Cat Social Behavior

Cat Behavior Ethogram

Definitions of some of the social behaviors displayed between domestic cats. Affiliative behaviors are those used during interactions with preferred associates- including other cats and humans! They often indicate a social bond between the individuals exists. Aggressive behaviors are displayed during conflicts. Sometimes aggressive behaviors are modified for use during play- like cuffing and chasing. Always watch the full interaction to better understand the behavior’s function.


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Simple Cat Training with Bo & Macy

Right now I’m working on several behaviors with Bo. None of these behaviors are new, but he knows some better than others. Macy shows up to show-off as well! For rewards, I use things each of the cats likes- such as deli turkey, petting, and praise. Below are some tips from different times of the video to give some additional detail on the behaviors! 

0:13 Bo is just learning the paw behavior and this is the second session he’s worked on it. Now that he is understanding the paw behavior I am working on adding in the vocal command, “paw”. When adding in a new cue, start by presenting the cue slightly after they do the behavior. So, I start to add the verbal cue “paw” slightly after he touches his paw to my hand. Eventually you can move the cue up, so it precedes the behavior. Then you can say “paw” and they will give you a high-5. 

0:19 Bo knows the jump behavior but he can be lazy sometimes! I know he can jump higher, so I only reward if I think the jump is worthy. This allows me to variably reward the jump behavior – meaning sometimes I give a treat, sometimes I don’t. Never knowing when the treat is going to come, Bo will try harder and give me a higher jump. 

0:46 Instead of using a closed hand for targeting like I do for Bo, I use a tap target so Macy can hear the area I want her to approach. Macy is blind so an auditory cue works best for her. 

0:50 I give Bo some treats for doing a good job and to divert his attention away from Macy’s treats!

Socializing cats to aid adoptability

New Media Mention: Susan C. Kahler, JAVMA news April 15, 2016
Link to full news bulletin 

5b8c2-10747749_837752042921925_1954829831_nKristyn Vitale Shreve, a doctoral student and National Science Foundation graduate fellow in the Human-Animal Interaction Laboratory at Oregon State University, said that behavioral issues or cat-owner incompatibility account for at least 27 percent of the cats surrendered to shelters by owners.

Once in a shelter, dogs and cats spend more time in close proximity to an inattentive human than pets do, Vitale Shreve noted. She conducted a sociability test of 23 cats in a shelter, comprising an inattentive phase and an attentive phase of human interaction. The cats were aware of the attention or lack of attention. Meowing vocalization sometimes served as a cue that a cat was seeking human attention.

 “Cats are facultatively social and display various levels of social behavior, depending on their environment and upbringing,” she said.

She said that human interaction through touch and vocalization can increase a cat’s affiliative behaviors and activity levels, cause it to seek close proximity with humans, and potentially decrease stereotypic behaviors, cortisol levels, and stress behavior.

“Cats in shelters that were given up were more stressed than strays,” she said. “You might want to focus (your efforts) first in the shelter on them.”

Vitale Shreve suggested implementing a shelter interaction protocol and enrichment activities such as providing food balls filled with treats to increase adoption rates, reduce return rates, and reduce stress-related behaviors.

Training Videos

Cat Training Demo

Kristyn shows you how to start training your cat!

Basic Behaviors

Showing off- Sit, Give Paw, Stand Up, Come, Go to Mat, & a trick!


Beginning Clicker Training

How to “load the clicker” to associate the click sound with a reward. You can then use the click to mark a behavior you want to train. The animal then associates the click signals a reward.


Training Sit


Target Training

Train cat to touch their nose to the end of a stick. Allows you to lead their behavior!


Go to Mat & Stay

Trained using Shaping, or marking small steps to build a more complex behavior


Trick behavior: Write on chalkboard!

Trained using Shaping, or marking small steps to build a more complex behavior

Cat Training: When to add a cue

After your chosen behavior has been trained you can add in a cue. This cue can be a word such as “sit!” or can be a hand signal, such as a closed fist. Cues are important because they give you the control to ask your cat to engage in the behavior when you wish. You ask them to sit, and they do so knowing they will receive a reward.

