A Teachable Moment
by Melissa Breau
December 1, 2011
Few pet owners realize that, with the right products and knowledge, the family cat is just as trainable as its canine counterpart.



Our feline companions are just as prone to behavior problems as their canine cousins. But while most dog owners are aware that there are solutions available, cat owners often believe there is nothing they can do to address their pets’ behavior issues.

“Often, consumers don’t realize that the spraying and scratching problems of a cat can be brought under control,” says Sonny Singh, director of marketing, animal health, for Central Garden & Pet. “They accept it as a part of having a pet and have no idea products exist to rectify the situation.”

This presents pet specialty retailers with a great opportunity to educate cat owners on the myriad of products available to help curb their pets’ problem behaviors. When a customer mentions an issue they’ve been experiencing with their feline friend, it’s a chance for the store to provide a solution, to make a sale, and hopefully gain a loyal customer.

This means it’s essential that a store’s team is knowledgeable about both common cat issues and the products it stocks. “Make sure the employees interacting with the cat owners are educated on the products,” says Singh.

He says storeowners can provide employees with sell sheets that explain how the products works, and suggests that retailers should have employees use the products themselves. Doing so will allow them to share first-hand experiences, and nothing is a stronger sales tool.

Store employees should also ascertain as many details as possible about a cat and its problem before making a recommendation. “Questions regarding the cat’s age, gender and breed will help employees direct cat owners to solutions,” says Tibor Siklosi, director of marketing at Bergan.

A kitten that is hyperactive may not be getting enough stimulation; a new toy that better engages it physically and mentally may do the trick. An adult cat that is suddenly eliminating outside of the litter box may not like a new litter or may be reacting to a new source of stress in the home; trying a different litter, transitioning the cat more slowly or using a calming a product may have kitty back in its box in no time.

“It’s sometimes like unlocking the key to a whole new universe,” says Siklosi. “Cats are self-sufficient, so they provide few clues to what they need individually. That means when cat owners find a product that works for both them and their cat, it provides them with a tremendous feeling of satisfaction.”


Instincts Gone Wrong
Fortunately, there are a wide variety of products on the market that offer solutions to common cat issues. Generally, problems arise either when a cat is stressed (often due to a change in their environment) or when a cat’s natural instinct leads it to act in a certain way that its owners do not approve of—for example, scratching the couch.

“Cats have an instinctual need to scratch,” says Kristie Hamilton, director of sales at Imperial Cat. “Not only does it allow them to keep their claws honed and their muscles stretched and healthy, but it also serves the purpose of marking their territory. In the wild, cats would scratch on trees to meet these needs, but for most domesticated cats the best substitution ends up being the most expensive piece of furniture in your home. A scratching pad is a cheap alternative to replacing your sofa.”

Many products are designed to positively improve behavior without pet parent intervention, says Brenda Brewster. When the issue is a natural instinct gone awry, simply supplying a cat with the right alternative outlets can often led to the problem practically solving itself. Brewster is in charge of marketing and special projects at Pioneer Pet Products, where, she says, “[cat products] are designed to enhance a cat instinctual behavior [in a way] that improves the lifestyle of both the pet parent and the pet.”

Retailers should explain to customers that cats are really just as trainable as dogs. Positive reinforcement is a powerful training technique often taught to dog owners, but according to Rebecca Rescate, founder of CitiKitty, it also works wonders on cats. A combination of cat treats and heaping amounts of praise are what she recommends for cat owners looking to train their kitties to use CitiKitty’s cat toilet training kit, which comes with step-by-step instructions to teach cat owners how to train their cats. 

Hamilton concurs that cat owners can influence their pets behavior. “After introducing the cat to the scratcher, any time the owner sees the cat scratching somewhere it shouldn’t, the owner should pick up the cat and place it on the scratching pad,” she says. “This will help train the cat to scratch in the appropriate place. [Additionally], any time the owner sees the cat scratching on the scratch pad, they should reward the cat [with] a nice rub, or with a favorite treat.”

Rescate finds it helpful to remind cat owners that they’ve already taught their cat one trick—how to use the litter box. She says that once they realize they’ve already taught their cat one thing, teaching them something new doesn’t seem as difficult.


No Cat Owner Left Behind

Not every customer can learn this lesson directly from an employee; sometimes the store is just too busy to greet every customer one-on-one. Other times, a customer may prefer to browse, or may not mention that they’re having an issue. This makes it important for retailers create product setups that speak for themselves.

Singh suggests using store displays that help make the connection between unwanted behaviors and recommended solutions.

Rescate adds that creating a display or a section of the store where training products are grouped together will also help lead consumers to make that connection and find the most effective behavior-modification products for their cats.