Cat Behavior Modification: Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Tuxedo cat whose person used cat behavior modification to calm his anxiety

Cats can be frightened or stressed by all sorts of things that happen in or around a home. Fortunately, the cat behavior modification techniques of desensitization and counterconditioning can help your feline to be happier and more well-adjusted. These terms may sound technical, but the techniques themselves are user-friendly. Here are some FAQs about cat behavior modification.

What are desensitization and counterconditioning?

Systematic desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC) are the main techniques that feline behavior professionals use to change a cat’s response to specific triggers (stimuli) in a variety of situations. These triggers can include strangers, other cats, dogs, sounds, and petting. The goal is to replace an undesirable emotional reaction (fear, anxiety, or aggressive arousal) to a trigger with a more relaxed, comfortable reaction.

Systematic desensitization is the process of gradually reintroducing your cat to a stimulus to lessen the undesirable association with the stimulus. Counterconditioning is the process of pairing a scary stimulus with something rewarding to the cat, so the stimulus in turn becomes positive through association. When these two techniques are combined successfully, the undesirable behavior usually goes away because the cat is now having a positive rather than a negative experience in response to the stimulus.

How do I use this cat behavior modification technique?

You want to set up your cat to succeed, so the desensitization and counterconditioning process should be carried out in such small steps that the undesirable emotional reaction never happens. If you attempt DS/CC when your cat is already anxious or aroused, they will be too emotional to learn effectively. 

To avoid this, you need to keep your cat below threshold. Threshold is the point at which the cat becomes uncomfortable. Many things can affect a cat reaching threshold, including distance from the stimulus, intensity of the stimulus, and the number of stimuli in a short period of time.

Always watch the body language of your cat. Through body language, your cat will tell you when they're feeling comfortable, when they're approaching threshold, and when they're feeling uncomfortable or above threshold. If your cat goes above threshold, not only will the technique be ineffective, but it could also cause the cat to regress.

How do I know if my cat's uncomfortable?

Early signs of anxiety or arousal include dilated pupils, tense body posture, sniffing the ground, scratching at a body part, vocalizing, shifting eyes, and flattened ears. The less subtle signs that your cat is reaching their threshold include not accepting the reward or taking the treat in an altered manner (e.g., snapping it out of your hand or taking the treat and then dropping it), staring at the stimulus, hair standing up, a “bottlebrush” tail, and backing away. Signs of feline aggression include growling, hissing, swatting, scratching, lunging, and biting.

If your cat displays any of the early signs of anxiety, aggression, or discomfort during a DS/CC session, the cat is too close to threshold. You should move them away from the stimulus if it’s safe or block their view of the stimulus with a piece of cardboard or something similar.

How should I prepare to use this cat training technique?

Initially, you will have to avoid any situations in which your cat has displayed discomfort. To support the overall success of the cat behavior modification, don’t expose your cat to the trigger that causes the emotional upset. For example, if your cat is uncomfortable being petted, don’t pet your cat for a period of time. Avoidance might also be a necessary safety precaution for your situation.

Before beginning the DS/CC process, you will need to determine your cat’s favorite treat or toy. Some examples include small bits of tuna or chicken, commercial cat treats, or canned food. Make sure the treat or toy you choose is truly enticing to your cat, something they will really anticipate and only receives during the DS/CC exercises.

What is the basic desensitizing and counterconditioning technique?

The stimulus that causes your cat’s adverse emotional reaction and subsequent unwanted behavior will be reintroduced in a series of steps during which you’ll gradually change either the intensity of the stimulus or the distance to the stimulus. You can change the intensity of the stimulus by altering the duration, the loudness, the location, the speed of movement, or the components and response of the stimulus. It can help to create a plan ahead of time, breaking down the intensity and/or distance to the stimulus so you always know what to work on next.

Start the DS/CC exercises at the lowest intensity and/or at the farthest distance that results in no signs of anxiety or concern from your cat. For example, if your cat is afraid of strangers, test out how far away a stranger needs to be for your cat to remain relaxed. At that distance, present the stimulus to the cat (have the stranger appear), and then give a favorite treat or toy to the cat. The scary thing must always predict the favorite item, not the other way around. Repeating this process over multiple sessions lets the cat form a positive association with the stimulus.

Once your cat is consistently comfortable at that low intensity and is anticipating the reward, you can move up to the next level by increasing the intensity of the stimulus or by decreasing the distance to the stimulus. Do not decrease the distance and increase the intensity of the stimulus at once; make only one change at a time. To ensure success, it is important to make very small changes. 

Keep in mind that the DS/CC process should be performed at your cat’s pace — not yours. If your cat does go over threshold, lower the intensity or increase the distance until your cat is comfortable again.

How long will it take to change a cat’s problem behavior?

Using desensitization and counterconditioning to change a cat behavior issue can take time, and the process must be gradual for it to work. Because change can take place slowly, it helps to maintain a journal of the behavior so that you can track your cat’s progress. In the journal, record the situation, the stimulus, the intensity or distance, and your cat’s response. Videos are another great way to measure and track success.

Problems usually arise from progressing too quickly and not taking small enough steps, so take care to always be aware of your cat’s comfort level. Because the fear or other unpleasant emotion took time to develop, look for small, incremental improvements rather than instant results.

If you are not successful with implementing DS/CC, or if you feel unsure how to apply behavior modification to your situation, please consult with your veterinarian or a feline behavior professional. The reasons for your cat’s emotional distress can be complex, and often an experienced behavior professional can offer detailed, specific recommendations for you and your cat.