Behavior Management Products for Cats

By Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

What products are available to help prevent undesirable behavior?

behavior-management-catThere are a number of products on the market that can help with behavior management. Any products listed below are meant to be helpful suggestions, but please note that we are not affiliated with, nor do we specifically endorse any particular brand or product. In addition, although we attempt to keep the names of products as current as possible, product availability changes and we apologize if any item mentioned is no longer available.

What types of toys are recommended?

Toys that provide a moving target for chasing and pouncing are attractive to most cats. Examples include Feline Flyer™, Cat Dancer™, Tiger Toy™, and Laser Mouse™.

Interactive toys provide an opportunity for social play with the owner. Some cat toys are designed for interactive play because they need to be set in motion by the owners, while others are propelled by battery power. Toys that might be manipulated by the cat itself include Crazy Balls™, which can be filled with either food or a flashing light toy for play. Some toys for cats are round or egg shaped and made of lightweight plastic in which food and treats can be placed. The small openings in these toys can be adjusted to deliver food and varying degrees of difficulty as the toys are batted or rolled. FUNkitty™ Twist ’N Treat™, FUNkitty™ Egg-cersizer™, PetSafe® Slim Cat™, and Pipolino® – even something as simple as an empty cardboard box or paper bag may be appealing to some cats.

“For scratching problems, plastic nail coverings
(Soft Paws®) are available that can be glued onto the
toenails to prevent damage to furniture.”

Most cats benefit from scratching and perching products. A product known as Pavlov’s Cat™ delivers food treats each time the cat scratches the post. For scratching problems, plastic nail coverings (Soft Paws®) are available that can be glued onto the toenails to prevent damage to furniture. For cats that chew on household items such as plants, planting a cat herb garden may attract the cat.

Laser toys can present a problem to some cats, who can become frustrated if they are unable to achieve a desired outcome (catch the light). Some of these cats develop compulsive or obsessive light and shadow chasing. Cats that lose interest or stop the game on their own are not likely to develop this problem. If the cat wants to continue light chasing when you have had enough, give a favored treat or toy as a reward to end the game or start another game instead.

What products are available to aid in reinforcement-based training?

The use of a clicker in training can be an excellent means of providing immediate reinforcement for cat training and shaping gradually more desirable outcomes. Target devices are also available that can be used to train a cat to come, follow, and touch an object for rewards.

The MannersMinder® is a training device that delivers food or treats from a dispensing device by remote activation. Activating the remote control emits a tone from the MannersMinder®, which is immediately followed by release of food from the device (see Clicker and Target Training).

"Gradually, calmer and more relaxed
behaviors can be trained."

Gradually, calmer and more relaxed behaviors can be trained by training the cat to lie down for rewards and then shaping longer and more relaxed behaviors before the reward is released. The MannersMinder® can then be used to teach desirable behaviors or for desensitization and counter-conditioning (e.g., to sounds) by associating the sound with the delivery of rewards from the MannersMinder®.

Are there products designed for cat control and training?

A variety of cat leash and harness products (Come With Me Kitty Harness and Bungee Leash™) can also be an effective way to maintain physical control and shape behaviors for reward training. Outdoor confinement and fencing products can be a practical way to house cats outdoors while preventing them from wandering away from the property.

What products are useful for house soiling problems?

For house soiling in cats, it is necessary to eliminate any residual odor to prevent the pet from being attracted to the odor at the site. A number of products are specifically designed to remove the stain or odor of pet urine and are more effective than general household cleaners. Products that use enzymes, bacteria, or a combination of these two, such as Anti-Icky Poo®, Nature’s Miracle® Urine Off®, and Urine Erase® are particularly effective on urine stains that are relatively fresh and have not been pretreated. There are also products that are species-specific odor counteractants such as Cat Odor Off®, which can be used to neutralize odors even after other stain and cleaning products have been applied. For larger areas, a concentrated product will allow you to dilute a sufficient quantity to saturate the entire area. Black lights and moisture detectors can help to identify the soiled site. A synthetic cheek gland pheromone called Feliway® is available to be sprayed on areas where the cat might be inclined to spray or mark, in order to reduce marking (see Medication – Complementary for more details).

What products are available for treating noise phobias and anxiety?

Commercial products are available that reproduce a variety of sounds that often cause fear in pets, including thunderstorms, fireworks, and gunshots. Recordings containing a wide variety of sounds, including vacuums, trucks, hot air balloons, airplanes, and crying babies, are useful for desensitization and counter-conditioning or as background noises for habituation in kittens.

Some products have been designed to reduce anxiety in other ways, such as a wrap (Anxiety Wrap®, Thundershirt™) that exerts constant pressure and a cape that reduces static electricity associated with thunderstorms (Storm Defender™ Cape), although there is minimal data to support their efficacy at this time.

How do I decide what products to use to correct undesirable behavior?

behavior-management-cat2Before using any product for interrupting or deterring undesirable behavior, the first question should always be whether the cat is being given suitable and sufficient enrichment and outlets for its behavior and whether these are being adequately and consistently reinforced. In addition, it is essential that you determine if anything might be reinforcing the undesirable behavior so that this factor can be eliminated.

