While some animal behaviors are instinctive, some are learned by experience. In fact, some scientists believe that any animal with a nervous system can learn! Understanding how you cat learns will better help you to both encourage desired behaviors and stop unwanted behaviors.
How Cats Learn
Learning is a process that all creatures go through, even your cat! During that process, the learner (your cat) picks up new skills. How individual cats do so varies. Your adolescent cat may learn from:
- Personal experiences
- Another animal
- Trial and error
- Observational learning
- Environmental changes
“At the adolescent stage, cats learn primarily from each other, making socialization essential,” says Dr. Elizabeth Arguelles, founder of Just Cats Clinic in Reston, Virginia. “Keeping kittens or adolescent cats in pairs and/or with an older cat as a guide can be helpful for your adolescent cat.”
You may find some of these learned behaviors to be acceptable and some… not so acceptable.
Teaching Your Cat
If you want to better communicate with and train your cat, here’s the secret: Teach your cat what you want her to do before she has a chance to learn to do something that you don’t want her to do. It’s always going to be easier for a cat to learn an appropriate behavior than having to learn how to stop doing an inappropriate behavior.
The question I always encourage cat owners to ask is, “What am I teaching my cat?” Here are a few questions that I have asked myself over the years:
- What messages am I sending to my cat when I allow behaviors one day, but don’t allow them the next?
- What am I teaching my cat when I don’t reward behaviors that I want to see more of?
- When can I reward better choices that my cat makes?
- How can I create an environment in which it’s easier for my cat to make better choices?
- Where can I compromise?
- What is my body language telling my cat?
- How can I set myself and my cat up for success?
When I answer these questions honestly, I can start to understand what I am teaching my cat and where I need to improve.
Lost In Translation
I hear phrases similar to this all too often: “My cat is not very bright” or “My cat doesn’t seem to learn anything.” I will let you in on a little-known feline fact: Cats are incredibly smart. I have lived and worked with countless numbers of them, and I can tell you from experience that they are all brilliant. If your cat is not learning what you’re trying to teach her, the message is either lost in translation or it’s not being delivered consistently.
Let’s look at a few common examples of a message being lost in translation that you might experience at home:
- Does your roommate or spouse allow your cat to sleep on the bed, but you don’t?
- When your cat begs for food, do you sometimes giver her what she wants, but tell her no at other times?
- When your cat jumps up on the counter, do you sometimes get annoyed and swat her away, but at other times hug and smooch on her before putting her on the ground?
- When your cat demonstrates a behavior that you like, do you reward her every time for it, or do you sometimes ignore the behavior?
Setting Your Cat Up For Success
When a cat doesn’t do what her owner wants, the cat is often labeled as stupid or stubborn, but what may be happening is that the cat is experiencing a lack of consistency in what she is being taught. For example, if your young cat is repeating a particular behavior that you don’t like, then it’s possible that someone in your home is reinforcing that behavior without your knowledge. My advice is to sit down as a family, set rules for how you want to address your cat’s behavior, make sure everyone understands them, and then stick to them. This eliminates inconsistency.
Your cat can learn just about anything that you want to teach her. Most of my family, friends and clients once believed otherwise; however, when they kept an open mind and were willing to try new things, they were amazed to learn what their cats were capable of learning! Over the years, I have found these techniques to be most helpful when trying to help a cat learn:
- Encourage and reward behavior you want to see more frequently
- Ignore behaviors that you wish to see less frequently
- Redirect unwanted behavior (to a behavior that’s more desirable)
- Avoid physical and verbal corrections
Patience, insight, understanding and love have been my best tools to live and learn harmoniously with our feline family members.