Understanding Cat Behavior Modification

Cat behavior can be influenced and shaped with the proper training tools. The most common problematic cat behaviors occur around litter box use, spraying, compulsive sexual behaviors and biting or scratching other cats and humans. There are several basic tenets of behavior modification that apply to working with all animals. There are also some specific issues related to the unique psychology of a cat that are helpful to consider.

Positive versus Negative Reinforcement

Reinforcement is a powerful way to increase any desired behavior. Both positive and negative reinforcement are designed to increase or strengthen a behavior. In positive reinforcement, a behavior is increased because it results in a positive consequence. If the cat uses the litter box, she knows she'll get a treat. In negative reinforcement, a behavior is also being increased, but the reason is different. The one behavior gets strengthened because the cat wants to avoid a negative consequence. For example, if a cat gets chased by a child when she comes out into the living room, but is left alone if hiding under the bed, she'll be more likely to hide under the bed. Negative reinforcement is different from punishment. It strengthens a behavior, because a negative consequence is stopped as a result of the behavior.


Punishment seeks to extinguish or weaken a behavior, which is the opposite of what is happening in negative reinforcement. In punishment, a new consequence is introduced into the situation and it stops a behavior. For instance, a cat is in the middle of urinating on the rug and a human shakes a jar of pennies loudly near her face. The cat will want to avoid this unpleasant consequence.

The Problem with Punishment

In the example of shaking the jar of pennies to stop inappropriate elimination, there's a major flaw. A cat's mind is based on association. It may seem that shaking the jar of pennies will create a negative association to urinating on the rug. While that may be the case, it's possible that the cat will develop a negative association between urination and the person shaking the jar. This will stop the behavior of urinating in front of that person, versus stopping the behavior of urinating on the rug. With punishment, it's a game of hit or miss in terms of what association you are creating. You may inadvertently be negatively reinforcing another behavior, such as urinating behind the television where no one can see.

Advantages of Shaping and Positive Reinforcement

The best tools for training a cat involve positive reinforcement and learning to shape a cat's behavior. Positive reinforcement involves introducing something the cat likes while they are doing a behavior you want to increase. If your cat is keeping her claws retracted and playing gently with a child and you offer a special treat, the cat will want to keep doing that behavior to get the treat. It helps if the treat is only brought out in the desired situation so that the cat knows exactly what to do to get it. Shaping is using positive reinforcement for behaviors that will lead up to the main behavior that is desired. For instance, you could give the treat if the cat remains calm when the child is within 3 feet of the cat.