Using Flooding To Change Cat Behavior: Why You Shouldn’t Do It (And What To Do Instead)

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If you are trying to change your cat’s behavior, you may come across differing suggestions on how to address a specific unwanted behavior. Some suggestions will be helpful and some will suggestions (such as using a spray bottle on your cat or a remote punishment device) are going to either going to worsen the problem or hurt your cat.

Many techniques suggested to address behavior concerns, such as fighting cats or anxiety in cats, involve a process called flooding. While flooding might work, it carries some big risks. If you want to change cat behavior, you should be wary of flooding as it may make the behavior worse. Here is a quick guide on spotting flooding so you can avoid it and some ideas of what to do instead.

What Is Flooding?

The term flooding describes a form of behavior modification that involves exposing a cat to something that causes them stress or fear at full intensity until they stop responding to it while not allowing the cat to escape. The cat often stops responding because they are in a state of learned helplessness where they don’t feel anything they do will be successful at getting them out of the situation. Flooding is extremely stressful for the cat as they can’t escape the intense, potentially threatening stimulus they are being exposed to.

An example of how flooding has been used to change cat behavior used to be seen frequently in cat shelters. A shy and fearful cat that would hide when people approached would have any hiding places removed so they had to remain visible. The idea was that it would encourage the cat to interact more because they couldn’t leave the situation. Thankfully, this is not being recommended as much and is not something I recommend doing because it actually is very harmful to the cat. Cats should always have access to hiding places (especially cozy hiding places for naps) if they want to hide.

What Are The Problems With Using Flooding To Change Cat Behavior?

Flooding can work to change cat behavior. As mentioned earlier, the cat is exposed at full intensity to whatever they are afraid of in the hope that they habituate to the sources of their fear. In order for this to work, the cat has to become extremely stressed out and not have the scary stimulus be removed until they’ve stopped responding. If the stimulus is stopped too early, the cat may develop a stronger response to it. The problem is now worse.

Cats may also experience a return of fear at a later time. Flooding might change cat behavior initially, but the fear may return in the future when the cat runs into the stimulus again. There is a higher likelihood of fearful responses returning when flooding is used compared to other methods.

How Can I Tell If Flooding Is Being Used?

While I don’t use flooding when working with clients’ cats, I have to be cautious because if some behavior modification tools I suggest to clients are done wrong, they may accidentally be flooding their cat. I also have had very well intentioned clients who are desperate for help with their cats’ behavior try methods suggested by friends, family, or strangers on the internet that are flooding based. They don’t realize the risk they’re taking or how stressful it is for their cat!

A brown tabby cat lays on a white sheet with their head over the edge of an unknown piece of furniture. The cat has a sad expression on their face.
Just thinking about how long my to do list is. Photo by Cintya Marisa.

Some signs you are using flooding include:

  • There isn’t a slow build up in intensity
  • You are not instructed to (or actively discouraged from) backing off if the cat shows body language indicating stress
  • The behavior gets worse if you stop and restart
  • The cat doesn’t have the ability to leave the situation
  • There are not attempts to make the situation more pleasant for the cat

While some of these don’t always indicate the suggested method to change cat behavior uses flooding, you should carefully reflect anytime you spot one or more of them.

What Are Alternatives To Flooding?

If flooding cat work to change cat behavior, why would you try something else? As someone who has dedicated his life to helping cats and their humans, the cats’ wellbeing is an important consideration to me. Because flooding is so unpleasant and the cat isn’t allowed to choose to participate or not, it’s not right to skip directly to flooding when there are kinder choices available and those behavior modification tools are less likely to backfire like flooding can.

The most common alternative and the one I use most with clients is desensitization and counter conditioning. Desensitization involves exposing a cat to something they are fearful of, but making it so the scary stimulus is not intense enough that the cat becomes stressed or fearful from it. The intensity is gradually increased so the cat doesn’t become afraid until the stimulus is at full intensity. This is often paired with something pleasant so the cat develops a good association instead of a fearful response. This method not only doesn’t cause the cat distress, but it’s also less likely that the unwanted behavior will return when used instead of flooding.

What are some ways I use desensitization to help modify cat behavior? When introducing cats for the first time, desensitization is the primary tool uses. Desensitization can also be used to help cats get used to nail trims or when addressing some forms of cat aggression. It’s a kinder, more effective, and an overall better choice for everyone involved.

Want to change cat behavior and not sure where to start?

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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!