Sometimes the reason a cat continues to display unwanted behavior is because we unknowingly actually reinforce it. Of course, we’re not doing it deliberately but the bottom line is the cat receives a message that says keep doing what you’re doing. These mistakes we make are actually very common and even the most experienced cat parent slips up when it comes to sending consistent messages.
The Messages You Send
Think about when you’ve offered your cat a treat, his meal or even some attention to quiet him down due to his relentless vocalizations. You’re working at the kitchen counter or sitting at the computer and he meows and meows for attention. You pet him as he meows or maybe you even pick him up, put him on your lap or cuddle him. What’s the message the cat just received? Relentless meowing results in a reward. Even just shouting at him to be quiet gives him some form of attention for the behavior.
You’re asleep in bed and your cat meows and walks back and forth across your chest in the wee hours of the morning. Do you pet him to quiet him down? Talk to him? Or, maybe you just get up and put some food in his food bowl so he’ll let you get a few more hours of sleep. Again, the message received by the cat is that the behavior displayed results in a reward.
It’s important not to send mixed messages. Instead of giving attention to the cat for unwanted behavior, ignore him and reward only for displaying desired behavior. If your cat meows constantly, reward him with a treat, praise, play or petting when he’s quiet. Even if his quiet behavior lasts a very short time, you need to switch your training method to catch the behavior you DO want and reward that. Once you start doing this you can increase the amount of time (in small increments) your cat needs to be quiet before a reward is offered. This sends a clear message to your cat that being quiet is the behavior that will result in something good and meowing will result in nothing at all. Your cat is very smart so it won’t take long for him to realize the behavior that has a more beneficial pay-off.
Help Your Cat Succeed
The other part of rewarding positive behavior is to set your cat up to succeed. If he meows at you when you head to the kitchen to work on dinner or sit down to work on the computer, maybe he’s not getting enough environmental enrichment and interactive playtime. Before you start a task, engage him in a quick play session or set out a fun food-dispensing toy or other puzzle-type toy. This way, you provide him with beneficial activity and attention so the unwanted behavior never has to come into play at all.
If he meows in the wee hours of the morning because he wants food, set out some puzzle feeders during the night or use an automatic timed feeding bowl. You can also reset his internal kitty clock by conducting an interactive play session right before bedtime. Use a fishing pole toy and conduct a fun play session where your cat gets to stalk, pounce and capture his “prey” multiple times. Wind down the action at the end of the game to leave your cat more relaxed and satisfied. Offer a portion of his normal meal (divide up his daily amount so you aren’t increasing his normal amount) as a reward for his exceptional hunting skills. With food in his tummy and feeling relaxed after having had a play session, he’ll be more likely to sleep through the night.
Another example of sending the wrong message is when a cat jumps on the kitchen counter and the person shoos him off by picking him up, cuddling him, maybe even planting a kiss on the top of his head and then placing him back down on the floor. The message kitty receives is that jumping on the counter gets him the attention he wants. The proper technique to use is to set up the counter to be unappealing by using plastic carpet protectors (feet side up). If your cat jumps up anyway or the counter isn’t covered, merely pick the cat up without engaging in eye contact and casually place him on the floor. Offer him a better alternative for an elevation location as well. Set up a cat tree or window perch so he has a high location to hang out that meets with your approval. Reward him with attention, treat or praise whenever he goes to the desired location instead of the counter.
The above are just examples of how we often send the wrong message when trying to train our cats. It’s time to examine how you interact with your cat and whether you’ve been guilty of sending conflicting signals. Remember:
Reward positive behavior
Don’t send mixed messages
Set your cat up to succeed
Need More Information?
If you’re having a behavior problem with your cat, consult your veterinarian to make sure there isn’t an underlying medical problem. Once the cat gets a clean bill of health, you can find step-by-step behavior modification techniques in all of Pam’s books, including Think Like a Cat.
If you feel you need professional help with your cat’s behavior problem, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a certified behavior expert.