Hard-Case Cats (and what to do about them) From a presentation at Central Veterinary Conferences

Cats pose a significant problem for behavior therapists. First, most cat owners are attracted to them because of the perception that they don’t need to be trained. The number of cats with any kind of formal repertoire is minute. When a cat offers unacceptable behavior, cat owners are even less prepared than dog owners to solve the problem. Common misconceptions about feline learning contribute to this problem – cats are untrainable, aloof, finicky eaters who resist all efforts at inhibiting their behavior.

This is from an email by some clients of mine whose adult, male Occicat was a serious problem child. The primary concern was pica with the common addition of jumping on counters.

We are still new to the training, having just started but, we have been able to solve the older Ocicat jumping on the counters (even at feeding time with food on the counter) and giving him something new to do for rewards and love. The youngster is going to be an ongoing project and we are working with Gary to change this eating behavior as it is life threatening and it needs to change so he can live to be an old Ocicat! So far so good and we have been pleasantly surprised at just how quick they can unlearn bad stuff and learn good stuff. The counter problem was going for 7 years and has ended in just days.

In case you are wondering, the foundation for this rapid change in behavior was identical to the procedure I use on any species. There are four criteria that must be met in order to inhibit a behavior.

1. Intolerable – The stimulus you use to create the inhibition must be intolerable to the animal. In this case, we used a combination of throwing a rolled up hand towel secured with two rubber bands, a large rubber “puff ball” that is also used as a projectile and a children’s rocket launcher that fires large, Styrofoam missiles. None of these punishing stimuli are capable of injuring the cat. They are all intended to actually strike the animal. In almost all cases, the projectile hits them in the posterior. The towel and the puff ball can hit them in the face without causing damage. The rocket launcher takes a bit more care but is almost always off target. It is the cats’ startle reflex at the approach of a projectile that does the job.
2. Immediately Identified – Virtually every trainer and behaviorist will tell you that punishment must occur within a second or two of the behavior. This is incorrect. Pavlov’s work established that if you create an association between in initially neutral stimulus and a tangible consequence, a latency can be developed between the two that does not weaken the association in any way. This point has been missed by behavioral, Skinnerian, psychologist. The use of such signals at marine parks and in dog training to bridge the gap between the instant the animal does the behavior and the time it takes to deliver a reward (clickers and whistles) display this behavioral effect perfectly. On the aversive side, the word “NO” works just fine to identify the behavior. You then have a reasonable amount of time to apply the punishing stimulus. A rule of thumb to allow yourself ten seconds to actually bonk the cat works just fine. (Pavlov created a latent reaction to a bell using electric shock. He pushed the delay out to 30 minutes with no impairment of the association. Obviously ten to 20 seconds is well within the animal’s physiological ability to make a connection.) The goal is to immediately identify the behavior with a pre-learned signal.
3. Inescapable – If the animal can escape the intolerable effects of the punishment, the behavior will not become inhibited. That is one of the reasons that spray bottles are only marginally effective. All the cat has to do is turn their head and the spray hits their shoulder. To prevent escape you may have to close doors or block access to underneath beds or furniture.
4. Inevitable – It is commonly imagined that the goal is to say the word “NO” and have the animal instantly stop the behavior. This is incorrect. Learning an inhibition is a two-part process. You must provide information about the task by triggering the word “NO” at the instant the behavior starts AND then provide the tangible motivation, in every case until the behavior disappears.

These guidelines allow you to start planning effective ways to limit unacceptable behavior.


Pica can be immediately identified with a simple window and door alarm. These small devices are designed to attach to a window or door frame. They include two components, a magnet and an electric alarm. When the magnet is moved away from the alarm it goes off. They are available in hardware stores and on line for very little money. To stop pica, tape a thread (or if it’s paper, the paper itself) to the object. Attach the other end of the thread to the magnet. Turn the alarm on and leave it. Hover in the next room, reading a book. When the alarm goes off, hunt the cat down and bonk it with a soft projectile. Repeat.


A slightly more sophisticated tool than the window and door alarm is a passive infra-red entry alarm. These devices scan the environment for heat and movement. If you place one on a counter-top, it will go off if a cat jumps up within its view. Once you hear the alarm, you have ten seconds to bonk the cat. The email above used this method to stop a behavior that had been going on for years. One caution – you must find an alarm that does not have an “entry delay.” This feature is designed to let you disarm the alarm when you enter. To my knowledge the only alarm without an entry delay is made by Doberman Security, model SE-104. This is available at Home Depot.


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