Meet Your Cat on His Territory: Using the Three-Part C.A.T. Plan to Change Your Cat’s Behavior
Of all God’s creatures there is only one that cannot be made the slave of the lash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.
—MARK TWAIN, Notebook, 1894
No Punishment, No Reprimand
I suppose I should not be anymore, but I’m continually surprised by the number of clients who tell me they’ve rubbed a cat’s nose in a puddle of urine, hit the cat’s nose when she bit them, or kicked the cat when she attacked the owner’s leg. Some clients tell me they have read you should flick or tap the cat firmly on the nose, or to grab the cat by the scruff of the neck. I’ll never forget the woman I met at a social function who proudly told me how she believed she had solved her cat’s habit of jumping on the counter: She scooped up kitty and threw her across the room and into a wall. But her punishment surely made things worse. Hitting, kicking, or shouting at your cat may make her see you as a potential aggressor, causing the fight-or-flight response. She may start attacking you because you are now associated with something negative. These practices are ineffective and inhumane. Animals don’t have the kind of brains that can connect (1) the spot they soiled (often hours before), (2) your anger and punishment, and (3) what they are supposed to do instead. There is simply no behavioral basis for punishing or reprimanding animals.
I recall a Canadian client, Adele, whose breeder told her to swat her Ragdoll kitten, Bianca, on the nose or rear when she playfully attacked Adele’s hands, and Adele did. By the time Bianca was five months old, she no longer just playfully attacked, but became fearful whenever Adele came near, and attacked out of fear. Bianca’s pupils would dilate like saucers, her ears would flatten, and Adele could not get anywhere near Bianca without receiving serious puncture wounds to her hands, legs, and face. One attack required a hospital stay. To protect herself from further wounds, Adele placed Bianca in a bedroom. She couldn’t easily enter the room to clean the litter box; she had to quickly slide new bowls of food through a crack in the door before Bianca hurled herself at it. Happily, using the behavior techniques in Chapter 7, we were able to rehabilitate Bianca in about eight weeks. Today, Adele and Bianca coexist peacefully.
To get a cat to stop doing something, say, to stay off a counter, I hear the following advice a lot: “Just tell it ‘no’ very firmly.” This makes me smile. You may as well scold a squirrel. When in doubt about the effectiveness of reprimands, imagine your cat is as domesticated as a squirrel or raccoon. A squirrel will quickly deduce that you are someone to be associated with harm, and will learn to avoid you; a raccoon might defend himself or attack you.
Even in dogs, recent research suggests that confrontational or aversive methods, such as staring them down, striking or intimidating them, and other elements of a so-called alpha relationship, are ineffective and can elicit more aggression.1 A dog may change his behavior to avoid the unpleasant sounds coming from you. But a cat? Cats, motivated by their survival instincts, and without regard for your strategy of playing alpha-cat, will just avoid or attack you—or they may perform the behavior again to get attention.
Finally, punishment or reprimand may teach your cat a local, rather than generalized, lesson, and she’ll develop what’s called an owner-absent behavior. Even if your cat could learn to stay off the counter when you yelled “No,” she will associate you with that unpleasantness, not the counter itself. Because the unpleasantness was with you, the cat will simply wait until you’re not around and then jump on the counter. Or say you punish or reprimand your cat after she has sprayed urine and she runs away looking scared and upset. You think you’ve gotten your point across. Congratulations on a very small victory: You may have just taught her to spray when you’re not around—or even made her spray more often because you have further elevated her anxiety, and spraying is one of the ways cats soothe anxiety. Bad idea. You need a much subtler approach, a silken-glove response worthy of these feline masters of nuance.
What Works: Withdraw Your Attention and Even Your Presence
I’m not out of reasons why you should avoid punishment and reprimands. Like a child with a parent, most cats crave any form of attention from the owner—even if it’s negative attention. For some cats, a firm “No” can actually be a reward. Instead of scolding your cat when he exhibits problem behaviors, try leaving the room immediately. This technique has a good pedigree: Mother cats teach their kittens what not to do precisely by withdrawing attention from them. Over time a cat will learn that when he meows excessively or playfully attacks you, you, much to the dismay of the cat, leave the room. Later in this chapter I’ll also explain how to distract and deter your cat from his problem behaviors.