Numerous products have been designed to interrupt or deter undesirable behavior. However, the primary goal of training should always be to train the pet to exhibit the desirable behavior, and NOT to punish the undesirable. Therefore, perhaps the most practical use for these products is to prevent recurrence of the problem during the owner’s absence or as an aid in disrupting undesirable behavior so that responses that are more desirable can be achieved and reinforced.

Follow the instructions carefully, and supervise the cat whenever the product is being used. Deterrents are intended to reduce the probability of a behavior in the future.

Before using any deterrents, it is important to determine why the cat is exhibiting the behavior. It is of little value to try to stop the undesirable behavior without resolving the underlying cause. In fact, if the problem is related to fear and anxiety, deterrents may serve to increase the pet’s anxiety. When considering deterrents for undesirable behavior, behavior products can be particularly useful because they are less likely to cause fear or defensive behavior toward the owner. If the deterrent can be activated while the owner is out of sight, as in remote deterrents, then the cat may learn to cease the behavior whether the owner is present or not. If a training device is not effective immediately, discontinue its use, and seek professional advice, because continuing to reprimand or punish the cat is counterproductive and may create fear and anxiety.

"If the problem is related to fear and anxiety,
punishment may serve to increase the cat’s anxiety."

Owners with large yards and no fencing may need to keep their cat indoors, tied up, or confined to a small pen outdoors. Outdoor electronic containment fencing, with proper installation and training, may be an alternative to keep cats from roaming off the property.

What products are useful for training and punishment when the owner is present to supervise?

Physical forms of punishment should always be avoided because they can lead to physical injury, can trigger fear and defensive aggression, and are seldom effective at deterring the cat from repeating the behavior.

In fact, physical punishment can serve to reinforce some unwanted behaviors by providing attention or alternatively lead to fear and defensive aggression. In some cases, use a device that you can activate remotely to provide an immediate, undesirable consequence that your cat can associate with a specific behavior (in which case, the device is used as a punisher). You can also use this device as a means of interrupting an undesirable response (disruptive stimulus) so that an appropriate desirable response can be achieved and reinforced.

How can a device be used to train appropriate behavior?

The concept of a disruptive or inhibitory stimulus is that it is sufficiently startling to interrupt the behavior. Whether the disruptive stimulus is also a punishment will depend on its effect on the cat and the problem. Some cats may be sufficiently deterred by the disruptive stimulus that it will reduce the possibility of the behavior recurring, while others may be interrupted but will not be deterred from repeating the behavior, or will habituate to the stimulus over time. The goal of the disruptive stimulus is to inhibit the undesirable response (with a minimum of fear or anxiety), and provide a window of opportunity to achieve the desirable response (which can then be reinforced negatively and/or positively).

What devices can be used for cats that misbehave in the owner’s presence?

Disruption or punishment devices include audible trainers, or ultrasonic trainers or a citronella spray repellent. Personal alarms, water rifles, and compressed air may also be effective (see sources below).

Why should the owner remain out of sight during punishment?

If the cat realizes that the owner is administering the punishment, the problem may cease when the owner is watching, but the cat will learn that the behavior is safe when the owner is out of sight. Therefore, if punishment is used, it is best administered while remaining out of sight, so that the cat does not associate the “punishment” with the owner.

What devices can be used to punish a cat while the owner remains out of sight?

You might place a remotely activated alarm or remotely activated spray device in areas that you want your cat to avoid (such as plants or counters).

Because it is imperative that cat owners use these devices during (not after) misbehavior, a pet monitor is another practical training tool. A small motion detector, The Tattle-Tale™, is capable of picking up the movement of a cat on virtually any surface. The device can be set up in any area where the cat might “misbehave” (e.g., scratching, garbage raiding, climbing on counters or furniture). Home security monitors, motion-activated cameras, and even pet webcams are also available for monitoring and assessment when the cat cannot be supervised.

What can be done when the owner is absent?

Environmental punishment (or booby traps) may train the cat to stop the inappropriate behavior or to avoid selected sites even in the owner’s absence. This type of punishment resembles the learning that occurs when pets are exposed to cars, barbed wire, cactus plants, sprinklers, and other unpleasant things in their environment. Automatic pet doors can be used to give one pet an opportunity to escape from other pets or to use a particular room or feeding area while the others are prevented from entry, because only the pet wearing the activation collar can enter through the door. In fact, some new cat doors that are activated by the cat’s microchip have now been developed so that only those cats whose microchip is programmed into the door can gain access.

With a little planning and ingenuity, it is often possible to design a successful booby trap out of everyday items. A few strips of double-sided tape, a few empty tin cans set to topple, or an upside-down plastic carpet runner may successfully keep cats out of an area.

Outdoor devices: Generally, the best approach is preventive confinement with fencing, a pet run, or owner supervision. Pet repellents (available from most garden centers), motion-activated alarms (Critter Gitter™), a motion-detector sprinkler (The ScareCrow™), or a motion-detector can of compressed air might keep the owner’s cat out of areas on the property (e.g., garden) or keep stray animals off the property. Ultrasonic deterrents appear to be variably effective at best.

Indoor devices: Motion-activated alarms and spray devices or double-sided tape can be placed in areas to keep cats away from plants, bird cages, fish tanks, drapes, windowsills, and furniture that might be scratched, as well as off tables and counters and out of rooms. Taste aversives may be effective at deterring chewing behaviors.

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