How to Solve Cat Behavior Problems

By: Dr. H. Ellen Whiteley

Cat-Training Basics

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. You will not be able to get your cat to act like a person, but you can improve her behavior in smaller ways.

The cat is a very independent animal, and many cat owners will tell you that it is this independence that makes the cat such a comfortable companion around the house. Cats are not as demanding of attention as dogs. And, unlike dogs, most cats don't make any particular effort to win your approval -- they'll often wait for you to come to them rather than run around trying to catch your eye.

All this means that the cat is a very easy going creature who is polite and self-possessed. But it also means that it can be difficult to train a cat. If you and your cat don't see eye to eye over a certain kind of behavior, you might have a hard time getting him to do things your way. However, don't give up hope -- it's not completely impossible to modify your cat's behavior.


Getting a Cat to Change His Ways

Can a cat be trained? Surprisingly, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" -- but it has to be done on feline terms. Everything in this article up to this point is background information, designed to help you see the world from your cat's perspective, which is an important key to training. You can train a cat to jump through hoops or roll over on command. However, a more valuable training goal is teaching him to stay within the boundaries of acceptable behavior in society.

Emily Post for cats. It's probably best to make your training goal to cultivate good manners in your cat. Manners can be defined as performing normal and natural cat behaviors in the places, at the times, and in the way that satisfies both human and feline needs. This means finding the middle ground -- in other words, what you can live with -- and sticking to it.

Avoid bad habits. When it comes to behavior problems, most cat owners don't think in terms of prevention -- and more's the pity. It may be cute when your 12-week-old kitten plays with your bare hand, but six months later when the now ten-pound beast sinks his full set of predator's teeth into your wrist, he's really only doing what he was taught to do.

So, the best rule of thumb to follow is a common sense one: Never encourage any behavior you don't want to see later on, and always discourage any behavior you never want to see again.

Shape your cat's behavior. It's important to realize that certain cat behaviors can't be discouraged completely; they can only be shaped into a form that is socially acceptable in your household. This is also known as behavior modification.

A good example is scratching. This is an instinctive behavior for which many cats are declawed, lose their homes, or are even put to sleep each year. A better strategy is shaping the scratching behavior toward an acceptable object, such as a properly constructed scratching post, while simultaneously making other choices unpleasant or difficult.

The most successful, long-lasting, humane, and commonsense way to discipline a cat is positive reinforcement. The opposite method, negative reinforcement, punishes the animal for exhibiting a particular behavior in any way other than what the owner or trainer wants.

In the example of scratching furniture, this would mean following the cat around the house 24 hours a day and correcting him every time he lays claw to upholstery. Since scratching is instinctive and can't be stopped, this method is doomed to failure anyway. Praising and petting the cat when he uses the post and offering minor corrections (not punishments) when he's caught in the act of scratching elsewhere will help modify the behavior.

Remedying behavior problems can't be done by "cookbook" means. Every individual cat is unique, which means every individual cat's behavior is unique. Most likely, you'll have to adapt remedies to fit your own cat's personality and the circumstances in your home. You're now armed with the basic tools you need to accomplish that. We'll begin looking at some specific remedies in the next page with cats that bite and scratch.