The techniques used most commonly to modify cat behavior include habituation, extinction, desensitization, counterconditioning, and shaping. A behavior modification technique called flooding (see Behavior of Cats: Behavior Modification Techniques) is not used very often because it is more likely to make animals worse. While it is claimed that punishment is frequently used with varying degrees of success, few people use punishment correctly. For punishment (such as yelling at the cat) to be successful, it must occur just as the behavior starts, be consistently delivered, and be strong enough to stop the unwanted behavior. Most punishments are not given at the right time or are not the appropriate type for the situation.
Behavior Modification Techniques
Most of the techniques involved in behavior modification are not hard to learn and can be successfully employed as preventive techniques. They do, however, require an investment of time and effort. The following is a short review of the basic principles involved in these techniques.
Habituation is a simple form of learning that involves no rewards. It is merely the ending of or decrease in a response to a stimulus that results from repeated or prolonged exposure to that stimulus. For example, horses placed in a pasture bordering a road may at first run away when traffic passes, but eventually learn to ignore it. A cat that habituates to one type of sound does not, as a consequence of this habituation, become habituated to other sounds. Habituation is not the same as failing to respond to stimulation as a result of fatigue, sensory adaptation, or injury. The effects of habituation are generally long lasting. However, if an animal is repeatedly exposed to a potentially harmful stimulus (such as a predator) without being harmed, habituation does not generally occur. Because of this, scientists believe that responses to dangerous stimuli may have an inherited resistance to habituation.
Spontaneous recovery is associated with habituation. If there is a long period of time between when a cat has experienced an event to which it had habituated and re-exposure to the same event, the animal may again react. For example, some cats will howl at night to get a reaction. The more the owner attempts to quiet it, the more the cat howls. It will continue this pattern because it is getting the attention it wanted. Even if the attention is “negative,” some cats will find it rewarding. The best method to discourage the behavior is to ignore it. Eventually the cat stops howling if the owner consistently ignores it. However, the unwanted behavior comes back every now and then. This is called spontaneous recovery.
Conditioning refers to associations between stimuli and behavior. For example, a hungry cat may drool when it sees food (the stimulus). If every time that the hungry cat sees the food it also hears a can opener, after several times, the sound of the can opener alone will cause the cat to start drooling. This is called conditioning. The can opener elicits the same response as the sight of food. After several times, the cat has learned to associate the sound of the can opener with the food.
Reinforcement is any event that increases the chances that a certain behavior will be repeated. Reinforcements can be positive or negative. When positive reinforcement (a reward) is used in training, there is a positive relationship between the behavior and its consequences. The more the pet does a behavior, the more it gets positive reinforcement. This makes that behavior increase. A negative reinforcement (which is mistakenly thought of as punishment by many people) is something unpleasant that increases a behavior when it is removed. For example, some cats find being held in a lap unpleasant. When a cat squirms and escapes from your lap, it is rewarded with being freed from your hold. After several times, the release from restraint will increase the chance that your cat will try to escape again the next time.
Second-order reinforcers are signals that can be used at a distance to let the cat know that a reward is coming. Commonly used second-order reinforcers are words, such as “good kitty,” clickers, and whistles. By carefully pairing these with a primary reward (such as food or petting), second-order reinforcers can generate the same response as the reward itself. For example, a clicker can be associated with a food treat as a reward for coming. By associating the clicker with the food, you can train the cat to come from farther away, and still reward the behavior by using the clicker. Positive training and “clicker” training have recently become very popular and work well with cats as well as dogs. However, it is possible to do an excellent job at positive training without using any second-order reinforcers. Clicker training requires frequent practice and excellent timing. In some situations involving problem behaviors, the incorrect use of a clicker may hinder, rather than help, a behavior modification program.
Extinction is a response that stops when the reward is removed. An example of extinction is ignoring a cat that howls at night for attention. If the owners get up to feed the cat (or even in many cases to yell at it), the behavior continues. If they stop feeding the cat or giving it attention, the cat will eventually stop howling during the night because the reward is no longer there. However, occasional feeding in response to the howling will only reinforce the pattern. The more valuable the original reward, the longer the reward has been given, and the more uncertain the cat is that the reward has been truly removed, the greater the resistance to extinction.
Because there is often an association between getting the reward and the intensity of the behavior, the intensity or frequency of the behavior you are trying to eliminate usually increases at the beginning of extinction. In other words, a behavior you are trying to extinguish often gets worse before it gets better. It is critical that you do not give in. Giving in will only make extinction more difficult. The cat has learned that, although your threshold has increased, the cat can override it by working harder.
Overlearning is the repeated performance of an already learned behavior. It is frequently used in training for specific events. Overlearning accomplishes 3 things: it delays forgetting, it increases the resistance to extinction, and it increases the chances that the response will become a “knee-jerk”, or automatic response, when the circumstances are similar. This aspect can be useful in teaching a cat to overcome a fear or anxiety.
Shaping is a learning technique that works well for cats that do not know what response is desired by the trainer. Shaping works through gradual approximations and allows the cat to be rewarded at first for any behavior that resembles the desired end result. For example, when teaching a cat to come, tossing a food treat in front of the cat when it first takes a step or two in your direction will increase the chance that the cat will come closer. Then the cat can be given a treat for taking several steps toward you, and finally, only when it comes all the way to you.
