How Does Behavior Modification Work In Cats?

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The majority of my work with clients is addressing unwanted cat behaviors via a process called behavior modification. Behavior modification for cats can be challenging and is different for each individual cat. However, there are some general themes of how the process works. You can use this as a basic outline of what we’ll do when working together as part of a behavior consultation.

Figuring Out The Problem

The first step to behavior modification in cats is figuring out what the underlying issue is. This is done through a combination of observation of the unwanted behavior (usually via video as I don’t necessarily see the behavior during out session), evaluating the cat’s environment, and discussion of your observations of the behavior. If you have already had your cat evaluated by your veterinarian, that’s an important part of the assessment as well.

Usually, that’s enough for me to figure out what the underlying problem is. In some cases, it may not be clear exactly what the problem is or there may be multiple possible problems. In these situations, gathering more information may be the next step. You might need to:

  • Try a few interventions to see if anything works or partially works
  • Set up a camera to record your cat’s behavior
  • Get a medical evaluation by your veterinarian
  • Gather more information from others who may have observed your cat’s behavior

In some cases, some of these steps have the possibility of being both information gathering and resolving the problem. Even if we can’t figure out exactly what the problem is, we’ll be able to narrow it down to a few possibilities. We can begin working on addressing each of these.

Coming Up With An Initial Plan

After the underlying problem, problems, or potential problems are identified, the next part is coming up with an initial plan of what to do. The emphasis here is on the initial part. Behavior modification is a process and the plan may need to be altered based on what your cat tells us. In other words, don’t expect instant results.

A tabby cat resting their head on one paw gazing downward. They look deep in thought.
What do you mean you don’t have a magic wand to solve my cat behavior problems?! Photo by photosforyou from Pixabay

The behavior modification plan for your cat will involve a variety of different things depending on the underlying issue. Some common techniques used include:

  • Environmental Modification: Changing your cat’s environment by adding in more resources, changing the resources available (such as getting a different type of litter box) or moving resources around to strategic locations.
  • Desensitization and Counter Conditioning: These processes are mostly used for fear based behavior concerns such as fighting cats or noise reactivity. Desensitization and counter conditioning involves gradually exposing your cat to something that causes a strong reaction in them at a low level and increasing the intensity at a slow pace. It’s often accompanied by trying to build a positive association with something your cat loves.
  • Management: These are efforts to contain the behavior or make it so its impact is lessened. For example, I often recommend clients with litter box problems get a machine washable rug like My Magic Carpet in order to make it easier to clean if their cat is peeing outside the litter box. It also may include discussing the best way to break up a cat fight.
  • Training: Cat training is directly teaching a cat to do a behavior. It may be used to encourage wanted behaviors, replace one behavior with another, or offer a different form of management. It is used with a lot of behavior problems, with the big exception being house soiling. Training doesn’t help resolve litter box usage problems.
  • Managing Humans: In some cases, we may need to discuss how you are interacting with your cat or discuss realistic expectations for your cat’s behavior. While we can modify or give an outlet for unwanted behaviors, you can’t suppress a cat’s natural behaviors without expecting severe, negative consequences. I may also make suggestions of things to make tasks you struggle with easier. For example, getting a Litter Genie may make scooping the litter box easier and help your cat enjoy using the litter box.

Depending on what needs to be done, we’ll discuss specifics of what to do for each behavioral intervention. Some parts of the plan may or may not be modifiable, but generally we can come up with a workaround for any part of the plan you are unsure about. Even if it’s not the step I’d advise first, we can always try something and then change the plan later on based on your situation and preferences.

Implementation

After we’ve come up with a plan, you begin doing the real work to implement it! Ultimately, most of the work is done by you in order to address your cat’s behavior. I’m available to help answer questions or tweak things, but ultimately the execution of the behavior modification plan is on you. I’m not going to force you to do anything so you can choose to do as much or as little as you’d like.

During this phase, I suggest tracking what you’re doing and taking notes. I use a Rocketbook to take notes and scan them to the cloud. They make it easy to share your notes with me, but whatever method you decide on works.Continuing to follow up with me is important because it helps with the next part of the behavior modification plan.

Adjusting The Plan

Ultimately, cats are all individuals and while there are some common themes between them, each cat is different. I need to learn about your individual cat as there may be things that I don’t usually recommend to clients, but make sense for your cat. We will also learn about your cat’s preferences and what is or isn’t working as you try things.

In other words, expect that we will be adjusting the plan. That’s okay! Instant results are unlikely and it’s normal for cat behaviorists or cat trainers to make adjustments to their behavior plans after seeing how the cat responds. I may also have suggestions of how to carry out the behavior modification plan better if there’s areas you’re struggling with.

Regardless, it’s imperative you follow up with me and are in regular communication about what is or isn’t working. It’s also important you don’t lose hope if the first round of interventions don’t instantly work or we need to make changes. That’s part of why I structure the behavior consultations the way I do. There is room to adjust the plan based on what does or doesn’t work.

Additional Sessions

While not everyone needs a huge amount of follow up sessions, you should expect that you’ll need more than one session. There comes a point where e-mail follow up isn’t as effective as actually discussing your cat’s behavior and we’ll likely need to check in again.

This is especially true for severe problems, multiple problems, or anything involving multiple cats. In fact, if you have a situation involving fighting cats, I have a whole program designed specifically for fighting cats and doing reintroductions. I can’t reasonably solve everything in a single session if your situation is complex.

Continuing To Work

Depending on what we’re working on, we’ll keep working together until we come up with a satisfactory solution. If it looks like things aren’t going to work out, I’ll let you know directly that I don’t see things reaching the resolution you had hoped for. We may adjust the goal or talk about an alternative option like rehoming your cat.

Ultimately, as long as you’re willing to put in the work, I’m willing to keep helping you. I’m here to help you and your cat(s) so as long you want to keep at it, we can keep trying to resolve the situation. You are in control of your cat(s) and what you end up deciding so I’ll never pressure you into continuing to keep going if you don’t want to.

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Joey Lusvardi

Joey Lusvardi CCBC is an IAABC Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and professional cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation and cat training service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. Joey is available for in home sessions locally or virtual sessions wherever you are located!