Like dogs, cats can learn to respond to visual cues…it’s just a matter of whether they want to. Find out how to get your kitty genius on board.

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kitten pawing at camera
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Does it sometimes feel like dog parents have all the fun? Sure, dogs can go more places, but you and your cat can bond just as well at home. One way to do that is to teach your kitty how to understand sign language through hand signals. It's a rewarding way to communicate with your furry pal by sharing a common vocabulary. There are a few simple steps to help you get started, beginning with some good old-fashioned positive reinforcement.

Step 1: Understand Your Cat's Mood

The key to training cats is having good timing. You'll make the most progress if your training sessions take place when your cat is eager to be with you, Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, RBT, pet health and behavior expert for Daily Paws, says. The best way to tell if your kitty is up for interacting is to learn how cats show their feelings. Felines often indicate they're craving attention by headbutting you. But at the very minimum, you want your cat to be up, alert and in a curious state of mind-not sleepy or distracted (hello, birds at the window).

"Once you understand your cat's normal behavior, it's easier to identify when they're ready to hang out. And as a bonus, it also makes it easier to know when your cat is acting funny. Sometimes that can lead to spotting a health problem early," Angela Hughes, DVM, PhD, Global Scientific Advocacy Relations Senior Manager and Veterinary Geneticist at Mars Petcare, says.

Is your cat in the right mood for training? Great, just be sure you are too. "Cats are sensitive to all forms of human communication, from tone of voice to body language," Hughes says. So choose to work with your kitty when you're giving off calm and relaxed vibes and stop if you get frustrated.

Step 2: Focus on Positive Reinforcement

Cats of any age can learn to do all sorts of tricks with positive reinforcement training. Have some tasty treats on hand that you can use as a reinforcer to give once they've completed the desired behavior. Try high-value food items that you know they love, or a soft treat in a squeezable tube that's designed for training.

Plan on doing a few short bursts of training throughout the day, when your cat is ready for some stimulation. "Most cats have short attention spans and small bellies, so you'll probably find that they're tired of training after about five or 10 minutes," Bergeland says. "Paying close attention to your cat's body language is crucial."

The moment your cat begins to show he's paying attention to a signal you're giving, offer a treat. Initially, that may be when your kitty looks at your hands or moves toward you. Later, it can be when your cat does the desired action (for example, raising one paw up). The treats tell your cat that you like what he's doing and encourages your furry pal to do more of it. When your cat stops eating the treats or walks away, lays down, or simply ignores you, consider the training session over.

Step 3: Use a Clicker

During training sessions, it's helpful to point out to your kitty the exact behavior he's doing that's earning him all those treats. One of the easiest ways to do that is through clicker training. Teach your feline that a click sound equals a treat. Once he associates the clicker with a treat, you can move on to teaching a specific hand sign to your kitty.

If you're trying to teach your cat how to give a high-five, check out these steps that incorporate a clicker and treats as teaching tools:

  1. Place a treat or a toy in your hand (outstretched straight in front of the cat) to encourage your cat to touch it.
  2. Each time your cat's paw touches your hand, sound the clicker and give a treat.
  3. Once your cat is regularly touching your hand (as they understand any touch equals a treat), you can begin to move your hand into the upward high-five position.
  4. Every time your cat touches your hand, sound the clicker and give a treat.
  5. Eventually, you'll be able to give the high-five sign without a treat in it, and your kitty will paw it!  

Teaching your cat hand signs takes patience, repetition and time, but practicing can be fun for you and mentally stimulating for your kitty. Plus, it can strengthen the bond between you and your feline-the ultimate reward for both of you.