Cecilia standing in response to her current cue for "stand", a hand cue.

Cecilia standing in response to her current cue for “stand”, a hand cue.

It is important not to add the cue too soon, before the animal understands the behavior. This can actually confuse them and make it harder for them to connect the cue to the behavior. For example, what if you were trying to teach someone how to catch a baseball? If the learner does not connect that they are supposed to catch the baseball in their mitt then yelling “catch!” will not help them learn either the behavior or the meaning of the word “catch!”

When a cat has learned a behavior, they will often begin engaging in it when they want a treat. For example, my cat Cecilia is great at standing on her back legs. When we began training the stand behavior she would come into the room and stand up to see if she got a treat. I added the cue only after I was sure Cecilia made the connection between standing and receiving a reward .

The cue becomes an antecedent (or a signal), that indicates to the cat they should engage in the behavior in order to receive a reward.

How would you add a cue? Lets take “Stand” as an example:

  • First present the cue word at the same time as you click. This way the cat associates the word with the behavior you are marking with the click.
    Click!/Say “Stand!” (simultaneously) -> reward
  • Slowly you can present the cue word earlier. Present the cue right as you see the cat about to stand.
    Say “Stand!” (just when they begin to stand)->click (when stands)->reward
  • Continue to move the cue up earlier and earlier, until the cue totally precedes the behavior.
    Say “Stand” when you want them to do so. Cat will then stand, you can then click! -> reward

Cat Training: Loading the clicker

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 7.50.07 PMThe first step in training your cat is finding a way to communicate to them what behaviors you like. One way of doing this is to associate a signal (a neutral stimulus) with a natural response. Remember learning about Pavlov’s dogs in psychology? Ivan Pavlov found that an initially neutral stimulus (metronome- although it is widely believed he used a bell!) can be paired with food to elicit a natural, reflexive response (salivation). After multiple pairings with food, the metronome click by itself became enough to elicit the salivation response. Upon hearing the metronome the dogs “anticipated” the food would soon be delivered and began to salivate in response to the metronome alone. This is the basic concept of classical conditioning and an important aspect of animal training.

20150809_160921In animal training people often use clickers to produce a neutral “click” sound. There is nothing special about the “click” until it is given meaning (conditioned). In reality you could condition almost any neutral stimulus (I’ve heard people use a harmonica, bell, snap of their finger and even light for blind animals) but clickers often produce a consistent, distinct sound which makes training with it simple. The idea of the “click” is to mark the behavior you like and want the cat do more frequently. So, first the “click” must be associated with something good (as the metronome was with the food). The click essentially tells the cat, “I like what you did, you’ll get rewarded for it soon”. This is called a bridging stimulus because it marks the exact moment of the behavior you like- bridging the time between that behavior and when the animal is rewarded.

Step 1:
Decide what your reward (or reinforcer) will be! A reinforcer is something you give to your cat that will cause an increase in the desired behavior. This will be something your cat finds rewarding and wants to work for. You can use food, praise/attention, and play as a reinforcer. For food I suggest trying cooked chicken, tuna, or summer sausage. See this post for more information on picking the correct reinforcer for your cat. This is very much on an individual basis- your cat will decide what is reinforcing for them and each cat will be different. It will be hard to ask your cat to work for an item they do not find rewarding, so make sure you choose the correct reinforcer!

Step 2:
Pair the click (or whatever stimulus you have chosen) with your reward, or reinforcer. If you don’t do this the cat will not understand what the click means. To do this, simply click and then give your cat the reinforcer. Do this multiple times, ~30x with small amounts of the reinforcer (if using food use small pieces, if play/petting do short bouts), until the cat associates the click with the idea that a reward will be delivered soon. You will start to notice the cat expect something when they hear the click. For example you may click and the cat will immediately look up at you, waiting expectantly for their treat. Once this happens you know your kitty understands the meaning of the click. Then it is time to start training!