Pavlov Cats: Classical Conditioning and How it Might Affect Cat Behavior

by Jazmin Murphy   May 15, 2021

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Animal behavior is a complicated thing. It’s difficult to control, predict, and modify. Sometimes your cat may engage in unwanted behaviors that don’t seem to go away with time. When this happens, it’s best to turn to tried-and-true training techniques that’ll keep your cat in check. 


Can cats be conditioned? Cats can be conditioned just like almost any living thing that is capable of learning. Conditioning is merely a process through which an animal is taught to give a specific response – either voluntary or involuntary – to a stimulus. The most famous example of this is Pavlov’s experiments, where he taught dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell associated with mealtime.


Conditioning is rather straightforward, but the specifics of how it works and how to apply it can be a bit confusing. With this guide, you’ll learn all about Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiments and how this concept can drastically improve your cat training experience. 

What is Ivan Pavlov’s Theory? 

Ivan Pavlov is a globally renowned Russian physiologist who introduced the world to the concept of “classical conditioning.” One of his most famous experiments involved making dogs salivate at the sound of a bell after a period of classical conditioning. During this time, the dogs learned to associate the noise with mealtime. The experiment happened entirely by accident while he was studying dogs' digestion and noticed their salivation patterns during feeding. 


Pavlov’s goal with classical conditioning was to understand the brain and its inner workings better. More specifically, he wanted to accumulate more knowledge on the cerebral cortex, which he referred to as “the seat of the mind.” So, the eager researcher set out on his venture to analyze “psychic reflexes,” with the first major project being the infamous dog study. 


When Pavlov placed a morsel of food before the dog, he noticed that it started salivating. He noted that the dog didn’t need any special experience to trigger the drooling. Rather, the dog’s innate knowledge of what the food would provide triggered the physiological response. 


In other words, this was a natural reflex to having food in the dog’s mouth. It didn’t seem to Pavlov that any additional physiological responses were “wired in” to produce the same effect. However, he still imagined that if a specific stimulus regularly occurred before the dog received food, it could trigger the salivation response, even without any food. 


For this to happen, a strong psychological and physiological connection had to be formed between the stimulus and delivery of food. Those learned responses would then become “conditioned reflexes,” and Pavlov spent the rest of his life studying how they worked. The first notable translations of his classical conditioning studies in psychology emerged in 1927, and the rest is history. 

How Classical Conditioning Works

First, understand that classical conditioning isn’t limited to involuntary behaviors. The phenomenon is slightly broader in scope than that. Ultimately, Pavlov wanted to understand “the necessary conditions of association and the nature of the associations formed.” The conditioned reflexes were only the tip of the iceberg. 


Interestingly, Pavlov took the scientific road less traveled in his pursuit of the secrets of the mind. Other researchers in this field were accustomed to the “S-R” (stimulus-response) approach to investigating cognitive functions. Techniques under the S-R umbrella operate based on the widely accepted notion that human behavior is learned. 


One of the defining features of S-R psychology is that it is unmediated. So, if the animal effects the stimulus somehow or thinks about its response to the stimulus, it is considered mediated. In this way, a proper S-R approach would only observe behavioral and cognitive responses that occur with no thought or premeditation whatsoever (i.e., reflexes). The opposite would be known as an “S-O-R” approach. 


Conditioning can apply to either and is defined as:

  • A stimulus gradually becomes more effective at eliciting a specific response. 

  • A behavior occurs more regularly when provoked by a specific stimulus and in a controlled environment. 

Pavlov set himself apart by using the S-N-R theory and differentiating between the “first signal system” and “second signal system.” The S-N-R (stimulus, neuronal process, response) theory. The main difference was that Pavlov emphasized that all behaviors could be explained based on the stimuli that provoked them. 

Instead of emphasizing the relationship between the particular stimulus and the response it earned, Pavlov instead focused on the process of “learned equivalence of stimuli,” or how the brain eventually came to interpret two signals similarly enough to produce the same response. 

The General Steps to Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning 

Classical conditioning is a pretty straightforward experiment to execute. All it takes is patience and persistence. However, before you try to learn the technique yourself, there are some terms you should understand first:

  • Neutral stimulus (NS): The neutral stimulus is an essential piece of the conditioning puzzle. The thing you’re trying to get your cat to respond to will be inconsequential at first. The cat shouldn’t associate the sound with anything yet, making it “neutral” in effect. 

