FRESH AIR: It’s 3 a.m. and Whiskers has decided it’s time for breakfast. He jumps up on your bed, gently paws at your eyelids and meows to be fed. Annoyed? Cat behavior specialist Sarah Ellis says you have only yourself to blame. Instead of indulging Whiskers’ request for an early morning snack, Ellis recommends adopting an “extinction schedule,” whereby you ignore the behavior entirely until it stops. If cat owners “can be really strong with that extinction schedule and just make sure at every occurrence of that behavior they do not reward it … it will stop,” Ellis says.
Ellis says that cat owners reinforce negative behaviors when they give in to them. “Cats are not necessarily born meowing and screaming at us for food, it’s a behavior that they learned,” Ellis tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. Sarah Ellis is a feline behavior specialist at the British charity group International Cat Care, which collaborates with organizations around the world involved with cat welfare. She has trained her cats to come when she calls, voluntarily walk into the cat carrier to go to the vet, take medicine and become acclimated to her dog and her baby.
In her book, The Trainable Cat, Ellis and her co-author, John Bradshaw, describe how humans who understand basic feline nature can get their cats to come on command, take medicine and, yes, wait until morning for breakfast. When it comes to encouraging the positive, Ellis recommends rewards over punishment — especially if the rewards are intermittent. “You don’t give a reward every single time,” Ellis explains. “This sort of keeps the cat guessing. They don’t know if running toward you this time will get the food or it’ll be the next time, and that actually makes the behavior more likely to happen.” MORE