You Have the Power to Solve Your Cats’ Behavior Issues
There are so many misunderstandings about cats, and they are particularly prevalent among the very people who are likely to give up their cats to shelters—or to the “good death.” These cat owners are often unaware of their cat’s estrous cycle; mistakenly think that females should have a litter before being spayed; believe that cats act out of spite; misinterpret the meaning of normal play behaviors; and are unaware that the number of behavior problems goes up with the number of cats in a household.
The idea that cats themselves have behavior issues or problems is itself a kind of misnomer: In almost all cases in which the issue is behavioral, as opposed to medical, in origin, the behavior that most needs to be changed is the owner’s. I am a cat behaviorist, but the first behavior I modify is always human.
Cats just are. This is why we love them. Lacking our kind of cognition, lacking ideas about how things ought to be, cats simply observe or respond, with no verbalized thought in between. They respond reliably, dependably, to what we call love and affection, which they feel in their cat bodies as good energy and pleasant touch. They respond to our generosity in setting down a bowl of food, not with gratitude but with relief from hunger and from anxiety about being hungry. They respond to what we do just as nature has conditioned them to. They respond to their environment in ways that would have maximized their survival strategies in the wild. There’s no good or bad about it. Most of the time, we adore their natural response: giving and getting warmth, purring, playing, resting serenely.
Sometimes, however, their response to their environment is not so pleasing. But that is often because we have acted in ways alien to, or at least challenging to, their nature. There are many reasons that cats stop using the box, for example, but once you can rule out medical problems, in almost every case the behavior is triggered by owner error. (And that’s good news.) It’s one thing to expect cats to walk into an unnatural structure and eliminate in a plastic box with fake or processed sand. It’s quite another to expect them to use a filthy box, or to trustingly enter one with a towering toddler, or an aggressive cat, standing nearby. We enjoy cats who play gently, but we grow angry if they respond according to their conditioning by us and bite or scratch too hard.
Cats don’t have a sense of ethics, or morals, and they can’t plan ahead to consider your feelings. Don’t project complicated intent onto your cat. Whatever he’s doing, it’s not out of sheer cussedness. Thinking that your cat is doing something to get back at you is as silly as thinking your cat is furious with you for refusing to get him a smartphone. Cats don’t take things personally, and so can’t respond personally. That’s what we humans do.
So we arrive at three key points.
1. Your cat responds according to its nature (its genes) and its conditioning (its rearing). Its responses are normal, not thought-out, malicious, wrong, or otherwise bad.
2. You, as the owner of a cat, must willingly shoulder the responsibility for whatever conditioning your cat had prior to your ownership, and you have direct responsibility for any conditioned responses (including those arising from its environment) the cat developed after becoming yours.
3. There is no one in the world, human or cat, who has as much power and control—and thus responsibility—over the conditioned responses of your cat as you do. The answers lie in you. You will be doing the work I set out here, not your cat; your cat will simply respond, naturally. The good news? That’s what makes it so easy.
THE SEVEN CLASSES OF BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS IN CATS
I define a behavior problem as any action that causes distress for someone, including the cat in question. If you are a heavy sleeper and your cat’s four A.M meowing doesn’t wake you up, then it may not be a behavior problem for you. But once your significant other moves in to the apartment and you find that he’s a light sleeper, the meowing may become a problem. (It may also be a problem for your cat, if your cat is doing it because she’s stressed.) There are many different ways cats express their anxiety, and even more causes, but in my decades of working with them professionally I’ve come to categorize feline behavior problems into seven basic classes.
You bring home a new cat, and the resident cat runs away and hides—and won’t come out. Or cats in the home suddenly start hissing and posturing every day to the point that you have to divide up your home to give them separate living arrangements. (See Chapters 2, 5, and 7.)
There are different forms of aggression—many triggered by fear. You can see an extreme form of feline aggression in the cat that scratches or bites humans or other animals. These cats can raise the most serious and challenging of all behavior issues, especially if you have small children.
The typical advice includes: “Set boundaries and tell him ‘No.’ ” “Interrupt them by clapping.” “Put them on anti-anxiety medication.” “Feed your cats near each other.” “Separate them.” “Use a squirt gun.” “Re-home your cat.” Some of these techniques are counterproductive and will make the situation worse—and some may have caused it! (See Chapter 7.)
