How to Train a Cat to Use a Cat Flap

If your stubborn cat won’t use its cat flap, or your cat is afraid of its cat door, what can you do? Forcing it through will only make it mad. So how can you train a cat to use a cat flap?

How do you train a cat to use a cat flap? Start by buying the right kind of flap: manually-operated, magnetic/infra-red, or microchip. Install it at the right height for your cat (belly height), ideally opening out to somewhere that’s covered or sheltered from the elements. Tape or prop the flap open so that your cat can see it leads outside/inside. If it still doesn’t want to go through, use treats to tempt it. Never push a cat through a cat flap, as this teaches it a negative association, and discourages it from using the flap in the future.

The guide below is a quick and easy one. It goes through cat flap training step by step. If your cat doesn’t want to use its flap after you go through these ideas, it must be a homebody!

How to Train a Cat to Use a Cat Door (Step by Step)

“Cat Flap” by stephenhanafin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

When you first install your cat flap, your cat simply won’t know what it is. Imagine for a moment that you’re left in a room with a complicated piece of machinery that you don’t recognize or understand: you probably wouldn’t start playing around with it, but leave it alone. After all, you don’t know what it might do.

Your cat may feel the same about its cat flap. It doesn’t understand that it’s like a tiny door; it doesn’t understand that it can pop open, and it doesn’t understand that ‘the outside’ is on the other side. Of course, there are some cats that get the idea immediately; others have already used cat flaps in previous homes. This guide is for the former!

To get your cat past this initial awkwardness, there are a few things you can do. Follow the guide below step by step, and your cat will acclimatize itself to the flap much quicker.

1) Buy The Right Kind of Flap

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right. There are lots of different kinds of cat flap, and you might find that one is better for you than another. Here are the different kinds you can choose from:

  • Manually-operated cat flap. These are your classic kind of cat flap. It’s a tiny doorway with a flap that can swing either inside or outside. It allows the cat to come and go as it pleases, but any cat can use it.
  • Magnetic or infra-red cat flap. These cat flaps recognize a small manget or infrared tag attached to your cat’s collar. These devices are like tiny keys that your cat can use to get in or out; other cats don’t have the key, so can’t use it. Magnetic cat flap training is much the same as training it to use any flap.
  • Microchip cat flap. These are the same as magnetic or infra-red ones, but recognize your cat’s microchip rather than a tag on its collar. Again, training a cat to use a microchip cat flap is the same as with a regular one.

Manual cat flaps are cheaper and easier to install, but let any cat get into your house. The latter two kinds stop that from happening, but have drawbacks, like how they can run out of battery.

Buying a flap with a see-through door may be better for your cat. It will be able to see outside from inside (and vice versa), so if your cat has never had a flap before, it will understand the point of one quicker. All three kinds of cat flap can have either an opaque door or a see-through door.

2) Set Up Your Microchip Flap BEFORE Installing It (Optional)

It’s best to set up your microchip cat flap before you install it, rather than after. That’s because you need to have your cat poke its head through the flap, which is easier before it’s installed than afterwards.

To set up your microchip cat flap, first put the batteries in, before switching it on to ‘learn mode’. This tells the flap that it should memorize the microchip information it’s about to receive. When your cat approaches—provided that it’s microchipped, of course—the flap will sense as much and store the unique ID of the microchip. This, of course, means that only this cat will be allowed through the flap.

This is easy enough if you haven’t installed the flap. Place a small treat in the entryway of the flap. The small amount of time that your cat leans in to eat some of the food is enough for the reader to work. Depending on the kind of microchip flap you bought, there may be a sensor light that lights up to show that the chip recognition system is working. Repeat the process for each of your cats.

3) Install The Flap at The Correct Height

The flap needs to be easily accessible for your cat. It shouldn’t be too high, and it shouldn’t be too low. If the cat has to stoop and crawl through on its belly, or if it has to jump up to reach the flap, it will be harder for it to learn how to use it.

The ideal height of the flap is belly height, i.e. the bottom of the entrance of the flap should be just below belly height for your cat. This allows it to get through easily.

If it’s impossible for you to install the flap at this level, for whatever reason, then your cat will still be able to use it. It will just be more difficult for it to come and go, which will make it less likely to use it.

4) Install The Flap in The Right Place

You should also look to install the flap somewhere so that it opens out to a safe, secure area. Ideally, you want the flap to open out to somewhere quiet. If there are loud noises directly outside the flap—like cars going by—your cat may be scared to go through. You also want the area beyond the flap to be covered, or at least sheltered from the elements. Your cat is much more likely to use the flap if the area directly outside it isn’t accessible to rain, sleet or snow.

You almost certainly don’t have much choice as to where you install the flap, unless you live in a house with lots of back doors. What you could do, though, is put something close outside the door that your cat could shelter under. A table or a chair would work.