  • Unconditioned stimulus (US): A stimulus in this category should cause your cat to have a response. However, the response must be automatic or "unconditioned." For instance, you present your cat with food, and it begins to drool. The drooling is a natural physiological reflex (an unconditioned response) that happens before and during eating, so it’s unconditioned. 

  • Conditioned stimulus (CS): These responses are the ultimate goal. You’re trying to get your cat to respond to a particular signal with a specific behavior. If you’re following the example of Pavlov’s pioneering experiment, the conditioned stimulus would be a bell, and the conditioned response would be salivation. 

Based on your understanding of these three terms, you can move forward in conditioning a specific behavior for your cat. Here are the most fundamental steps to take when training your cat:

  • Introduce a neutral stimulus during an everyday activity. During one of your regular activities, present the NS to your cat. For example, Pavlov rang a bell just before serving the dogs food. The dogs didn’t react to the bell, as it didn’t hold any meaning for them yet. This was the first step to forming the desired psychological association between the sound and food. 

  • Watch your cat’s unconditioned response to an unconditioned stimulus during that activity. Get an idea of the breadth of behaviors your cat expresses in response to the activity you’ve chosen. Does it get sleepy or excited? Does your cat want to cuddle or become stressed? These observations will help you home in on the specific behavior you’re going for. 

  • Repeat Step 1, gradually delaying the unconditioned stimulus until you can elicit a conditioned response to the neutral stimulus. When you have successfully prompted a behavior from your cat that, originally, only the US could provoke, you have effectively turned the neutral stimulus into a conditioned stimulus. Voila! This classical conditioning method can take a few days to weeks, or even months, depending on the cat and the desired behavior. 

How Do You Classically Condition a Cat? 

A Penn State student remarked, “The funny thing about classical conditioning is that it can be done on any organism…” They put this assertion to the test in a casual (and somewhat accidental) home experiment. 


Whenever the student would ruffle the cat’s treat they always followed the sound up with giving the cat a treat. Eventually, the neutral stimulus (the ruffling plastic of the treat bag) became a conditioned stimulus, which provoked the cat to run to the student in anticipation of a yummy treat. 

It can be worrisome when your cat gets separated from the family. Fortunately, it’s quite easy for them to find their way back home, although scientists don’t yet understand how it’s done. 


You can reduce the chances of your cat becoming lost by supervising their time outside and getting a leash to take them on exciting walks. Check out the Catzio store for cute, comfy leashes that’ll enhance your pet’s safety outdoors. 

Pavlov’s Cats: Can Cats Be Conditioned? 

Pavlov indeed separated non-human animals’ and humans’ cognitive capacities for learned behavior in the first and second signal systems. He believed that animals were entirely reactive and that their sensations arose only from the outside world – the first signal system. On the other hand, humans receive signals and experience sensations in response to speech, a process that constituted the second signal system. 


Some might disagree on these distinctions. After all, training your cat requires speech much of the time. In a sense, you are “conditioning” your cat to respond to a particular word or phrase. However, the concept of classical conditioning doesn’t apply very neatly, as the response is mediated. Your cat is arguably pondering its reaction, which disqualifies it as a bona fide reaction in S-R psychology. Instead, it might fit more neatly into the S-O-R theory. 


No matter how you might interpret what does and doesn’t qualify as “classical conditioning” related to Pavlov’s studies, this doesn’t negate the fact that cats can be conditioned. However, when some veterinarians discuss cat conditioning, they tend to refer to operant conditioning, a field that is noticeably distinct from classical conditioning. Here are examples of the two types in action.

Example of Classical Conditioning in Animals

There are seemingly endless possibilities for applying classical conditioning techniques to your pet training. Whether you want your cat to learn how to stop climbing the drapes or to stop spraying around the house, there is a way to integrate these psychological approaches in behavioral modification. Here are a few examples of how classical conditioning can be applied in animal training.

Operant Conditioning on a Cat

It’s funny how cat owners – or any pet owners, at that – can be witnessing real-time psychological science before their very eyes and not even know it. Similar to the student above, another cat owner unknowingly performed operant conditioning on her two kittens, Zoe, and Stewie. 