One day your cat decides the litter box isn’t good enough anymore—she prefers your sheets. Or your desk. Or your shoe. Urination or defecation (I’ll refer to both as elimination) outside of the litter box is the most common behavior issue I see.
The typical advice includes: “Add more litter boxes.” “Change litters.” “Clean the area with a good enzyme cleaner.” “Scoop more often.” “Go to a vet to see if there’s a medical cause.” All good suggestions. If only these things are done, however, improvement may be nonexistent or temporary. The habituated unwanted behavior is still a habit. It must be undone. In Chapter 8, I’ll show you a complete treatment plan.
You’re noticing a peculiar odor in some of the corners of your home, or you’ve caught your cat squatting to urine mark or backing up to a wall to release a spray. Often the advice for this is to either put up with it, or get rid of the cat, because “spraying is the one cat behavior you can’t stop.” No. Spraying is easily solvable. No need to euthanize or abandon a sprayer, and most of the time no need even to give him drugs. It’s critical to understand why your cat does it—e.g., anxiety—and then either eliminate the stressors or help your cat view them in a less negative way. The stressor is usually something in the cat’s environment (and I can help you figure out what that might be) or social tension with another cat inside the home. (See Chapter 9.)
You’re trying to watch TV and your cat keeps calling from the other room—and he’s not asking you to change the channel. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have a reason at all. Or, it’s four in the morning and your cat wants to be a leopard stalking a gazelle, or he sits in the shower and sings into the great acoustics for hours. There are different reasons why a cat may be meowing excessively, and I’ll tell you what those reasons are, and help you change the behavior. (See Chapter 10.)
Your couch is shredded. The cats won’t stay off the counters. These things drive you insane. The typical advice includes: “When she’s on the counter, tell her ‘No!’ ” “Smack her!” “Squirt her with a squirt gun!” The first two will make the situation worse, and the third solves the wrong problem. All of them can cause owner-absent behavior. Help is on the way in Chapter 11.
Excessive chewing or eating of nonfood items, overgrooming, and sucking at carpets or fur can be compulsive behaviors. You may have been advised either to yell at the cat, or to pet and talk soothingly to her to make her feel better. These acts can reinforce the behavior. Learn to stop it in Chapter 12.
Except in the most extreme cases, every cat owner dealing with nonmedical feline behavior issues should be able to use this book to put together a plan of action that in most cases will be 100 percent effective and is completely natural or drug-free, durable, and humane.
The Elements of an
Effective C.A.T. Plan
There are three ways to remedy animal behavior problems: by changing their physical environment, by performing behavior modification techniques, and through pharmacology. I will mention medication only occasionally. To remedy most unwanted cat behaviors, I have developed and refined a comprehensive, holistic three-part treatment plan—two parts behavior techniques and one part environmental change. It’s as easy as C.A.T.
1. Cease the unwanted cat behavior—behavior modification and other techniques to eliminate the cause of a behavior or make the behavior or its location unattractive
2. Attract the cat to a desirable behavior or location—behavior modification with a lot of positive reinforcement to make an alternative behavior more attractive
3. Transform the territory—change the physical environment
Don’t even think of abandoning a C.A.T. Plan before you’ve implemented it in its entirety for thirty days—and sometimes sixty! Cat owners who set their expectations accordingly are far more successful than those who don’t.
For reasons of convenience, I will refer to these actions as steps, and I’ll present them in the easy-to-remember C.A.T. order, but with some obvious exceptions, you should carry out the techniques simultaneously—for at least thirty days!
CEASE the Unwanted Cat Behavior
You can get your cat to stop unwanted behaviors by making the behavior or the locations it’s performed in less attractive. There are a variety of ways to do this. To break a cycle of unwanted behavior, you can do some combination of distracting the cat and giving her a negative or conflicting association with the location of the undesirable behavior. At times you’ll use several techniques at once. Let me focus on some techniques that work …
Ideally, every time little Antonio tried to jump on the counter or scratch a stereo speaker, he would hear, in the distance, rumbling thunder and lightning. When such a mysterious event is mildly aversive or unpleasant, I’ll call it an Act of God. When it’s not unpleasant but merely distracting, well, that’s a distraction. Unless you’re able to make the weather, or are a ventriloquist who can make thunderous sounds appear to come from somewhere else, your options for creating an Act of God are limited, for example, to surreptitiously squirting water from a gun or air from a can (the kind you use for cleaning a computer keyboard or camera).
