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Canberra Cat Vet Blog

How do cats learn?

Thursday, November 02, 2017

 

 Dr Georgia told us at the info night that like us cats are learning all the time.  We often modify our behaviour based on the positive or negative feedback we receive. Cats are the same.

We are also training them all the time.  They take their cues from us – how cats act in the wild or as ferals is different to how they act with us because of the positive and negative feedback we give them. 

A common example of how you might inadvertently teach bad behaviour is when you are working on your computer and your cat walks past. She sees where your attention is and jumps up on your lap and walks across the keyboard.  If you pick up her up and give her a scratch and hug before putting her back on the ground you have just trained your cat to interrupt you on your computer. You have rewarded her with love and attention!

To stop a cat disturbing you while you are on your computer do not interact with her. Ignore her. If she jumps up,  pick her up and put her on the ground without talking, make eye contact or giving any positive attention at all.

So how do cats learn?

The simplest type of learning is habituation.  Cats learn to ignore parts of their environment that have no special consequence for them. For example, a telephone ringing.   

The opposite of habituation is sensitisation.  Repeated exposure to an event leads to an increased reaction or sensitivity.  If objects like nail trimmers, brushes or an asthma puffer are not introduced gradually and sensitively our cats learn to dislike them very quickly!

When we are aware of other more complex learning processes like classical and operant conditioning we can use them to make life easier for our cats and ourselves.

Classical conditioning occurs when a cat finds that a specific event reliably predicts that something else is about to happen.  The most notorious example of this is Pavlov's dogs.   Pavlov would sound a bell and then feed the dogs. The dogs soon learnt that the sound of the bell meant food, if the dogs heard the bell they would start to salivate whether food was presented or not. A common classic conditioning in a cat house hold is the sound of a can opening.

Classic conditioning helps train cats when we reward them with a treat and a verbal cue like “good girl”. Once they associate the phrase and intonation with the good feelings they get with the treat, just hearing “good girl” will conjure up those same feelings.

The third type of learning is operant conditioning.  Operant conditioning is when the consequences of a cat’s own actions influence how it feels and what behaviour it feels like performing next.

There are four types of consequence that trigger operant conditioning. If a cat performs an action it may have a positive or negative outcome, or something positive or negative might end.

Let's apply these principles. It's night time and you want to go to sleep and your cat curls up on your pillow. If you're a light sleeper like Dr Georgia this is not going to work. This is the story Dr Georgia told.

Alley Cat has learnt that at night when the night light is on and I am reading  she is allowed to nap next to me.  As soon as the light goes out and I roll over she gets up and moves to the blanket at the end of the bed.  She stays there until my alarm goes off in the morning.  When she hears this she is straight up for a cuddle before it is time to get up. Alley Cat learnt with operant and classic conditioning to leave my pillow at night and when it was permissible to return.

Every time the light went out and I rolled over, wriggled and moved her off the bed, I said “no”.  Something positive stopped – feeling relaxed and being patted - and something negative started as she was shuffled off the bed. I did this every night without fail , even when I was fed up and exhausted. Alley then looked for an alternative and chose the woollen blanket I'd placed at the end of the bed. She settled down there and presto! something negative stopped ie the wriggling and pushing her away, and something positive started, the comfy blanket where she could sleep. The accompanying phrase “good girl” reinforced the operant conditioning with classical conditioning so now she sees the light go off , hears "good girl" and she goes to the blanket at the foot of the bed.

 

 

The sense of smell

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The lining of cats’ noses has a large surface area for trapping smells. It’s 5 times as big as ours. They also have large olfactory bulbs, which are the part of the brain where smells are initially analysed. Cats are very sensitive to scent and can discriminate more scents than they are likely to meet in a lifetime. As a result we have to minimise the number of strong scents we present to our cats as they are easily overwhelmed by them.

Mice leave scent marks to let other mice know they are about. Cats locate the mice using these scent marks, especially at night when vision is less reliable. When the cat finds the mark the marking mouse is long gone so the cat waits patiently for the next mouse to come along and sniff the mark - then he pounces on the poor mouse

Cats use scent to mark their own territories, too. An anxious cat will urinate around the house to warn other cats off. Less threatened cats rub their faces onto objects leaving a pheromone behind. This makes them feel more comfortable and lets other cats know they are there. Feliway is an analogue of this pheromone and we recommend it for cats who are anxious or taking a while to settle in to a new environment.

Cats also have a sense that we lack. While we are not quite sure what they are sensing, we think that odours from other cats are dissolved in saliva and moved up two tubes in the roof of the mouth to the vomeronasal organ. When you see a cat pulling up its top lip in a funny way while apparently sniffing an object she’s probably sensing another cat has been there.

 

Hearing and touch

Thursday, October 26, 2017

 

Cats can hear sounds 2 octaves higher in pitch than we can. They hear the high pitched squeaks of mice and other small rodents and can even distinguish the different species. We think this is why cats prefer us to talk in a high pitched voice. Perhaps low tones remind them of an angry tomcat?

