As we learn more about cats, we are starting to appreciate how truly intelligent they are. They—and their larger feline relatives—are able to solve complex puzzles, learn through observation of others, and master simple tricks with ease. As more of us dive into training cats, it’s really helpful to understand some of the science around learning and behavior. The benefits or fallout (behavior/stress side effects) of using certain training methods can have a huge impact on the wellbeing of your cat, your relationship with your cat, and even how you understand your cat’s behavior.
Animals learn in many ways. Two important ones are learning through consequence and learning through association.
Learning through Consequence
All animals learn through consequence. This is a driving rule that allows animals to adjust to a changing world. Learning through consequences comes in four main categories:
These first two methods can be used creatively to both increase or decrease behaviors. They have low behavior/stress side effects—or fallout—and generally increase fond feelings and build relationships.
1. positive reinforcement
Adding something pleasant that strengthens a behavior. This is called positive reinforcement.
Example: Giving your a cat a treat after it sits.
2. negative punishment
Taking away something pleasant that weakens a behavior. This is called negative punishment.
Example: Your cat bats or bites you for attention and you then go into another room.
Those first two methods can be used creatively to both increase or decrease behaviors. They have low behavior/stress side effects—or fallout—and generally increase fond feelings and build relationships.
There are two more categories that use things that a cat doesn't like to change behavior. These categories are avoided by trainers as with each use the risk goes up of unwanted behavioral side effects.
3. positive punishment
Adding something unpleasant to weaken a behavior is called positive punishment.
Example: A cat jumps on counter and then you spritz the cat with water.
4. negative reinforcement
Removing something unpleasant to strengthen a behavior is called negative reinforcement.
Example: Your cat jumps on your keyboard and you blow air at your cat’s face until your cat hops off.
This is the interesting aspect of using anything a cat would choose to avoid: there is fallout you cannot control. This is because learning through consequence and learning through association happen at the same time.
With the last two options there is a high probability your cat will associate the unpleasant thing with you and not the behavior (for example, the cat will run away when you reach for water in any scenario).
This is where associative learning plays a role.
Learning Through Association
This second major type of learning takes place when the brain simply takes note of what predicted something in time. An example might be getting pulled over by the police and earning a ticket for speeding. After that incident you continue having some anxiety every time you see a police car in your rearview mirror. The ticket was positive punishment, it reduced your behavior of speeding and the fallout is you have anxiety when you see any police vehicle now. That was not the intended effect, the police just wanted safer speeds on the road. In the same way cats will associate us with the use of even mild punishments.
Understanding Behavioral Fallout
There are several common types of fallout. In cats, you may see escape and avoidance, aggression, generalization, depression, behavioral suppression, and physical injury, and the person using the unpleasant experiences to train will become dependent on using punishment.
1. Escape and Avoidance
An example is when you have used a spray bottle to stop scratching and the cat begins to avoid rooms where you reside, the rooms in which the situation occurred, and other factors, such as the time of day when it occurred.
When you yell at two cats that are getting into a fight, it can increases the level of aggression towards the other cat or even you.
A cat can make a wide assumption about what predicts an unpleasant experience. Reaching for a spray bottle causes a cat to turn but also reaching for a remote.
Having behavior punished frequently can start to reduce behavior overall. If a cat's behavior is constantly evoking punishment they will try less and generally move less.
5. Behavioral Suppression
A natural behavior like jumping or scratching gets suppressed and the cat no longer has a natural outlet for a species’ behavioral need.
A panicked cat runs into something or falls off something when startled. Cats can increase fighting as stress increases and overgrooming or other medical fallout can result from increased stress.
7. Reinforcement of the Person
This is a tricky thing, the person who uses the unpleasant experience to train gets reinforced through negative reinforcement. The person makes the annoying or bad situation for themselves go away by using the spray bottle. It is very easy to escalate the use of punishment, and the person begins to rely on its use to control the cat’s unwanted behavior.
Understanding how cats learn can have a huge impact on their welfare and our relationships with them. In life, behavior is punished through unpleasant consequences and also reinforced though pleasant ones every day. The key is to control these unpleasant and pleasant experiences in training to minimize the behavioral fallout.
