Don’t punish her! Positive reinforcement is the best way to coax any cat back to good behavior.
Biting, scratching or hissing — is your kitty misbehaving? As a cat parent, you love her like a child. So what action do you take? Say no TV for a week? Deny access to digital devices? Ground her? Well, no. But what do you do?
Cats aren’t humans, so no amount of talking, persuasion or scolding will make any difference to a kitty who’s acting out. Resorting to punishments like locking her in the bathroom makes no sense, and doesn’t present itself as a lesson on how to be “good” next time round. The squirt bottle can also do more harm than good. “Squirting your cat can have varying effects,” according to Cat Behavior Associates (www.catbehaviorassociates.com). “It will make your cat afraid of you, frustrate him or teach him to misbehave when you are not around, to avoid being squirted.”
Be positive, not punishing
“My approach to training is based on positive reinforcement,” writes feline behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett in her book Think Like a Cat. “If I want my cat to stop doing something, I direct him to something better.”
Pam isn’t alone in her approach. “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” says the HSUS. “That’s the theory behind positive reinforcement.”
What do you want your cat to stop doing? Using your best couch as a scratching post? Jumping up on the kitchen counter? Not using the litter box? Instead of getting angry or frustrated, try to look at the situation more from your cat’s perspective. “The first step to training your cat is to understand him,” advises the ASPCA.
Start by looking at the unwanted behavior and asking yourself the following questions:
1. Why is she doing this?
2. What alternative can I offer?
3. How can I best motivate my cat to use the alternative?
4. How can I spoil her silly for choosing the alternative?
From sofa to scratching post
Using this model, let’s look at a simple example. Say your cat is sharpening her claws on your good sofa. How do you go about tackling this problem?
1. Instead of shouting at her to stop, ask yourself: “Why is she doing this?” The answer: “Because she likes to stretch her legs and toes, and needs a way to keep her claws in good condition.”
2. Now, think of an alternative to the sofa as a way for her to satisfy this need – i.e. a scratching post. Buy or make one that is similar in height and texture to the sofa, and that’s topple-proof.
3. Next, motivate Kitty to use it. Put catnip, toys or treats on it to lure her over –anything to get her attention. Prevent her from drifting back to the sofa by covering it, thereby denying access.
4. When you hear her use the scratching post, immediately give her treats, praise and/or affection – everything you’ve got to encourage her to keep using your alternative. “Timing is everything in training your cat,” says the HSUS. “Cats have short attention spans, so the reward must come immediately (within seconds) of the behavior or he may not know what it’s for.”
This and other behavioral problems are best solved with a TLC approach, a lot of patience, and some understanding of the feline perspective. Using a positive reward-based approach rather than punishment will also create a stronger and more loving bond between you. Remember, she’s not a toddler or a teenager – she won’t respond to any human reasoning you may try to offer up, be it an argument, lecture, or creative PowerPoint presentation!
Unwanted cat wakeup calls
This example comes from my own experience. My daughter complains that our cat, Cici, wakes her up in the middle of the night by meowing by her head on the pillow — seemingly for no reason. My daughter responds by interacting with her, whether it’s to play, hold or feed her. This means Cici is rewarded by attention for her unwanted behavior. In other words, my daughter has inadvertently taught Cici to continue waking her up.
When I asked my daughter if she ever gets mad with Cici, she said: “No, she is an old cat and probably just wants the attention.” However, this situation could easily take a turn for the worse if my daughter ever reacted by shouting, throwing something at Cici, or even kicking her off the bed. Suddenly, fear, stress and mistrust would become big issues.
Being bothered by a cat in the middle of the night is a problem shared by many cat parents, and one that is not so easily resolved. The main reason it’s difficult is because you have to literally ignore your cat in order to achieve positive reinforcement. This sounds contrary, but cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy explains by suggesting you play with your cat before bedtime, as a pre-sleep routine. With this routine in place, he says he can almost guarantee success — but only if you totally ignore your cat’s nightly disturbances for the next ten to 14 days. In time, your cat will realize that the positive reinforcement comes from pre-bed playtime, not by waking you up in the middle of the night.
Nadia Ali is a freelance writer who was born in London, England and now lives on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. She is inspired by Cici, her family cat. Her work has been published online and in print.