Out of all of God’s creatures, there is only one that cannot be made a slave of the lash. A cow can. A dog can. A man can when in bondage; but not a cat. If a cat and man were given equal opportunity to change each other, a cat would easily change a man; but a man would need to dance a cat’s tune for the cat to be changed.
Cats, unlike dogs, are always the boss. They do whatever they do, not to please us but to satisfy their own ego. A cat who nestles with pure, purring pleasure on the pillow next to us at night is a charming thing to watch, to hear and to touch - but behold, he is there for his own fantasy, not yours.
For you to change a cat’s behaviour, it is significant to know that a cat does things to please themselves, therefore to change them you need to practice positive reinforcement rather than punishment or reprimand.
As a vet and animal behaviourist who also deals regularly with human clients, I shouldn’t be surprised; but I am continually astonished by a number of cat parents who tell me tales of how they rubbed their cat’s nose in a pool of urine, hit the cat’s nose after an episode, or even kicked the cat after she attacked her leg. Some cat parents who don’t understand their purring pals, after a series of frustration by their cat’s behaviour, seek information from the internet.
The Web is a good teacher; but it has too much information, some of which is contradicting and difficult to comprehend. Take it from me that your cat’s behaviour will just become worse if you adopt the punishment, or ranting technique to train your purring pal. Instead, she will see you as an enemy just become rebellious.
A friend told me the story of her cat, Tommy. He was very intelligent and could paw his way into a kitchen cabinet and grab food. He had developed the habit of stealing. One day when Tommy’s owner could no longer stomach his behaviour, thinking she could discipline him, she decided to scoop him up, throw him out of the window and hard against the wall.
To her dismay, this did not sort out her problem. Instead, from then on, Tommy perceived her as a potential aggressor. He would growl and even bite her whenever she got close. She had no option but to give Tommy to her friend with whom he stayed to date.
Training through positive reinforcement involves rewarding your pet in a bid to make her repeat good behaviour. Negative reinforcement training can be used on the other hand to avert bad behaviour or unwanted behaviour which already exists. In this case, Tommy’s parent could have simply removed the food from the cabinet and withdrawn his toy. Tommy would have learned that it is bad to steal food.
The writer is a vet surgeon at Pets Centre Veterinary Clinic in Muthaiga, Nairobi