Are you being controlled by your cat?

Our expert behaviourist explores cat dominance behaviour towards humans and whether cats really are able to influence human minds.

Cats are clever enough to take advantage of their owners’ habits and routines. If a cat recognises that you’re willing to get out of bed and feed them when they make some noise, you can expect them to continue doing it.

When you encounter apparently demanding behaviour from your pet, you may feel like you are being controlled by your cat. But do cats really display dominance behaviours towards humans?

The truth about ‘dominant cat behaviour’

In reality, cats are not trying to get one over their owners. But it is very important for them to know what’s happening next, because that makes them feel secure. Cats are essentially a solitary, territorial species. Without the support of a pack or a group, it is of paramount importance to them that they have a safe, predictable environment. What might appear to humans as a ‘controlling’ attitude is simply an expression of their natural instincts.

Associative learning is also key to understanding cat behaviour. Many people will be aware of ‘Pavlovian conditioning’, named after the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who was born in 1849. He discovered that if he rang a bell before giving food to dogs, they would salivate in response to the sound of the bell alone, as the bell became a predictor that food was coming next. In other words, animals will respond emotionally to one event that essentially predicts another.

As a result of associative learning, cats will make associations between human behaviours and certain outcomes, both positive and negative. They will also learn to associate their own behaviour with particular outcomes. For example, if they are rewarded with food when they meow in the night, they will keep meowing in the night when they want to be fed. So, what might appear to humans to be dominant behaviour in cats is actually them having learned that beneficial outcomes are associated with certain events. Essentially, we are training them (often accidentally!) and not the other way round. 

So, the next time your cat turns on their most imploring sound effects, bear in mind that they are not making the imperious demands of a boss. They are expressing their confidence that you want them to be happy and using your previous behaviour as a predictor for what comes next.

Dominant cat behaviour or effective communication?

Owners should be pleased if they have good communication with their cat because it shows that they understand their pet. If an owner does something the cat needs, they’re being sensitive to what their pet is telling them.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean you should let your cat get everything they want, or at the times that suit them. The best way to discourage behaviours you don’t like is to ignore your cat when they exhibit an unwanted behaviour or prevent them from doing things you don’t want them to do, as well as provide an alternative outlet for their needs, where possible.

For example, when a cat wakes up their owner in the night, hoping for food, it’s worth remembering that it’s natural for cats to eat little and often throughout the day and night. So, to reduce their reliance on their owner, but still provide for their needs, the cat could be given an automatic timed feeder, set to open just before they would normally ask their owner for food. Remember that negative attention, such as scolding your cat, could be seen as a ‘reward’ in their eyes.

Once they are no longer rewarded for behaving in a certain way, cats will be disinclined to continue that behaviour. So, if you don’t want your cat sleeping on your bed, don’t allow it, as long as they have somewhere else cosy to sleep. Bear in mind that cats naturally like to rotate their sleeping places, so you may need a few cosy spots!

Finally, we shouldn’t assume that our cats only make a fuss of us when they want something. In fact, cats do display attachment to their owners that transcends mere ‘cupboard love’. This attachment is seen in behaviour such as rubbing, purring and licking, which cats use to cement bonds.

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