Practical feline behaviour understanding cat behaviour and improving welfare

(Axel Boer) #1

Learning, Training and Behaviour 111

Practical feline example

● The cat may keep opening the cupboard door where the treats are kept. But then
the owner moves the treats to another cupboard out of the cat’s reach. The cat con-
tinues to open the cupboard, but now that there are no treats in the cupboard, the
behaviour is no longer rewarded and so the behaviour declines and eventually stops.

Extinction burst

If a behaviour is no longer rewarded, an ‘extinction burst’ may be seen before the
behaviour becomes fully extinct. When this occurs, the behaviour increases or gets
worse for a short time before declining.

Practical feline example

● Before the behaviour of opening the cupboard declines and eventually stops, the
cat may initially increase the number of times it opens the cupboard, or become
more frantic in its behaviour of opening the cupboard and searching for the treats,
until it learns that the behaviour will no longer be rewarded.


Classical conditioning (see earlier) can result in a cat associating an otherwise unre-
lated stimulus with an emotional response, e.g. fear. Counterconditioning involves
pairing the original conditioned stimulus with a different unconditioned stimulus that
elicits a very different emotional response, i.e. pleasure.
However, counterconditioning alone is rarely successful, especially if the animal
has become sensitized to experience fear on presentation of the stimulus. In most
cases it is necessary to also desensitize and habituate the animal to the stimulus.


Introducing a stimulus that the cat has become sensitized to at a level that does not
cause the undesirable emotional response, e.g. fear, and very slowly and gradually
increasing the strength of the stimulus, allowing the cat to become less fearful and
eventually habituate to it.

Practical feline example

The sight of the cat carrier may cause a cat to feel frightened due to previous asso-
ciations with trips to the vets, etc. The fear may be reduced by the following steps:

● Leave the cat carrier out in a place where the cat will see it every day and become
accustomed (habituated) to the sight of it.
● Teach the cat to associate the sight of the cat carrier with something good, e.g.
tasty food treats, by dropping treats gradually closer to the carrier.
● When the cat no longer fears the carrier, further training can commence to teach
the cat to enter the carrier willingly and without fear.

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