Appointments: (02) 6251 1444
16-18 Purdue St, Belconnen, ACT
(Parking via Gillott Street)
Mon - Fri: 8:30am - 5:30pm
Saturday: 8:30am - 1:00pm

Canberra Cat Vet Blog

How do cats learn?

Thursday, November 02, 2017


 Dr Georgia told us at the info night that like us cats are learning all the time.  We often modify our behaviour based on the positive or negative feedback we receive. Cats are the same.

We are also training them all the time.  They take their cues from us – how cats act in the wild or as ferals is different to how they act with us because of the positive and negative feedback we give them. 

A common example of how you might inadvertently teach bad behaviour is when you are working on your computer and your cat walks past. She sees where your attention is and jumps up on your lap and walks across the keyboard.  If you pick up her up and give her a scratch and hug before putting her back on the ground you have just trained your cat to interrupt you on your computer. You have rewarded her with love and attention!

To stop a cat disturbing you while you are on your computer do not interact with her. Ignore her. If she jumps up,  pick her up and put her on the ground without talking, make eye contact or giving any positive attention at all.

So how do cats learn?

The simplest type of learning is habituation.  Cats learn to ignore parts of their environment that have no special consequence for them. For example, a telephone ringing.   

The opposite of habituation is sensitisation.  Repeated exposure to an event leads to an increased reaction or sensitivity.  If objects like nail trimmers, brushes or an asthma puffer are not introduced gradually and sensitively our cats learn to dislike them very quickly!

When we are aware of other more complex learning processes like classical and operant conditioning we can use them to make life easier for our cats and ourselves.

Classical conditioning occurs when a cat finds that a specific event reliably predicts that something else is about to happen.  The most notorious example of this is Pavlov's dogs.   Pavlov would sound a bell and then feed the dogs. The dogs soon learnt that the sound of the bell meant food, if the dogs heard the bell they would start to salivate whether food was presented or not. A common classic conditioning in a cat house hold is the sound of a can opening.

Classic conditioning helps train cats when we reward them with a treat and a verbal cue like “good girl”. Once they associate the phrase and intonation with the good feelings they get with the treat, just hearing “good girl” will conjure up those same feelings.

The third type of learning is operant conditioning.  Operant conditioning is when the consequences of a cat’s own actions influence how it feels and what behaviour it feels like performing next.

There are four types of consequence that trigger operant conditioning. If a cat performs an action it may have a positive or negative outcome, or something positive or negative might end.

Let's apply these principles. It's night time and you want to go to sleep and your cat curls up on your pillow. If you're a light sleeper like Dr Georgia this is not going to work. This is the story Dr Georgia told.

Alley Cat has learnt that at night when the night light is on and I am reading  she is allowed to nap next to me.  As soon as the light goes out and I roll over she gets up and moves to the blanket at the end of the bed.  She stays there until my alarm goes off in the morning.  When she hears this she is straight up for a cuddle before it is time to get up. Alley Cat learnt with operant and classic conditioning to leave my pillow at night and when it was permissible to return.

Every time the light went out and I rolled over, wriggled and moved her off the bed, I said “no”.  Something positive stopped – feeling relaxed and being patted - and something negative started as she was shuffled off the bed. I did this every night without fail , even when I was fed up and exhausted. Alley then looked for an alternative and chose the woollen blanket I'd placed at the end of the bed. She settled down there and presto! something negative stopped ie the wriggling and pushing her away, and something positive started, the comfy blanket where she could sleep. The accompanying phrase “good girl” reinforced the operant conditioning with classical conditioning so now she sees the light go off , hears "good girl" and she goes to the blanket at the foot of the bed.



Search Blog

Recent Posts


best clinic cat behaviour activity lilly when to go to vet AIDS hairball spray blood in urine photo competition prey appetite aggression bump litter box christmas weight permethrin flea prevention pain killer lilies cancer dental heart disease wet litter joints FORLS not eating breathing difficult mouth breathing catoberfest castration cognitive dysfunction cat containment salivation vomit ACT rub echocardiography open day information night tradesmen drinking a lot computer obese calicivirus bladder kibble old cat old paralysis herpesvirus abscess,cat fight skin headache cat collapse cage scratch fear snuffle bladder stones breeder tapeworm enteritis stare into space inflammatory bowel disease diarrhoea scratching post home visit bad breath poisonous examination liver hospital aggressive cough nose scabs diuretics introduce snake bite indoor cats painful hearing skin cancer overweight worms snakebite eye urine exercise paralysis tick tartar cryptococcosis hole rigid head grooming paracetamol revolution head dental treatment attack anaemia weight control fireworks teeth hunched over anxiety lymphoma checkup cranky urinating on curtains or carpet home antiviral changed senior furball vaccination conflict kidneys senses blood test whiskers Canberra grass restless RSPCA hunting vocal New Year's Eve poisonous plants cat fight sensitive stomach aspirin skinny holes corneal ulcer competition ulcer straining vaccine blood panleukopaenia African wild cat flu itchy behaviour change hard faeces lump kitten snot feline herpesvirus aerokat hyperactive opening hours holiday fluid pills heavy breathing chlamydia noisy breathing yowling love body language sick spey paralysed face rub comfortis mass Hill's Metabolic pet pred open night euthanasia allergy furballs hyperthyroidism urinating feline AIDS kitten deaths sucking wool fabric gifts on heat thyroid vomiting cystitis blind fever foreign body snakes blood pressure advantage wool introducing lily tick cat vet hypertrophic cardiomyopathy annual check cortisone blindness asthma cta fight learning dental check nails pain relief poisoning Canberra Cat Vet massage brown snake desexing rash sense of smell change hunters panadol pica award outdoor cat mycoplasma physical activity virus mental health of cats enemies lick check-up socialisation scale plants heaing crytococcosus abscess meows a lot insulin pill hunter diabetes strange behaviour blue kidney disease panamax in season high blood pressure return home cat enclosure carrier groom enclosure stiff urinating outside litter urine spraying spraying sore ears behaviour xylitol appointment poisons diet new kitten blocked cat panleukopenia fits runny nose off food new cat mince blockage house call microchip kitten play best vet rolls toxic kittens pet insurance gasping eyes allergy, cat history eye ulcer discount stress IBD train marking poison tumour bed runny eyes prednisolone cat flu visit scratching best cat clinic desex arthritis jumping intestine odour obesity bite moving sun cat worms dementia biopsy best veterinarian fight introductions FIV wobbles free adipokines ulcers plaque introduction seizures twitching roundworm ulcerated nose slow sore eyes constipation ribbon rough play dilated pupils flea treatment drinking more petting cat lame toxins pancreatitis thiamine deficiency litter feliway dymadon polish antibiotics radioactive iodine new year sudden blindness worming health check sore pet meat snuffles cat enclosures cat friendly signs of pain sensitive tooth holidays kidney vision string birthday food puzzles unwell tablet fat pain touch thirsty training fleas sneeze panadeine urination goodbye client night snake depomedrol hiding eye infection renal disease vet visit dry food hypertension decision to euthanase weight loss sick cat pheromone holes in teeth hungry unsociable feline enteritis


A calm, quiet haven for cats and their carers staffed by experienced, cat loving vets and nurses.

Canberra Cat Vet 16-18 Purdue St Belconnen ACT 2617 (parking off Gillott Street) Phone: (02) 6251-1444

Get Directions