Avoidance of a problem behavior is essential until you can seek qualified help, particularly in the case of cats that are biting or scratching. With treatment it may be possible to desensitize the cat to circumstances in which aggressive behavior occurs, but avoidance is the key to minimizing danger. Avoidance does not mean that the cat has control, or that you are giving in to the cat. Rather, it means that the cat is not being given the chance to reinforce the pattern by acting aggressively. Every time a cat becomes aggressive, it learns that this reaction may help it cope with the situation, thus reinforcing the problem.
Desensitization is a way to gradually teach a cat to tolerate a situation by carefully exposing it to the situation in small steps. If a cat is afraid of another cat in the household, gradual, controlled exposure to the other pet can be arranged to desensitize the fearful cat. The second cat could be placed in a carrier and kept at the far side of the room for a minute or two. The cat in the carrier could gradually be moved closer and kept in the room longer, but only if the fearful cat remains calm and relaxed,
Counterconditioning is a method for reducing unwanted behavior by teaching the cat to replace it with another more favorable behavior. In the example of the fearful cat, the cat will learn faster if it is first taught to sit and relax in exchange for a treat. The cat must be calm, and convey by its eyes, body posture, and facial expressions that it is not upset or agitated in any way. Once this routine is learned, the desensitization is added by placing the other cat (in a carrier at first) on the other side of the room for a few minutes. If at any time the cat starts to become anxious or act like it wants to leave, the other cat should be moved farther away until the nervous cat relaxes. Relaxing is the key and is the first step in changing the fearful cat's behavior. There is no point in having the cat stay if it is clearly distressed. Counterconditioning and desensitization can take a lot of time and effort. The exercises must be frequently repeated so that the unwanted behavior decreases to an acceptable level. Moving too quickly provokes anxiety and works against any progress with the behavior modification program.
Flooding is prolonged exposure to a stimulus until the cat eventually stops reacting. This is the opposite of the approach taken in desensitization. It is far more stressful than any of the other treatment strategies and if not used correctly will make things worse. This technique should be used only by a professional and only as a last resort.
Punishment is also known as aversive conditioning. It is any unpleasant event that lowers the chance that a behavior will be repeated. Punishment is not the same as negative reinforcement (see above). To be most successful, punishment must occur as early as possible (within a few seconds of the start of the behavior), and it must be consistent and appropriate. Critical factors in punishment include timing, consistency, appropriate intensity, and the presence of a reward after the undesirable behavior ends. This is the most frequently ignored part of treatment for people whose pets have behavior problems. Owners often resort to physical punishment as the first choice, but punishment does not need to be physical. Furthermore, punishment is just as hard to use correctly as counterconditioning and desensitization. Punishment is never an “easy out” and has a high chance of failure. It can also lead to other negative consequences, such as increasing the chance of fear or aggression.
Use of Medication to Treat Behavior Problems
Your veterinarian may, in some cases, prescribe medication to help treat a behavior problem of your cat. Drug treatment for almost any behavior change is most useful when combined with behavior modification.
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In recent years there has been an increase in the use of medication to treat a variety of behavior problems in cats (see Behavior of Cats: Drugs Used to Treat Behavior Problems in Cats). There are a number of potential disadvantages to the use of medication for treating behavior problems, however, and you should know that there is no “magic bullet” that will easily and quickly solve the problem. The limitations of medication use include the potential for adverse effects, cost, the need to treat for a considerable length of time before the medication takes effect, limited information on what medication is most effective, and the potential that the problem will reappear once the medication is withdrawn.
All medications have the potential to cause adverse effects. Fortunately, most of the modern antianxiety and antidepressant medications used in cats are well tolerated. Gastrointestinal upsets (leading to reduced appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea) are the most common adverse effects seen. In some cats, decreased activity or lethargy may occur in the first week or so of treatment as the animal adjusts to the medication. (This reaction typically disappears on its own.) More serious adverse effects, including potentially fatal inflammation of the liver, seizures, or other signs of toxicity, have been reported in rare cases. Most of the medications used for behavior problems in cats were designed for use in people. None have been directly approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in cats, although such use is not prohibited. This means that there may be limited information available on the safety, toxicity, and effectiveness in cats.
Because this is a relatively new area of veterinary medicine, demonstration of effectiveness through research has not been done in many cases. Veterinarians often must rely on case reports, their own clinical experience, and presentations at meetings to learn which medications and what dosage to recommend. Individual cats vary in their response to medication, just as people do. As a result, there will always be some element of trial and error in determining whether a particular medication will help solve a behavior problem.
If medication is used without behavior modification or environmental changes (and even when it is used with these techniques in some cases), the unwanted behavior may return once the medication is discontinued. Some problems may require treatment for a year or longer. In most cases medication is used for a period of several months.
Despite these limitations, medication has the potential to be very helpful in a wide range of cat behavior problems, including marking, fear-related problems, compulsive behaviors like over-grooming, and some types of aggression. Your veterinarian can discuss whether medication might be appropriate for your cat.
Last full review/revision July 2011 by Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, ABS Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist