It still surprises so many people — even cat parents themselves — that cats are trainable and behavior problems can often be solved. Where we fail in tackling behavior problems is that we assume the cat’s motivation is spite, anger or stupidity. I promise you, your kitty isn’t off in a corner plotting to do something just to watch you blow your top. What humans label as a cat “misbehaving” is actually kitty trying to find a solution to a problem.
Misbehavior or Misunderstood Behavior?
Every behavior a cat displays serves a function or it wouldn’t be repeated. Animals aren’t stupid. The key to successful behavior modification is to figure out what triggers the repeated behavior and what the cat gets from displaying that particular behavior so you can change the conditions. To change the outcome you have to change the set-up.
Operant conditioning gives the cat an alternative behavior that’s of the same or increased value than the unwanted behavior. Positive training sets the cat up to succeed because it provides the things he wants and needs and allows him to make the choice. The animal who doesn’t have any choices is the animal who starts reacting out of fear.
Think Like a Cat
Think like a cat and you’ll realize that the unwanted behaviors your cat displays are not abnormal. You may not like the displayed behavior but kitty isn’t acting crazy or spiteful. He’s trying to solve a problem according to what his instincts tell him. If he’s scratching the furniture he isn’t intentionally shredding your favorite chair. He has a natural need to scratch and will seek out the most effective object for that function. If the scratching post doesn’t meet his needs (it might be too wobbly, too short, or covered in the wrong kind of texture) then his intelligent brain will direct him to an object that will work more effectively. Scratching is important to the cat. Provide him with a scratching post that meets his needs better than your sofa or chairs and he’ll naturally prefer that. It really does make a difference when you take the time to look at your cat’s environment from his point of view.
Three Important Steps for Correcting Your Cat’s Unwanted Behavior
Many cats are relinquished to shelters, banished to live outdoors, abandoned or even euthanized for behavior problems that are correctable. We get caught up in wrong assumptions regarding a cat’s motivation. Many times cat parents are given inaccurate information from people who aren’t qualified to give advice. Much of it comes down to common sense:
- Discover the underlying cause or “pay-off”
- Provide an alternative that’s as good as or better than the current behavior
- Reward the cat for displaying the desired behavior
Why Punishment Doesn’t Work
Many people reprimand the cat for “misbehavior.” Instead of focusing on what the cat needs and how to help him succeed, these cat parents, out of frustration, choose punishment. Imagine the stress the cat endures when he’s punished for a behavior that’s actually normal and needed in the feline world.
Let’s examine litter box problems for example. The cat stops using the litter box and starts urinating on the carpet in the dining room. The cat parent who punishes, rubs the cat’s nose in the mess, hits, yells, sends the cat into time-out or shoves the cat into the litter box has only succeeded in doing one thing: elevating the cat’s fear and stress to an emotionally unhealthy and physically unheathly level. What if the cat was eliminating outside of the box because he was in pain due to a urinary tract problem and associated the box with his pain? Because he will now associate punishment with the need to eliminate, he is not only in pain from the medical condition but he’s afraid and unsure about where to pee or poop. As a cat parent you intended to convey the message that kitty’s choice for elimination was wrong but the actual message kitty received was that urination is bad and will result in punishment and fear. Since urination will have to occur again at some point when kitty’s bladder gets full, he’ll become stressed and may attempt to retain urine as long as possible and that’s not physically healthy. He may also attempt to find a more secretive place for elimination to avoid your punishment. Either option causes even more stress to an already stressed-out cat.
Cats aren’t Dogs or Fur-Covered Children
Many behavior problems could also be corrected or avoided in the first place if people stopped viewing their cats as children or dog substitutes. Cats should be loved and cherished but when you forget that he is a CAT with specific, normal feline needs and the inability to scheme, it’s a set-up for failure. Additionally, when you adopt a cat and expect him to act like a dog and then are disappointed because he doesn’t interact with you the way dogs do, it creates another lose-lose situation. View cats as the beautiful, intelligent, playful, social creatures that they are and you might just be surprised what you can learn. You have an opportunity to have an amazing relationship with the cat in your life if you take the time to look at his world the way he does.
Need More Information?
For more specific information on the correct behavior modification techniques to use for behavior problems, refer to any of Pam’s books. You can read more about each book on our website. If you feel you need to consult with a behavior professional, click here to read this informative article first on finding qualified, professional help. If you’re experiencing a behavior problem with your cat and would like a consultation with cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, CCBC, contact our office.
Note: This article is not intended as a medical diagnosis. If your cat is displaying a change in behavior there could be an underlying medical problem. Consult your veterinarian.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is the star of Psycho Kitty airing on Discovery UK. She is author of seven best-selling books on cat behavior including Think Like a Cat: how to raise a well-adjusted cat – not a sour puss. Think Like a Cat has become known as the cat bible. Pam is considered a pioneer in the field of cat behavior consulting. In addition to her television series and public speaking engagements, Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company in Nashville, TN. Cat Behavior Associates offers private cat behavior appointments on a limited basis. Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant.