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Pavlov's Cats

Beyond the spray bottle: Behaviour Modification principles for cat owners.
Written by Rita of Vivace Cats.

Classical conditioning

Also called Pavlovian conditioning. This takes place when the cat forms an association between a neutral stimulus and a conditional response.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning refers to learning that takes place from cause and effect. If there is a consequence to a behaviour that a cat likes, he or she is more likely to repeat it, conversely if the consequence is unpleasant, it may be less likely.   A reinforcer is a consequence that would cause the repeat behaviour, a punisher is anything that may cause it to stop. For example, an Abyssinian kitten may jump on your lap because he likes the strokes he gets there (reinforcement) yet may desist (eventually) jumping on top of the bird cage if given a squirt from the bottle (punishment). Pretty much common sense. Now, reinforcement can be either positive or negative depending on if you are adding or subtracting. Adding a pleasant consequence (such as stroking) is a positive reinforcement. Yet if there was an unpleasant situation already, and we took the unpleasantness away, then we may also cause the behaviour to repeat. In this way, we also get positive punishment (adding a negative consequence, like a squirt of water) and negative punishment (removal of a pleasant consequence – say stroking – the cat may cease its lap-sitting behaviour if you stop the stroking).

So to summarise:

Positive Negative
Reinforcement (to increase a behaviour) Add a desirable outcome (eg treats, attention, strokes)  Take away undesirable outcome
Punishment (to decrease a behaviour) Add an undesirable outcome (eg water spray)
Remove a desirable outcome

Armed with this understanding, we can set about trying to teach our cats things. Either withdrawing the pleasant consequence (negative punishment), or positive punishment (eg spray bottle) can decrease undesirable behaviour. Extinction of behaviour occurs either way. However, it is important to remember that upon withdrawal of reinforcement, most living beings will redouble their efforts before they stop. After all, it always worked before! So the undesirable behaviour may get worse before it gets better, however, be persistent and the behaviour will be extinguished. Consistency is also very important. If I give in occasionally when a little Somali girl begs for food from the table, I will be intermittently reinforcing her behaviour, which makes extinction very difficult. The same principle the pokies use – the pay off may be the next time or the next time – so keep on trying! If reinforcement ceases altogether, extinction is much quicker.

It may be apparent now that identification of the antecedents and consequences to a given behaviour is of supreme importance. We may unwittingly reinforce problem behaviour by lavishing attention after the behaviour, and ignore the cat when it is behaving well because the good behaviour is unobtrusive. Therefore reinforcing good behaviour is extremely important. If our Aby kitten jumps on the birdcage, he will get a squirt. However, when he sits on the chair in the room with the bird and pays it little or no attention, he has earned a reward. Shaping this behaviour is very useful. It may be that an Aby kitten cannot be expected to ignore the bird for an hour, so there is no chance of rewarding him. He should then be rewarded for staying put for, say, one minute, then five, then 15, and gradually increase the amount of time he needs to demonstrate the good behaviour. Most behaviours can be shaped in this way, by reinforcing behaviours that may not be perfect initially, but get successively closer. Most animal trainers work this way.

To be effective, food reinforcers (treats) should be given only after the desired behaviour. I have started with new treats which the cats trample over each other to get, however, they get them only after events such as a bath, having pills, or at shows, to reinforce compliance and to create a more pleasant association with these situations.

Suggested applications

  • Reinforce cats for good behaviour after unpleasant procedures
  • Give treats in the show cage to create a positive association
  • Train kittens to enjoy being a cage with toys and treats before going to a real show

For shy cats, provide visitors with treats to teach them that strangers can be good people to know.

Also see:

Cat questions   How to play with a cat   Why do cats eat grass?