5) Prop Or Tape The Flap Open

When your cat first sees the flap, it doesn’t see a flap. It just sees the door. A cat’s eyesight isn’t as finely detailed as ours; it’s better for detecting movement and levels of brightness. And if your cat has never seen a cat flap before, it won’t understand the concept of ‘opening a door’ for itself anyway.

This means that your cat won’t ever know to test it. So, what you can do is keep the flap open either by taping it open or propping it open with something. This allows your cat to see through to the other side of the flap. It can then see, smell and hear the outside (or the inside, if it’s on the other side). Then if it wants to go in or out, it should understand that it can get there through the flap.

Use thick tape rather than basic Scotch tape (or similar). Regular see-through tape wouldn’t be strong enough to keep the flap in place, and you’d have to keep replacing it. Duct tape/duck tape would be a better choice.

Even if the flap is a see-through window rather than opaque plastic, it may still be best to try this trick. Your cat could walk up to the flap, thinking that it’s a tunnel rather than a door of sorts, but not push through when it feels something solid in its way.

6) Use Treats to Entice Your Cat

cat is eating a lot

Of course, cats don’t always do what you want them to. They often don’t even do something that’s in their best interest, just because you want them to. In other words, there’s a good chance that your cat won’t go through the flap even when it’s left open for it to see through.

You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, so you should try enticing your cat through the flap rather than pushing/forcing it through. Use treats that you rarely offer to your cat, something that will get its attention.

Start by placing these treats near the cat flap, just to get the cat to sit next to it. The problem may have been that the cat didn’t see or sense that the flap was open; again, cats have poor vision with regards to details. Things are blurry to them. Your cat might then hop through when it realizes it can get out on its own.

If that doesn’t work, try placing the treats on the other side of the cat flap. Your cat may smell the treats outside, which will encourage it to go through the flap. You could also sit on the other side of the flap and encourage your cat through by calling to it.

7) Use Your Cat’s Scent

Cats rely on their senses of smell far more than we do. They recognize their territory through its smell; they use pheromones to mark things that are theirs, and their belongings (like their cat beds) start to smell like they do over time. This means there’s a quick hack to making the cat more comfortable with its flap: making the flap smell like the cat!

This is very easy to do. Take a rag and rub it on your cat’s cheeks, then rub it on the flap. Cats produce pheromones in glands located around their body; many come from glands around the mouth, chin, forehead and cheeks. These are known as feline facial pheromones, and these pheromones are why cats rub their faces on things like your legs. Your cat is marking its territory! By getting small amounts of these pheromones and rubbing them on the flap, you make your cat identify it as its own possession, part of its own territory.

If that doesn’t work, try rubbing something that smells of your cat directly on the flap. A cat bed is a great choice, or a toy that it has played with and bitten.

8) Remove The Prop Or Tape

Once your cat is used to its cat flap, get rid of whatever is holding the flap open. Your cat should, by now, have learned that it can access the outside by going through the flap. It should hopefully approach the flap and push it open with its head without a problem.

If it doesn’t, just remain patient. Give your cat time. If it still wants to go outside, but thinks it can’t get out through the closed flap, it may try pawing at it (as cats do when they want something). It would then realize that the flap can open. It may take a while for your cat to realize this. If it doesn’t, try opening the flap again and repeating the process.

9) Be Patient—Never Push Your Cat Through a Flap!

Some cats aren’t as smart as others. Yours may take a long time to learn how to use its flap. If that’s the case, do your best not to lose your patience or your temper, as this will be counterproductive. Cats don’t learn anything when you punish them, threaten them, or force them through the flap.

Teaching in this way is known as negative reinforcement. The idea is that the pet will learn to do something or not to do something because you make it feel bad in some way. The cat will supposedly realize what behavior it’s supposed to display, because only when it displays that behavior will the bad feeling go away. The opposite is positive reinforcement, which is where the cat is made to feel good in some way after displaying the behavior you want it to display. You can do this by feeding it a treat or petting it.

Time and again, research shows that positive reinforcement works much better than negative reinforcement. It also helps you build your bond with your cat. In this context, that means offering treats to your cat when it uses the flap correctly will work far better than mistreating it, e.g. by raising your voice, hitting it, taking treats away, and so on. In short: be patient and reward good behaviors.

Cat Struggling to Get Through Cat Flap

If your cat still can’t get used to using its flap, the problem may not be the flap, but your cat. Observe your cat as it tries to get through the flap to see what the problem might be. Potential issues include:

  • Your cat isn’t mobile enough to get through the flap. It may not have full control of, or mobility in, its legs.
  • (Cat flap) older cat problems. Older cats lose mobility and find it more difficult to learn new things.
  • Your cat is too large to fit through.
  • Your cat is afraid of the outside. Your cat may have had a negative experience outside, e.g. it was chased by a dog.
  • Your cat doesn’t want to go outside. If your cat has always been a housecat, it may not know what it’s missing, so to speak.

Take steps to correct any problems you notice, e.g. if your cat is overweight or has hurt its paw. Talk to a vet about diagnosis and treatment. If your cat still doesn’t want to go through the flap, you have to accept that as a fact of life!