Cats have a reputation for being unteachable—or at least fairly stubborn. Many a person who has tried to break the habit of their cat can report this. But velvet paws are quite ready to learn something.
Dogs learn tricks, as do sea lions, elephants, and horses. But cats? Can they be taught anything at all? Many people would answer with a categorical no. But: “The behavior of a velvet paw consists on the one hand of innate and on the other hand of acquired, i.e. learned, processes,” explains Birgit Rödder, biologist and expert on cat behavior. What cats don’t have to learn, for example, but bring into the world with them, is meowing, hissing, and purring. But these innate behaviors are also trained, refined, and adapted to different situations.
In the first few weeks of life, the young cats learn a tremendous amount about life, the environment, and their roommates. “We’re talking about coinage-like processes here,” says Rödder. “Because the puppies absorb information like a sponge and what they have learned remains firmly anchored for a long time.” In the further course of life, cats basically learn no differently than other animals. And they always do it particularly well and quickly when their actions are crowned with success. So when they achieve what they set their minds to.
Quickly Understood When There Was Food
So are the kitties opportunists? “I would say they are pragmatists.” Birgit Rödder has been dealing with the complex learning behavior of cats for many years and knows that not everything has really been researched yet. Every cat owner who has dropped a piece of sausage from the table can confirm that the clever velvet paws learn very quickly when something jumps out for them. Interesting how subito the cat understood where these treats came from. But it’s annoying that she’s always begging, isn’t it?
Many cat owners are also familiar with these feeding rituals: the cat always goes into the kitchen at a certain time and makes it unmistakably clear that a meal is now the order of the day. Some meow more gently, others louder, others jump onto the table or worktop or rub their human’s legs intensively. “They have simply learned that this behavior has been rewarded so far – because we usually find it cute,” explains Birgit Rödder.
But at some point even cute things can be intrusive and annoying. Because if this behavior does not lead to the goal at all or not quickly enough, then the animals will increase their urging. Ultimately, the whole thing is – albeit unintentionally – nothing more than what is known as «operant conditioning». So learning, in which a certain behavior of the animal is intensified and consolidated by rewarding the human.
“The connection is the most important thing,” says the cat expert from Germany. The neutral transport basket becomes a place of horror when the cat is brought to the vet for the first time and associates fear or pain with it. The animals learn very quickly signals that announce particularly unpleasant situations, and in extreme cases, it can even happen that a one-time confrontation – the “one-trial learning” – leads to reactions of fear and flight.
Some cats are extremely jumpy and anxious about the sound of the doorbell. You’ve obviously learned that this sound announces something uncomfortable or scary. “But fear blocks creative problem solving,” says Rödder. The only thing that helps is getting the animal used to the noise and teaching it that nothing bad will happen. “For example, by presenting the fear-inducing stimulus at a lower intensity and then slowly increasing it,” the expert suggested. “If that’s not possible, then familiar people should ring the doorbell themselves more often so that the cat learns that nothing terrible will happen afterward.”
Clear Signals Help to Learn
The cat should learn not to jump onto the hot stove or not to scratch the wallpaper? “Then people should give a clear deterrent signal very quickly,” says Birgit Rödder. But be careful: the reward for the animal giving up the unwanted behavior and turning to the human should be delayed a little. “If you want to keep your cat from destroying the pretty wallpaper by throwing it a treat every time, you’re ultimately just teaching it that it will be rewarded for scratching,” she warns.