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Is Possible To Behaviorally Condition A Cat?

Updated on March 4, 2012

What do you do with a problem child cat?

This is Henry.  Henry is a good boy, 99% of the time at least.  It's that 1% that causes me stress out.  Henry can turn from a lovable boy into the devil in 60 seconds flat once he decides to hunt another cat.  Try breaking that cat fight up!
This is Henry. Henry is a good boy, 99% of the time at least. It's that 1% that causes me stress out. Henry can turn from a lovable boy into the devil in 60 seconds flat once he decides to hunt another cat. Try breaking that cat fight up!

My Encounters with Classical Conditioning

It was difficult for me to decide which type of conditioning I use more often in my life: classical conditioning or operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is defined as “the type of learning in which a response naturally elicited by one stimulus comes to be elicited by a different, formerly neutral stimulus” (Morris, Maisto 2006). On the other hand, operant conditioning is “the type of learning in which behaviors are emitted (in the presence of specific stimuli) to earn rewards or avoid punishments” (Morris, Maisto 2006). You might be wondering why it was so difficult for me to just pick one of the other, and come up with a specific example. Well, the reason is I have used a little bit of both in my volunteer work with cats. In my free time, I work with a local humane society called Cats of Canton. Part of my time consists of trapping, neutering/spaying feral cats, and re-releasing them in an attempt to help control the animal population, but a good portion of my volunteer work goes to fostering abandoned and abused cats. In the few years since I have been involved in this work, I have learned that the conditioning of animal behavior, especially emotionally broken animals, is not that easy. Luckily for me, I seem to have the magic touch (i.e. a lot of patience). It is for this reason that I will say I probably use classical conditioning more than operant conditioning in my work with cats. Anyone who has ever had a cat knows that if they don’t want to do something, you will never get them to do it, so the reward and punishment system doesn’t work as well in this case.

While I can explain to you how I use classical conditioning with my foster cats, I must also explain to you the necessary steps I went through with classical conditioning. Modeled after the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov and his infamous experiment with salivating dogs, there are three steps to go through in order to perform classical conditioning. The first step consists of a neutral stimulus (“some stimulus that causes a sensory response”), an unconditioned stimulus (“some stimulus that triggers or elicits a physiological reflex”), and an unconditioned response (“an unlearned, innate, involuntary physiological reflex that is elicited by the unconditioned stimulus”) (Plotnik 2005). The neutral stimulus for me with my foster cats is always my tone of voice. I find that the softer my voice is the calmer the cat is, but the loader my voice gets the more agitated and nervous it becomes. The unconditioned stimulus is always something pleasant, such as food, the act of petting, a toy, or even catnip. When giving the pleasant item to the foster cat, I always make sure to speak softly and calmly. As a result, the unconditioned response turns into purring or meowing. In step #2 of classical conditioning, I usually test out to see if my voice plus the pleasant item really does induce a pleasant reaction from the foster cat (i.e. neutral stimulus plus unconditioned stimulus equals unconditioned response) (Plotnik 2005). It is at this point that I usually assess the emotional stability of my foster cat. If they are still heavily attached to the pleasant item for emotional comfort rather than me, then I do not proceed to the next step of classical conditioning. But if the foster cat seems to be responding just as well to the sound of my voice as it is to the pleasant item, I proceeded to step #3. In the step #3, the last step of classical conditioning, you take away the unconditioned stimulus (i.e. the pleasant item) and test to see if the neutral stimulus (which turns into the conditioned stimulus) can elicit a conditioned response on its own (Plotnik 2005). So for my example, I would see if my tone of voice by itself would cause the foster cat to purr or meow. In my daily work with the cats, I have found that my voice can elicit the conditioned response I am looking for. Unfortunately, as I mentioned previously, cats can be unpredictable, and when working with abused animals not all conditioned responses happen at the same rate. I have 3 foster cats now. One let me pet him, and purred as if he was my own all in a week. Another took a month to come around.

In the field of classical conditioning, there have been many scientists who have done great work to help us better understand how to mind and body work together in a physiological sense. One psychologist in specific is Mary Cover Jones. Her work was about using classical conditioning to unlearn fears and phobias. “Her subject was a 3-year-old boy named Peter who, like Albert (a boy from another experiment ran in contrary to this one), had a fear of white rats” (Morris, Maisto 2006). Jones used candy as her unconditioned stimulus to help her rid the boy of his fear of rats. Each day a rat in a cage was moved closer and closer to the boy, till soon he had no fear of the rat at all, but instead a pleasant association of it with candy (“the rat became a conditioned stimulus for pleasure”) (Morris, Maisto 2006). Another interesting development in the field of classical conditioning was made by a psychiatrist name Joseph Wolpe. Wolpe came up with an approach called desensitization therapy. Desensitization therapy is “a conditioning technique designed to gradually reduce anxiety about a particular object or situation” (Morris, Maisto 2006). This therapy is normally associated with the practice of “deep-muscle relaxation” (Morris, Maisto 2006). When I first take in a foster cat, it is not uncommon for me to have to use this type of therapy to reassure them when they become frightened by a stimulus, such as a loud or unknown noise. Usually I pet the cat over and over, and massage and rub their head while talking to them soothingly. Soon those loud noises don’t disturb them at all.

In conclusion, I have found classical conditioning to be quite effective in my use with foster cats. Working with animals with behavioral issues is no easy task, but I have learned that you can’t fix them by yelling or giving them a treat. Instead it is best to concentrate on the actual behavior and to attempt to get at the root of the fear or anxiety. There is no design or accident either in this line of work. Rather everything is about what should naturally happen, and what you hope to happen. I always hope to fix the cats I take it, and get them the best homes. Thankfully, most of the time, it works.


Morris, C., Maisto, A. (2006). Understanding Psychology 7th Edition. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Plotnik, R. (2005). Introduction to Psychology 7th Edition. Belmont: Wadsworth Thomson Learning.


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