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Using Behavior Modification to Help Your Cat
By Karen Sueda, DVM
Your cat can be easily stressed or frightened by all
sorts of things that happen in or around your home.
The behavior modification techniques of desensiti-
zation and counter-conditioning can help your cat
to be happier and more well-adjusted. These terms
may sound technical, but the techniques are actu-
ally quite simple.
What are desensitization and counter-
Systematic desensitization and counter-condition-
ing (DS/CC) are the main techniques behaviorists
use to change a cat’s negative response to specific
triggers (or stimuli) in a variety of situations. These
triggers can include strangers, other cats, dogs,
sounds, petting, etc. These techniques can have
a positive effect on your cat’s behavior if they are
done properly. The goal is to replace an unwanted
emotional reaction – such as fear, anxiety or ag-
gressive arousal – with a more relaxed, comfortable
reaction. More desirable, acceptable behaviors will follow the calmer emotional state.
Systematic desensitization is the process of gradually reintroducing your cat to a stimu-
lus. Counter-conditioning is the process of reinforcing a substitute emotional response.
When these two techniques are combined, the unwanted behavior is replaced with a
positive behavior through a gradual process of reintroducing the stimulus and rewarding
your cat for remaining calm.
How do I start the DS/CC process?
You want to set your cat up to succeed, so the DS/CC process should be carried out in
such small steps that the problem behavior never happens. If you attempt DS/CC when
your cat is already anxious or aroused, you will likely be ignored. You need to start in a
quiet, neutral setting and only gradually build up to the situation where the problem oc-
curs. If the steps are too large, or you proceed too quickly, these techniques will not be
Initially, you will have to avoid any situations in which your cat has displayed the un