How Adult Cats Learn

Understanding how your adult cat learns can help you communicate better with your feline companion, and that, in turn, will help you to better train her.

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Cats can't read, but they can — and do — learn from experience. vvvita/iStock/Thinkstock
Cats can't read, but they can — and do — learn from experience. vvvita/iStock/Thinkstock
Amy Martin

Would you like to learn how to communicate better with your cat? I have a good feeling you would!

Many years ago I would get so frustrated, because I felt as if my cats were either ignoring me or not understanding anything I was saying. It turned out I just wasn’t communicating with them effectively. To better communicate with your cat (and then train her), you first have to understand how cats learn.

The Science Of Learning

Scientists define learning as “a relatively permanent change in behavior that results from experience.” Whether it’s a poisonous dart frog, a blue whale, an octopus, a human or your cat, we all learn through experiences. Some are observational and some are trial and error. Usually, learning occurs gradually and in steps.

Adult cats learn by responding and adapting to their environment. When a cat’s environment changes, her particular behaviors may no longer achieve the results that they once did. The cat is now forced to change her behavior, and does so by learning which responses gets her the desired results.

Teaching Your Cat

At the adult stage, learning occurs by establishing a relationship between behavior and consequence, either positive or negative, according to Dr. Elizabeth Arguelles, founder of Just Cats Clinic in Reston, Virginia.

The best way to teach your cat, she says, is through positive reinforcement.

“The best method is positive reinforcement where the favored behavior is met with a positive consequence, including treats, attention or play,” she says. “But it is the most effective with whatever motivates your cat; for example if he or she likes their head scratched or likes to interact and play with a particular toy, that may motivate them more than a treat would.”

If you want your cat to learn something, your goal is to:

  • Use the most-positive, least-intrusive solutions
  • Avoid punishment
  • Help your cat make better choices
  • Reward those choices

I have found success by teaching my adult cats that the behaviors I prefer to see will receive my positive attention, while undesirable behaviors will not. By ignoring behaviors that I didn’t like (or that were driving me insane) and rewarding the behaviors that I preferred, I was able to transform inappropriate behavior into polite manners. If you practice that approach consistently, you’ll find that many nuisance behaviors will begin to decrease. I can tell you from firsthand experience that this approach is incredibly effective.

Training Is Teaching

Once you understand how your cat learns, you can better communicate with your cat, and one of the best ways to communicate with her is through training. Training enables cat owners to communicate with their cat in a language that they can both understand. Most people believe that training a cat is telling her what to do, or what not to do, but it’s much more than that. Training is teaching and learning together! Fun, positive training has been one of the best forms of communication with my cats at home. Here are a few training tips to keep in follow:

  1. Learn your cat’s behavior.
    “Listen” to your cat by observing her and learning her many behavioral and vocal cues.
  2.  Make better behaviors easier to achieve.
    Set your cat up for success by creating scenarios where particular behaviors are more or less likely to occur. Make it easier for your cat to do the behavior that you want her to do!
  3. Ignore behavior you don’t want to see.
    Avoid giving your attention to the unwanted behavior. Redirect unwanted behavior and encourage alternative ones.
  4. Reward behavior you like!
    Teach your cat what you want her to do by rewarding her for behaviors that you want to see happen more often.

Your Cat Is Always Learning From You

Once you become aware of the fact that your cat is always learning from you, you will start to notice so many opportunities where you can better communicate with and train your cat. You have the power to influence what your cat learns! I have found that the following principles allowed me and my cats to learn from each other and communicate better together:

  • Establish a relationship based on trust and respect.
  • Communicate together in a new language that you both understand.

If you can create these conditions, you and your adult cat will be able to communicate better with one another, you’ll both see desired results, and be on your way to a lifetime of happiness together!

Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Cats


  • Is there an article you can recommend to transition an outdoor/ondoor male cat who has recently been neutered (within the last week) to help us transition him to being an indoor cat & to curtail the yowling to go outside? He got bitten twice on 2 months by a more agressive male vying for females in heat & ended up @ the vet for a week due to an abscess. While he was there the vet suggested neutering…we did…he’s STILL spraying indoors now & smelling up our house!!!! We have got to stop this unacceptable howling & spraying behavior. We know he wants to go outsidee, but due to recent experiences we don’t think he would. survive the other cats, raccoons, foxes & possums that are in the area…HELP!!!!

    Thanks 🙂


    Jeannie February 1, 2016 5:57 pm Reply
  • I had a male cat that if he did not go outside daily he would freak out and pull out his hair and attack the other cats. When I moved to the city and lived in a high rise, he would do the bad behaviors more often. The vet suggested I find ways to engage his hunting spirit. I put dry food in paper cupcake holders and hid it around the house, that helped distract him and kept him hunting in side. I also timed him out, in a bathroom with no light, and that seemed to help him calm down ( I think he had ADD, so it helped to take away some stimulus)

    Michelle May 27, 2016 2:21 pm Reply
    • That’s a qu-eciwittkd answer to a difficult question

      Dragon December 1, 2016 12:50 am Reply

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