How to Use Positive Reinforcement for Good Cat Behavior

You know how some people say that cats can’t be trained? Well, I’ve gotta tell you – those people have got it all wrong. In fact, cats have got the whole training concept down – they are masters in the art of training! Think about it – they’ve already got YOU trained to respond to their every whim – they meow, you give them food. They jump on your lap, they get pets. They know just how to get what they want from you, because they know that you are motivated by their reward: a little bit of their precious attention! You have been trained to respond to your cat’s demands. You have been positively reinforced by your cats to do good things for them because they reward you with their affection, so you do those things again, and again, and again.  But guess what?  They’ve taught us a valuable lesson.  We can turn the tables on them, and you can learn how to use positive reinforcement for good cat behavior.  We’ve caught on to your game, felines, and now it’s our turn!  Ha!

Positive Reinforcement for Good Cat Behavior

What do I mean when I talk about “training” a cat?  I’m not just talking about tricks (although it certainly applies) – I’m talking about encouraging any behavior that you’d like your cat to exhibit. In the case of many of my clients, a preferred behavior (e.g., clawing a scratching post) could be replacing an undesirable behavior (e.g., turning your grandmother’s antique armoir from France into match-stick sized bits of wood).  Many perceived “bad” behaviors arise out of a biologically-evolved need – scratching, urinating and defecating, climbing, etc. – and if you don’t give your cats an appropriate way to express that need, they’ll make due with what’s in their environment.  It then gets more difficult to switch them from using one (undesirable) thing to another (more desirable) thing.  But it can be done!

The most important thing is to find out what motivates your cat to exhibit a desired behavior and use that as a reward so that they repeat the behavior, and forget about doing the other undesirable behavior. Luckily, many cats are food-motivated (i.e., they like treats), which is a fine reward to use in many cases. But for those cats who don’t respond so much to food or who are on a restricted diet, you can always use affection or sweet-talk as a reward, or even a short play session with a favorite toy.  Or a clicker, which becomes a bridge to a reward (the positive reinforcement) once you’ve conditioned your cat to recognize the association between click and treat!  Basically, you have to show your cat that you’ve got something she wants, and that there’s a way she can get it.  Once she figures out what you want her to do, it’s GAME ON!

What is positive reinforcement?

Let’s start with the basics.  Reinforcement refers to something you do that will cause your cat (or child, or chicken, yes, chicken) to repeat a specific behavior.  On the other hand, punishment is something you do that will result in a behavior NOT being repeated.  Makes sense, right?  Now, you can have both positive and negative reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment.  When behaviorists use the terms positive and negative in reference to reinforcement or punishment, we’re not saying positive is good and negative is bad.  Positive means that something is added or given (like a treat), and negative means that something is taken away (like attention).  Here are a few examples:

  • You give your cat strokes (POSITIVE, since you’re giving her something) when she sits on your lap, so she has gotten into the habit of snuggling up on your legs while you’re watching TV (her behavior is repeated, so it has been successfully REINFORCED).
  • A mother cat nursing her kittens gets up and walks away when one of her kittens bites her too hard (NEGATIVE, the mother removes herself – and her attention – from her kitten) and the kitten learns that unless she only suckles gently, she gets NO attention from her mother (the hard-biting behavior gradually stops, thus there has been successful PUNISHMENT).
  • You’re trying to teach your cat to walk on a harness and leash outside.  You pull on the leash when your cat tries to run off in a direction you don’t want her to go, but then remove the pulling pressure from the leash (NEGATIVE, since you’re removing the pressure) when your cat stops pulling you in an unwanted direction and walks next to you.  Your cat learns that she prefers to walk next to you without the leash pressure (REINFORCEMENT, since walking next to you is repeated). (On the other hand, the pulling that you do would be POSITIVE (because you’re adding pressure), and getting her to stop the behavior of running away from you would be PUNISHMENT.)
  • Finally, your cat is fascinated by the live crickets you feed to your pet lizard.  On several occasions, she has knocked over the cricket container and they scatter everywhere in your home.  You hit her on the nose (POSITIVE, because you’re doing something to her) in hopes that she will quit knocking over the cricket container (PUNISHMENT, since you don’t want her behavior to be repeated).

Using positive punishment with cats just doesn’t work

What do you think is the best approach for training your cat, and what do you think is most detrimental?  Positive reinforcement is the much-preferred way to help cats establish better habits in your home.  It is fun to reward your cat for desirable behavior, and it improves the strength of your bond.  The more often you can reward behavior with a motivator your cat enjoys, the more often you will see that behavior repeated.  On the other hand, positive punishment in any form (e.g., yelling, hitting, using a squirt bottle, tossing objects directly at your cat) is ineffective and causes fear, anxiety, and stress. Cats don’t learn from punishment unless it is applied ALL THE TIME (and trust me, you will NOT be around to catch your cat in the act 100% of the time…your cat will just learn to do the “thing” when you’re not around).  Unless punishment is applied consistently and immediately (within a matter of seconds), your cat will not associate her behavior with the punishment. And what do you think will happen to the relationship you have with your cat if you’re punishing her all the time?  That’s right, she’ll start to mistrust and fear you, which can even result in aggression.  Punishment will only serve to damage the cat-human relationship, and I know that’s not what you want. Cats respond so much better to positive reinforcement!