Increasing pleasant experiences in life promotes animal welfare and reduces aggression, depression, and avoidance. A great side effect of associative learning is that it will also build pleasant associations with anyone around when good things are happening. All behavior issues can be addressed through more than one training avenue. Understanding the consequences associated with different training paths can allow you to both adjust your cats behavior and strengthen the bond between you and your feline companion.
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Kate Wilson is the Director of Training at K9 Turbo Training. Her lifelong passion of observing and studying animal behavior led her to be a Certified Professional… view Kate’s full profile here.
I’ve been told by behaviorists that the best way to stop a cat fight is a loud noise or shout. Should I not yell at them to break up the fight? What’s a better way to stop the fighting when it gets too aggressive?
I think of a cat fight as a time for swift action to mitigate damage. In this case, choosing yelling will not promote the two cats liking each other more, but saves them from getting hurt in the moment. The key is zoom out of the immediate fight situation and prevent the whole cascade of events. I think of the yelling as emergency brakes, I don’t want the emergency to even happen. The key is to build relationships, social skills, and locate the fight “triggers” and this can be done with the help of a cat behavior consultant (https://m.iaabc.org/consultant/) another good recourse for further study is: “Decoding Your Cat: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Cat Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones”
I have a 13yr old male cat that occasionally picks fights with my 9yr old female cat. This behavior started about 3yrs ago and its now getting more aggressive. I’ve tried pheromones, calming spray and calming treats which helps but hasn’t stopped the fighting. Butterscotch isn’t doing anything to start the fights and they happen in different rooms and at different times of the day. It’s to the point when they fight my female pees a little during the fight. No blood is drawn during the fights. Any suggestions as to what I can do to stop dexter from picking fights with butterscotch? 90% of the time they are fine. Dexter will even groom her sometimes. Thanks for listening.
Hi Susan, when you are seeing aggression with unknown triggers, and seeing that you have also put in a lot of effort using pheromones etc. I recommend checking in with a board certified veterinary behaviorist. It may really help you locate the behavior triggers for Dexter or locate and address an underling issue. Many of these appointments are virtual right now. A vet behaviorist is the gold standard for behavior issues, a certified consultant is another good choice. I will also add IAABC cat behavior consultants ( https://m.iaabc.org/consultant/) who can help up determine what is going on here. we have some excellent feline behaviorist out there:) Please let us know how it goes or if I can be of further help choosing a cat consultant or vet behaviors. https://www.dacvb.org/search/custom.asp?id=4709
Thank you for this; so helpful.
May I ask about two cases?
One, a six-month old foster kitten, trapped outside and being socialized, taps/swats at hands with an intent look on his face. No claws at first but will increase intensity if we don’t withdraw our hand. The behaviour is decreasing as we repeatedly hide our hands when he does it, or we leave his room.
What else can we do?
We pet when he’s eating/when he comes close and he does enjoy that. He head butts hands and rubs against us. Just, occasionally, he whirls and taps.
Second, our resident cat (1.5 yrs old) likes to lick stuff: books, wood shelving, faces. Very focussed, hard to distract.
How do we change that behaviour?
Karin (IG @karinsfosterfelines)
Great article. I have two cats that I spoil terribly. My one orange male tabbly attacks my other one sometimes. Let’s say rough play. And the other cat doesn’t like it and won’t play with him. They do play a lot though. Not sure how to handle it. They are 12 and 10 and only way 10lbs each. Indoor cats only. Thank you
I think of a cat fight as a time for swift action to mitigate damage. In this case, choosing yelling will not promote the two cats liking each other more, but saves them from getting hurt in the moment. The key is zoom out of the immediate fight situation and prevent the whole cascade of events. I think of the yelling as emergency brakes, I don’t want the emergency to even happen. The key is to build relationships, social skills, and locate the fight “triggers” and this can be done with the help of a cat behavior consultant (https://m.iaabc.org/consultant/ or http://corecaab.org/ ) another good recourse for further study is: “Decoding Your Cat: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Cat Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones”
Can i training cat after a long time no training ?