Choice: What It Means for Cats

Our cats rarely get to choose for themselves when it comes to the really important stuff. We decide what the cats will eat, where, and when. We pick the litter box and determine where to put it and what litter to use. We select all the cat furniture, from the scratching posts and pads to the trees and perches and decide where to place them. We buy the toys, dictate the play times, and keep the cat off some pieces of furniture or out of some rooms. We control it all.

Imagine what your life would be like if you couldn’t control anything for yourself. Think about how you feel when your boss micromanages your work; then imagine your boss micromanaging your entire life.

Behaviorists know that choice is a primary reinforcer. Primary reinforcers are things we desire without having to learn anything about them. Safety, food, water, sleep, being warm when we’re cold and cool when we’re hot, and having something to do are examples of primary reinforcers. We don’t have to learn that those things are good; we’re born knowing it. Money, the latest sneakers, and a promotion at work are examples of things we have to learn about before we begin to want them—they’re called conditioned or secondary reinforcers.

Our cats don’t care about money, sneakers, or job titles. But they do care about safety, food, being comfortable, and being able to make choices. Choice can mean picking what food or litter you like, but it can also mean feeling that through your own actions, you can get positive outcomes or avoid negative ones; you can choose how events will unfold.

What happens when animals don’t have choices? Many studies, looking at species as varied as mice, dogs, apes, cats, and humans, found that not being able to control outcomes raises stress levels. The sense that you have some control over how your life is arranged and what happens to you lowers stress and provides a host of other benefits. These include promoting cardiovascular health, reducing inflammation, improving learning ability, boosting immune function, and reducing the incidence of obesity.

Choices for Cats

How can we give our cats choices? We can pay careful attention to what they choose to do on their own and notice how it might be different from what we’re offering them. Let’s start with the essentials I mentioned.

Watch your cat in the litter box. Is he always sticking halfway out or bumping his head or running out of there as soon as possible? Those are signs he doesn’t like the box. Try something bigger and more open. Test his litter preferences with a litter box cafeteria. If he always bypasses the box and consistently picks a different spot, set up a litter box in that spot.

What about food? Of course you want to feed your cat a healthy diet, but that leaves a lot of leeway. Offer a variety of flavors and textures to see which ones your cat prefers (it might be more than one!). Treats present even more possibilities. Work with your veterinarian to narrow the choices to foods and treats that are appropriate for your cat, and then set up some taste tests. If he’s always hungry at a certain time, make that one of his meal times.

What Cats Want

If your cat has a flat scratching pad but he still scratches the side of the sofa, he’s telling you he wants a wide, sturdy, vertical surface to scratch—something that’s in the same vicinity as the sofa. If he has a great post but still scratches the rug, he wants something horizontal as well. If his perch is in the living room but he’s always on top of the refrigerator, he wants a perch in the kitchen too.

As for toys, spend time playing with your cat with different kinds of toys to see what he likes. Is it feathers, fuzzies, or furries? Does he like them pulled along the floor or flying through the air? If he has a certain kind of toy that always ends up under the bed or gets ripped to shreds, that’s what he loves best! Keep replacing that toy. And play with your cat when he asks, at times of the day when he is more active. He will adjust somewhat to your schedule but try to also adjust a bit to his.

Another easy way to give him control is to let him decide when, where, and how he’s going to interact with humans (I’ve written about this before).

While it may sound counterintuitive, training is one of the easiest ways to give your cat a sense of control. Remember, control is the perception that you can affect outcomes. When you train your cat in a positive, force-free way, he has the option to offer the behavior you’re asking for and get a treat or decline and get no treat. The choice is always his. Plus, if he wants a treat, he has a way to get it. I’ve heard people say training is controlling, and they’re right; but it’s the cat who’s in control!

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.