats are most helpful during a training session; however, many of these treats are also high in calories. If not carefully monitored, these treats can quickly add up to extra calories, which can unbalance the diet and lead to unwanted weight gain if continued over the long term.

While some foods are acceptable to feed to cats, it is important to know that not all foods are safe to feed, and some should be avoided.

Foods that are safe and often enjoyed by cats include: apples, cheese, cooked eggs, zucchini, green beans, de-strung celery, pasta, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, seedless watermelon, cooked meats, and cooked seafood. Offer these foods without seasonings, and ideally choose low-calorie foods. Finding what your cat considers a treat may take some testing at home.

Foods that should be avoided due to potential risk of harm include: alcohol, chocolate, macadamia nuts, garlic, onions, grapes, raisins, salty snack foods, and any food with xylitol artificial sweetener such as some peanut butters.

If you are not sure if the food is safe, talk to your veterinary healthcare team or consult the ASPCA Poison Control website or the Pet Poison Helpline website for further information.

Why does the vet recommend only a 10% treat allowance when training my cat?

1 tablespoon of applesauce provides about 6 kcal; 5 grams of air-popped popcorn (no salt or butter) provides about 19 kcal; 10 grams of green beans, raw provides about 3 kcal; 15 grams of zucchini, raw, including skin provides about 3 kcal; 20 grams of zucchini, boiled, including skin without salt provides about 3 kcal; 20 grams of green beans, boiled, without salt provides about 7 kcal; 20 grams of blueberries provide about 12 kcal; 20 grams of raw apples with or without skin provides about 10 kcal; 20 grams of banana provides about 18 kcal 20 grams of chickpeas (garbanzo beans) cooked, boiled, without salt provides about 33 kcal; 25 grams of black beans cooked, boiled, without salt provides about 33 kcal; 50 grams of honeydew melons provides about 18 kcal; 50 grams of boiled carrots provides about 18 kcal; 50 grams of raw carrots provides about 20 kcal; 50 grams of boiled cauliflower provides about 11 kcal

It is important to keep calories from treats within 10% of your cat’s total calorie intake to prevent excessive nutrient intake and to help prevent deficiencies. So, if your cat eats about 200 calories per day, then 180 calories should come from a complete and balanced diet appropriate for your cat’s life stage, and 20 calories can come from treats.

The easiest way to avoid over-treating is by measuring out treats and ensuring that you stay within your cat’s 10% allowance. If feeding commercial treats, check how many calories each treat provides and set aside exactly the correct amount. If feeding whole foods, find general calorie counts in the USDA FoodData Central food database online, estimate how many calories your treats provide, and ensure you stay within the 10% treat allowance.

At right is a list of common foods that may be given as treats for dogs, with specific amounts and calories (kcal).

How else can I use food when training? Can I use other rewards as well?

Your cat’s degree of food motivation will determine what food you can use to train them. Some cats respond to their own regular food, and others may need more “high value” treat encouragement.

You can try using your cat’s regular kibble as positive reinforcement. Using kibble as a treat is beneficial because it is complete and balanced, and so will help prevent deficiencies if you have a treat-heavy training day. However, even when using kibble, keep training treats within reason. You may not unbalance the diet when giving complete and balanced kibbles, but you can give too many calories, leading to unwanted weight gain.

If you find a low-calorie treat that your cat really enjoys, you may be able to give a lot more of it.

If you find a low-calorie treat that your cat really enjoys, you may be able to give a lot more of it. Some cats enjoy green beans and zucchini squash. Test out the low-calorie safe foods from the list above to help you find which low-calorie foods will motivate your cat.

Also, consider intermittent reinforcement as another tool to solidify training. Once your cat is regularly performing a task, they may not always need to get a high-value treat as a reward. You could sometimes offer pets and affection, a lower-value food, or a lower-calorie food on a rotational basis.

So, when your cat does the task, one time they get their favorite treat, one time they get their favorite chin scratches, and one time they get their favorite cat nip toy. The rotation, and the short successful training session, will provide the positive reinforcement that training doesn’t have to always be around food.

Do you have tips for using food to train a cat?

Cats can be trained using encouragement, patience, and by consistently rewarding positive or desired behaviors. Do not use negative physical or verbal abuse, but rather ignore or redirect undesired behaviors.

For example, if a cat scratches furniture, you may want to redirect them by training them to use a scratching post. To do this, encourage your cat towards the scratching post by using treats around the post. Hold the treats part way up the scratching post to encourage them to stretch up and scratch. Catnip or a favorite toy may also entice the cat to use the post.

Food and attention rewards can be used in a stepwise manner: reward as the cat gets close to the scratching post, reward when the cat touches it, and then finally reward when the cat scratches it. If the cat starts to scratch the furniture, redirect the cat back to the post and give a reward at the post, rather than punishing the undesired furniture scratching.

Are any foods off limits?

As discussed earlier, some foods should not be given as they are toxic to pets. It is also important to remember that some foods that are very tasty to cats may also be very high in calories, and those extra calories can add up very quickly. For example, sprayable cheese products are often considered very tasty and can be helpful in training, but they can also be very high in calories and should be used cautiously.

Also, if your cat has a diagnosed disease such as kidney disease, heart disease, or inflammatory bowel disease, some treats may not be appropriate for their condition. For cats with kidney disease, low-phosphorus and low-protein treats are preferred, such as fruits and vegetables, while cats with heart disease should avoid high salt treats. If your cat has a health condition you should discuss any treats with your veterinarian to ensure they are appropriate.

What treats are recommended for training?

Treats that can be easily broken into many small pieces, small kibble, or low-calorie treats are usually what is recommended. However, keep in mind what treats motivate your cat and what rewards will provide the positive experience you are aiming for during your training session.