I call it an Act of God because it seems to the cat to come from nowhere, as though some invisible presence is monitoring his behavior. What’s critical is that you not be seen to have created the slightly aversive outcome; otherwise you risk damaging the human-cat bond, causing the cat to develop owner-absent behavior, or even encouraging the problem behavior with your attention. If you squirt your cat and he looks at you suspiciously, you’ve got to have plausible deniability. Who, me? No way! Acts of God can work for two reasons: They’re unpleasant to the cat, and they interrupt the cat’s behavior before it can be further rehearsed. Striking a cat is not an appropriate Act of God.
The most effective time to interrupt an animal is within the first few seconds. (If more time than that has passed, the cat won’t have a clue that there is any connection between his behavior and the mildly unpleasant event that occurred in response.) Acts of God should not be disturbing or prolonged enough to be considered a form of punishment, and they should never be used in highly tense situations, such as when cats are staring each other down or fighting. They’re a way of creating something that’s basically a nuisance for the cat. Even so, they are to be used sparingly. Think LIMA: least invasive, minimally aversive. Every cat is different, however, so please respect your own cat’s level of sensitivity. One cat might be terrified of air-in-a-can, where another cat could walk up and sniff the can, waiting for the blast of air to hit his nose.
If you are not around to perform an Act of God and you are trying to deter an activity in a particular location, you can delegate the Act of God to a remote deterrent you set up in the location in question. Remote deterrents include motion-detecting compressed-air sprayers, carpet runners with the points facing up, and double-sided sticky tape. The idea is to make the location an unattractive place to visit. We’ll cover remote deterrents in detail in Chapter 7.
Another important technique is that of distraction, sometimes combined with redirection of the cat’s attention. Unlike Acts of God, distractions are not aversive and they must be delivered before the cat engages in the undesirable activity. Distractions work better than Acts of God when your cats are tense and would react strongly and negatively to something aversive. When I say to use a distraction, I mean to use Ping-Pong balls, wadded-up paper, or other light, tossed objects that do not hit the cat, or to do something that redirects the cat into play. You would use a distraction before most other misbehaviors, such as when your cat is walking toward the counter, eyeing the food on it, staring at another cat, or approaching an object he commonly scratches or marks with urine.
Let’s say you see your cat heading toward the speakers he likes to scratch. If, by some apparent miracle, before he gets there you use the stereo remote to cause an eruption of music—loud enough to startle, but not painfully loud—he will learn to leave the speaker alone without associating you with the Act of God. You could also toss a Ping-Pong ball to distract him.
ATTRACT the Cat to a Desirable Behavior, Location, or Time
After you’ve deterred your cat from the unwanted behavior—clawing your speakers, for example—you’ll move on to the Attract step. Here you will show your cat what to do or where to do it or both. Using play therapy in particular, you’ll redirect clawing behavior to an activity and a place that will be acceptable to both you and your cat (e.g., a sisal cat scratcher or scratching post). Attraction methods work on all kinds of unwanted behaviors, like urine spraying, clawing, aggression, going outside the litter box, and more.
Of course, we can’t forget praising and giving the cat loads of attention when he performs the desired behavior! Clicker training (see Appendix A) is a great way to accentuate the positive. If the unwanted behavior is motivated by a natural instinct such as hunting, which can cause cats to yowl or race around late at night or very early in the morning, then we will just retrain the cat to express its natural instinct at acceptable times.
TRANSFORM the Territory
You’re not done yet! Most cat behavior advice tells you how to show your cat what you don’t want him to do (Cease). If the advice stops there, it rarely works. Sometimes you are also advised to redirect his behavior into what you do want him to do (Attract). This works more often. But long-lasting behavioral change usually means making specific changes to his territory. Otherwise, he may quickly be conditioned back to his old ways. There is almost always a cause for your cat’s behavior—anxiety, boredom, fear, territorial tension, instinct—that must be addressed in his territory to ensure the short- and long-term success of any behavior plan. I’ll discuss cats’ territorial needs and instincts in more detail in the next three crucial chapters.