Play Ball: Teach Your Cat to Play Catch

Cats aren't impossible to train. Try this fun activity.
By: Samantha Drake
Cat opening arms to catch

Cats have done an excellent job convincing people that they are difficult, if not impossible, to train. But the truth is cats can be trained to do all kinds of things, including cool tricks like catching a ball in their paws.  

Your cat may not be ready for the Super Bowl, but catching a ball or toy is sure to impress your friends while dispelling misconceptions about cats and training. Teaching your cat tricks is also a fun, bonding experience and a new way to show off your kitty’s considerable intelligence. 

Tips for Training Your Cat to Catch 

First off, get rid of the idea that training a cat is anything like training a dog. Historically, dogs have been bred to work and interact with people, while domesticated cats’ primary function was to hunt vermin, according to the ASPCA.  As a result, cats are less motivated by praise and attention, while dogs thrive on it.   

Arden Moore, a pet expert based in Oceanside, Calif., and the founder of Four Legged Life agrees. “Dogs in general tend to want to please you,” she says. “Cats are more ‘what’s in it for me?’”

Food is the most effective motivator for cats—and not just any food. Rewarding your cat during training with extra-yummy treats will get the best results. So, basically, if you’re going to ask your cat to learn something new, you have to break out the good stuff, like bits of chicken, tuna, or your cat’s favorite commercial cat treats.   

Moore says the treat rewards should be small, as in bite-sized, and of the extra-special variety. Find a treat your cat absolutely loves and then save that treat for training time, she adds. 

Remember that cats respond poorly to negative reinforcement. Punishment just stresses the cat out and makes him or her want to avoid both the activity and you. It can also lead to behavioral problems and even illness. 

Rely on Your Cat’s Instincts  

The good news is cats are natural hunters and catching prey is an instinctual activity. Many cats will move to catch the ball in their paws, stretching up on their hind legs and trapping the ball between their paws. So, training a cat to catch something on command builds on familiar behavior. 

Start with a ball that’s lightweight and that the cat can hold onto, like wadded up paper or a toy that’s soft and not too heavy. Toss the ball up in front of your cat while saying “catch” or something similar.  If your cat moves to catch the ball give him a treat and praise, whether he actually catches the ball successfully or not.   

Repeat the exercise and begin rewarding your cat when he makes contact with the ball and eventually only when he actually catches the ball.  

Cats have short attention spans so be sure to limit training sessions to 10 or 15 minutes at a time. But repeat the training every day so your cat remembers what he learned and continue the training on a regular basis. 

Try Cat Clicker Training

Finally, consider using a clicker or something that makes a clicking noise, like a pen, to help train your cat. The sound of the clicker lets your cat know the instant he does the right thing. 

Cats at any age, from kittens to senior citizens can learn new things, notes Moore. “They want to learn, they don’t want to just sit around,” she says. 

Image: tankist276 via Shutterstock