Ways you can apply positive reinforcement every day

Here are a few ways you can use positive reinforcement to make changes to your cat’s daily behaviors (these are just examples, but positive reinforcement can apply to nearly any behavior you’d like to encourage):

  • Encourage Social Behavior:  If you cat is shy and has a tendency to hide, you can encourage your kitty to come out more by using treats to reward her when she emerges from her hiding spot.  At first keep her ventures brief and easy, but then try using more positive reinforcement (treats, sweet-talk, affection, etc.) to encourage her to travel further from her hiding spot for longer periods of time.
  • Teach Your Cat to Accept Petting:  If your cat doesn’t like to be petted, give her a treat for one pet, then pet her twice and give her another treat.  Reward longer petting sessions with more treats, and stop the petting sessions before your cat has a negative reaction.  Pay attention to her body language and always end on a positive note!  (For more about petting aggression, click here.)
  • Use a Scratching Post / Pad: You can encourage regular use of your cat’s scratching post by rewarding her each time she uses it. She’ll learn that the scratching post is pretty nice, AND she gets treats as a reward for using it!
  • Reward Quiet or Calm Behavior: If you’ve been having issues with your cat yowling or being aggressive with another cat, you can reward good behavior using treats or play. If excessive vocalization is a problem, give your cat a treat after several seconds of quiet if she has been meowing. If she’s aggressive, reward your cat when she is relaxed and peaceful in the presence of the other cat.
  • TRICKS!  You can teach your cat all sorts of tricks using positive reinforcement:  sit, high-five, sit-pretty, go to mat, lay down, come, up, down, jump, etc.  Just search for cat tricks on YouTube and you’ll be occupied for hours!  A good book I recommend to get started is called “Clicker Training for Clever Cats” by Martina Braun.  You might also check out the Amazing Acro-Cats (they have lots of videos on YouTube as well) – all of the tricks are taught using positive reinforcement, and they are, in fact, AH-MEOW-ZING!
  • Drink out of the Correct Glass: Let’s say your cat likes to drink out of your cup of water with her paw and it’s getting a bit annoying. All you need to do is provide her with her own cup in an acceptable location (for you and the kitty), and when she goes for your glass, simply move her to her cup in a very neutral way, and then give her a treat/pets/affection/sweet talk when she uses her cup.

A word of caution, though – make sure you are rewarding the correct behavior. You need to have an interruption between the undesirable behavior and the acceptable behavior so that your cat associates the reward with the correct behavior, or you could simply be reinforcing a behavior you don’t want!  Know what I mean, Vern?

What if my cat gets bored with her reward?

Another thing to keep in mind is this:  if you give a particular treat reward all the time, your cat may soon decide that she doesn’t need to do what you want her to do because she doesn’t necessarily want the treat.  What you’ll want to do is reward based on a variable schedule – don’t reward a desired behavior with a treat every single time it is performed!  Maybe reward your cat’s behavior only 50% of the time (once she learns what it is you want her to do) – this actually works as a STRONGER reinforcement long-term than rewarding all the time.  It’s the same thing as slot machines – humans play longer because of the unpredictability of the payoff.  If we only got a penny each time we took a spin, the reward would cease being a reward pretty quickly – it’s the big payoff we want, and who knows, it could happen on the next spin!  Let’s just hit the button another time to see if we win.  Oh darn!  Maybe one more time…and so on.  It’s a very strong draw to perform a desired behavior!  We always want to see if we’ll win on the next spin…similarly, your cat will always want to see if she gets a payoff when she performs her behavior.

Finally, what do you do if your cat is doing something she shouldn’t be doing?  The key is to distract, disrupt, and redirect your cat’s behavior.  First, if you notice that your cat is going to scratch something she shouldn’t be scratching (for example), make a noise or toss a toy in her direction (not at her directly) to distract her from what she was going to do.  When you make a noise, don’t yell because you don’t want her to associate the startling noise with you; you can clap, shake a jar of dried beans, etc.  Next, once your cat has stopped her activity because of the noise, you want to disrupt her current course of action.  Redirect her to a different (or preferred) activity by using a wand toy to guide her over to the scratching post (a more appropriate choice for scratching), or engage her in a short play-session.  Once she engages in the appropriate behavior, you can reward her for that.

Positive reinforcement for good cat behavior is a great way to improve the bond between you and your cat, and let her know which behaviors are favored. And it doesn’t only work on cats – as I mentioned at the beginning, positive reinforcement works with people, too! Who will you train first, and what will the task be?

Positive reinforcement for well-behaved cats

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Marci and Abbey

Dr. Marci L. Koski, CFTBS, CFTPB

Certified Feline Behavior & Training Consultant


LeeAnna Buis, CFTBS

Certified Feline Behavior & Training Consultant

Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer

Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer

Winner of the Women in the Pet Industry's 2017 Advocate of the Year Award

Marci Koski

Dr. Marci is a certified feline behavior and training consultant, with specialized and advanced certificates in Feline Training and Behavior. She started Feline Behavior Solutions to keep cats in homes and out of shelters as the result of treatable behavior issues. She believes that the number of cats in shelters can be greatly reduced if guardians better understand cat behavior, and learn how to work with their cats to encourage desired behaviors instead of unwanted ones. Dr. Marci’s family includes her four feline companions and her very patient, understanding, and supportive husband.