Their mobile erect ears track prey. They pinpoint their victim’s position by the difference in time it takes sounds to reach the left and right ears. The ear flaps, known as pinnae, are independently mobile so that they can point away from or toward a sound to confirm the direction it’s coming from. Even the corrugations in the pinnae function to tell whether the source of the sound is from on high or from down low.

Cats’ paws very sensitive. They hate us handling their feet because their pads and claws are packed with nerve endings. In the wild this helps them know what their prey is doing – especially if it’s trying to escape! Remember they can’t see this close. Their vision is best from 2-6 metres.

Their long canine teeth are also super sensitive to touch. This allows them to direct the killing bite with deadly accuracy.

Their whiskers are super sensitive and very mobile. They  sweep them forward when they are pouncing to make up for their short-sightedness. In a fight they prevent damage to their precious whiskers by holding them back along the cheek.

The stiff hairs on the sides of the head, near the ankles and above eyes allow them to squeeze through small openings.

Cats senses of hearing and touch fit them well for finding, pouncing and killing their prey.

 

Cats as our companions

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

 

Ever wondered why cats consented to live with humans? While they have not been domesticated for as long as dogs they have been sharing our households for thousands of years. The Egyptians were not the first to take them into their homes. They were just the first to decorate their homes, temples and tombs with depictions of them so ensuring their favourites endured for eternity.

African wildcats moved into farming settlements to control pests in stored grain. When vermin were in short supply the cats relied on humans to supply their meals. The cats that survived combined good hunting  ability with the ability to reward people with their company. As time went on these cats extended their feline family bonds to include humans and humans reciprocated taking the most tractable and attractive onto their hearths.

However, cats retain all the features that make them good hunters. Their displays of emotion are muted. They are not going to shout out if they find something tasty to eat or a comfortable bed. They regard other cats as rivals for food and other resources. Cats are also not going to show fear or pain if a predator or a rival cat is around. This makes it very hard for you to tell when your cat is not well.

It is thought that the purr evolved as a signal from kittens to their mothers to make her stay with them. They are saying “please settle down next to me” in the most inviting way they know.

Feliway calms your cat

Sunday, October 22, 2017


Feliway is a copy of the pheromone that cats naturally rub around their environment to make them feel comfortable. It is odourless to us - but a potent calmer for cats.

Every time a cat rubs the side of its face against objects in the home, it leaves behind a pheromone to mark its territory. This pheromone helps them feel at home and happy.

Changes in and around your home can upset your cats and prevent them from following their normal routine of rubbing this pheromone around their area. They then feel less secure, and become stressed.

Activities such as redecorating, moving the furniture, having guests or tradesmen in, going to the cattery and moving home remove these natural pheromones from around the cat and cause stress.

Any change in your home organisation and schedule disturbs your cat, for example: a newborn baby, toddler or a new partner, a new work roster. Cats are very sensitive to routine and crave a stable environment.

A stressed cat may hide, scratch furniture, urinate outside the litter box, spray the curtains or become aggressive to other cats in the household.

Feliway helps maintain the scent that gives your cat a feeling of peace and calm, and reduces the stress that your cat is experiencing.

How cats see the world

Friday, October 20, 2017

 

This is part 1 of the text of the talk given at our 2017 client night. Watch out for future installments.

Cats’ senses are very different to ours because they evolved as hunters and retained these characteristics even after they came to live with us.

Cats are descended from the African wild cat, which are ambush hunters of rodents, frogs, reptiles, and birds, but potential prey for larger animals. Our cats’ senses are unaltered from those of the wild cat. All that has changed in their brains is the ability to form social attachments to people

Cats eyes are suited to hunting at night.  The large cornea allows light to enter the eye and the reflective layer under the retina maximises light sensitivity.

This high light sensitivity would be painful in broad daylight so their pupils contract to a slit and their eyelids close to protect the retina in the day.

They have no need for colour vision at night and so see yellow and blue but not red and green. Size, pattern and shape of prey are more important to them.

The most critical aspect of vision in cats is that it is best from 2-6 metres away. This makes it difficult for them to take treats from our hands. However like us they have binocular vision, which enables them to judge the distance to prey, and to climb and jump accurately.

Their eyes are acutely sensitive to minute movements – like the twitch of a mouse’s whisker.

Training cats and other smorgasbords

Friday, October 20, 2017

An eager crowd heard Dr Georgia talk last night on training cats - before they train us. Earlier Dr Kate spoke on how cats perceive their environment, surprising all with the sharpness of cats' hearing, smell and vision in poor light.
A supper of delicious sandwiches and wraps kept energy levels and interest up and everyone went home with gifts for the felines in their lives and renewed interest in their cats' behaviour.
The text of the talks will appear here shortly.

Indoor cat cat health and happiness

Friday, October 13, 2017



Dr Kate and Dr Georgia were recently interviewed about the problems indoor cats encounter

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Canberra Cat Vet 16-18 Purdue St Belconnen ACT 2617 (parking off Gillott Street) Phone: (02) 6251-1444

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