Feline behavior modifications that actually work

December 12, 2018
Erin E. Rand, contributing writer

Vetted, Vetted January 2019, Volume 114, Issue 1

Tell your veterinary clients to put the spray bottle down, and let's talk.

As soon as the cat jumps on the counter, the first instinct for many owners is to break out the spray bottle, but that isn't the best way to stop unwanted behaviors. Though cats have gained a reputation for being untrainable, veterinary behaviorist Julia Albright, MA, DVM, DACVB, argued that with persistence and creativity, feline behavioral modifications can lead to a healthier, happier cat at a Fetch dvm360 session in Kansas City.

So what's the problem?

Even though the spray bottle seems to work in the moment, Dr. Albright says, “We're superimposing that our cat should know better, but their cognitive abilities are not the same as ours.” It's not that cats are stupid, but their brains aren't the same as ours. Verbal language is one of the big differences. While a child can reason that they have been sent to their room because they kicked their sibling, all cats and dogs understand is the context around them.

Because of that, punishment has to be immediate-less than one second after the bad behavior occurs, according to Dr. Albright. Consistent, too. Punishment should be doled out every single time the cat misbehaves.

Humans, though, don't have particularly good timing or the consistency to punish a cat effectively. Before deterrence, there are actions owners can take to go on the offensive, addressing unwanted behaviors at the source.

A good offense is the best defense

When a cat gets sprayed with water for peeing on the rug, the only thing the punishment accomplishes is suppressing the surface level behavior. Instead, Dr. Albright advocates for going deeper and addressing what might be causing the bad behavior.

“We're looking at pain, discomfort, endocrine issues and other things, but even if there isn't an obvious condition, mental health is health,” Dr. Albright says. “Behavioral issues should be considered a medical issue.”

Cats need mental stimulation to provide outlets for natural behavior-hunting, roaming and searching. “Play is important,” Dr. Albright says. “I ‘prescribe' exercise for my patients and find breaking down the task into chunks of about two minutes (about the duration of a TV commercial) three to four times a day makes it much more doable for clients.” Play that engages a cat will boost their mood, help foster a bond with their owner and cause an overall improvement in behavior.

Because in the wild, cats spend a couple of hours a day searching and killing food, Dr. Albright advocates for treat-dispensing toys that make the cats work a little harder for their food. “They don't have to be fancy,” she says. “You can make a puzzle box out of a priority mail box. It slows them down and makes them think about it.”

Training the ‘untrainable'

“Cats are not untrainable,” Dr. Albright stresses. She says another effective tactic to avert unwanted behaviors is teaching acceptable alternatives. For instance, a cat that looks like he is about to chase another cat can be trained to run jump on his cat tree instead. The benefit to positive reinforcement is preservation of the human-animal bond and the relationship between the cats. Relying on punishment also only stops the behavior in front of the owner.

After addressing all underlying issues, if the cat is still misbehaving, it may be appropriate to use a humane deterrent. Something that delivers a correction based on the behavior rather than the presence of the owner is the best. “Having behavior control in a situation and consistent repercussions result in a less stressed animal,” Dr. Albright says.

For cats that scratch where they aren't supposed to, owners can fortify furniture with double-sided sticky tape. A carpet runner for office chairs turned upside down is aversive to cats and can discourage them from jumping on counters. For an environmental change, frosted contact paper covering windows can keep cats from seeing other felines outside and put a stop to territorial spraying.

Dr. Albright emphasizes that these types of interventions should be “least invasive, minimally aversive.” Start with small actions, moving up a notch at a time. 

Ultimately, enrichment is the solution to a happy, well-behaved cat according to Dr. Albright. Making sure a cat is healthy and its basic needs are met will result in an enhanced bond with its owner.

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