Surprisingly, you may be sending a mixed message to your cat when attempting to train him or correct behavior issues. We’ve all done it at some point – we’ve unintentionally rewarded the cat for the very behavior we didn’t want him to display. How does this happen? It’s an easy and common mistake.
Communication Confusion and Your Cat
It’s very early in the morning. Your cat is meowing at you and walking up and down the bed hours before your alarm is set to go of. He wants breakfast. In order to ensure you will get a few more hours of sleep, you get up and fill his bowl with food. You may have temporarily stopped the meowing but the message you sent to the cat was that his non-stop vocalization resulted in a reward. Another example of a mixed message is when you don’t want the cat on the kitchen counter but you kiss and cuddle him as you pick him up and place him back down on the floor. The message the cat receives is that being on the counter results in some pretty desirable attention. Here’s another common example. The cat sits by the door and cries to go outside. He may even scratch at the door. You’ve yelled at him and maybe chased him away from the door a few times but he returns to the same spot and begins his crying and scratching. Finally, you just can’t take it anymore so you open the door and let him outside just so you can have some peace and quiet. You’re teaching your cat that the very behavior you don’t like is what he needs to continue doing in order to get what he wants.
Set Your Cat up to Succeed
Cats are creatures of habit. You probably know when your cat is about to start meowing for food or pacing by the door to go outside. In the kitchen, you can predict that he’ll show up just about the time you start preparing dinner. Use this knowledge to your advantage. Instead of rewarding him for unwanted behavior, change the plan. For example, for the cat who meows in the wee hours of the morning, do an interactive play sessions right before bed and then offer him a treat or a late dinner to help reset his internal clock. In addition, try setting out a puzzle feeder or two at bedtime to keep him busy when the family is sleeping. A timer-controlled feeding station is another option. Cats are crepuscular and that means they’re most active at dusk and at dawn. So it makes sense for a cat to start getting hungry and active long before you’re ready to face the morning.
For the cat who sits by the door and meows to go outside, it’s time for some improvement on indoor environmental enrichment. Take a look around the indoors and see what can be added to create more activity and stimulation. This may include the addition of a cat tree, cat shelves, some puzzle feeders, cat tunnels, and some more frequently interactive play sessions with family members. Make the indoors as interesting as the outdoors. Your cat is looking for stimulation, activity and discovery. Those are all things you can supply in the safety of the indoor environment.
For the counter cruising cat, you need to figure out what the appeal of the elevated location is in order to address the problem. Is it that he wants the food up there? Or does he like looking out the kitchen window? If it’s a multicat household, does he feel safer up there? Or, is it an attention-getting behavior? Figure out the reason and then you can supply a better alternative. If it’s the elevation he wants, then set up a cat tree nearby or a window perch. If he’s going up there for safety, then create other elevated options and also work on the relationships between the cats to reduce tension. If it’s an attention-getting behavior, make sure you’re doing interactive play sessions with him a couple of times a day.
There’s Always a Reason for a Behavior
Don’t get frustrated and give in when it comes to unwanted behavior. Take the time to figure out what the motivation is and how you can supply what the cat needs in a way that’s acceptable to both of you.