Positive Behavior Change – Catch your cats doing something right

Learning by Association

Getting more behaviors you like from your cat is just a matter of paying attention to what they do and rewarding the things you like. Cats learn by association, so they will increase behaviors they find enjoyable (are rewarded for) and decrease ones they do not find reinforcing.

There are no dedicated training sessions here. Positive behavior change means shaping your cat’s behavior spontaneously as you encounter it through your day.

Identify what you want your cat to do

Instead of thinking what you don’t want your cat to do, think about what you want your cat to do in its place. For example, if your cat is scratching the carpet and couch, your training goal is not actually to stop them from doing this.

Your training focus is to get your cat to scratch the scratching post. Think of how you want your cat to behave at home, and then identify what that would look like so you have a realistic training goal. You can work on multiple goals at once, too.

Positive Rewards

Rewards to use during this process can be attention from you (talking, petting), play with a favorite toy, or most commonly, tasty treats. Make sure to reward immediately when you see your cat doing something you want. Within 1-3 seconds is best.

Manage the Environment

Make sure the environment is right for your cat to easily succeed in doing what you want! This means changing around some aspects of the physical environment or your own behavior first.

  • Keep tasty treats or other rewards on hand.
  • Pay more attention to your cat’s behavior so you can praise and reward immediately.
  • Ensure that all feline essential needs (information on these here), such as food, litter boxes, and beds, are easy for your cat to access.
  • Have a set routine with regular feeding, exercise, play, and social time.

For the cat scratching example, this means adding more scratching posts near the area that your cat is currently scratching and elsewhere in the home so your cat will have more options to choose the right object (scratcher) over the undesired ones (couch and carpet).

Catch Your Cat Doing Something Right

Once you have your goal in place of what you want your cat to do and how this behavior looks, reward any time your cat comes near to this behavior. For instance, if your cat roams and you want them to stay in your yard, begin by first rewarding when your cat comes back and when they are in your yard. You are capturing and rewarding a desired behavior.

As you continue to reward your cat whenever they achieve or get close to the desired behavior, you can choose to reward more specific aspects of it. Essentially, you are shaping the behavior by reinforcing more of what you want.

For our example of scratching, you would first reward any interaction your cat did with the scratching post (sniffing, rubbing on it, scratching). After your cat started using the post more often, eventually you would only give a reward for scratching it.

Tips & Troubleshooting

  • Consistency is key. Make sure you are rewarding your cat predictably, and everyone in the household is on the same page.
  • Go slowly – there’s no need to rush.
  • Evaluate your environment again. Cats need calm surroundings and their needs met in order to learn effectively.
  • Understand your cat’s motivation for the behavior you would like to change, as well as their preferences for rewards.

These recommendations are meant as a general outline for training. Behavior is influenced by many factors and can be affected by underlying medical and motivational causes. Stop and consult with a veterinarian and/or certified feline behavior expert if you have any concerns or experience a change in your cat’s normal behaviors.

Kindly provided for Cat Care Clinic by:
Julia Pinckney, MSc.
Applied Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare

Ilona Rodan, DVM, Feline Specialist and Behavior Consultant, Cat Behavior Solutions, CCBC

Madison East Side

Cat Care Clinic - East

1006 E. Washington Ave.

Madison, WI 53703


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Madison West Side

Cat Care Clinic - West

322 Junction Rd.

Madison, WI 53717


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COVID-19 Care Updates • Modified August 1, 2021