Stoney Creek Veterinary Hospital experts define this technique as “a learning process by which you can cultivate desired behaviors by reinforcing them or to remove undesirable behaviors using punishment.” This better matches the idea of pet training, as you not only teach your pet to associate a command with a behavior but reinforce that desired response with rewards or discipline. 


On the other hand, classical conditioning merely involves repetition and allows the mind to form its own associations and response patterns. 


So, using the alternative, the cat owner used the alternative to control their cats’ unruly climbing behaviors. Their cats were restricted to a certain part of the house when it was not playtime. As the kitties started getting older, they began to climb out of their designated space. To discourage this behavior (using negative reinforcement), the cat owner corrected the unwanted climbing. 

What if Pavlov Experimented with Cats Instead? 

One of the reasons so many people became interested in the concept of “Pavlov’s Cats” is because of comedian Eddie Izzard. In one of his acts, Izzard imagined what it would have been like for the renowned psychological scientist to carry out his famous experiments with notoriously stubborn, uncooperative felines instead of silly, greedy dogs. 

Izzards opens the joke with a brief description of Pavlov’s study with the dogs, then gives funny would-be “journal entries” reflecting on the process with cats instead. “You never heard his cat results, did you? If he’d published those, he’d have just been finished!” He outlines Pavlov’s imaginary writings, the scientist recalling the bell rings followed by the cats simply walking away. On the following days, the cat:

  • Heard the bell and went to answer the door. 

  • Listened to the bell and told Pavlov it had eaten earlier that day. 

  • The cat stole the batteries the next day, keeping Pavlov from playing the experimental tone. 

  • On the last day, the cat put its paw on a physical bell before Pavlov could ring it, making a “thunk” noise. 

Okay, okay, so cats are more stubborn than dogs and it is commonly more challenging to train them compared to other pets. Yet, conditioning techniques are so reliable that you won’t have to worry about your kitty ignoring you or acting like the ornery feline in Izzard’s act. 

Classical vs. Operant Conditioning

Now that you’ve seen two opposing examples of common conditioning techniques, you might have begun to develop an idea of what type of conditioning would work best for your cat. A closer look at the distinctions between the two should push you closer to a more solid decision on how you want to move forward in your cat’s training. 


For one, when exploring the concept of classical conditioning, Pavlov not only studied the process of forming cognitive associations with stimuli, but whether those associations and the persistence of the CR (conditioned response) persisted or continued. Remember, one of the major differences between classical and operant conditioning is that the latter required reinforcement of a given behavior.


Classical conditioning relied only on repetition and allowed the brain to form and maintain those stimuli-response patterns on its own, without external support. This means that there’s a possibility for conditioned response to “go extinct.” For example, after the initial learning phase, Pavlov stopped giving the dog food (the US) and presented the CS on its own in each trial. 


After a while of exclusive exposure to the conditioned stimulus without the food, the frequency of salivation dropped significantly. Over time, this behavior became increasingly uncommon, until the dog stopped drooling to the sound of a ringing bell altogether, now free of the Pavlovian effect. This process is known as “extinction.” 


Interestingly, operant condition is sort of “extinction-proof.” Because you regularly reinforce the behavior with positive or negative feedback, your cat is continuously reminded of the desired response and is rewarded for maintaining it. 

Why are Classical and Operant Conditioning Important? 

Each of the conditioning types described here are incredibly important to the average cat owner. Whether you’re training your cat to get into its carrier for travel, to exercise appropriate potty behaviors, or anything in-between, both of these teaching methods are integral to your ability to safely and effectively manage your cat’s behavior.


However, one of the essential applications of conditioning that most people overlook is the desensitization of your cat to a past fear. This is officially known as “systematic desensitization and counterconditioning” (DS/CC). It can be beneficial to cat owners that have adopted cats with trauma from past circumstances or a previous bad owner.  


So, for example, imagine that your cat has problems with aggression. Its aggressive reactions are consistently triggered by a specific stimulus, that being the sight of another household cat near its scratching post. The cat is naturally territorial, so for the purpose of this example, the intruding cat is a US, and the grumpy cat’s response is the UR. 


To get rid of this unwanted aggression, you should help your cat get used to the other’s presence. In other words, you want to replace the negative emotional response with a more balanced, controlled one, both to the same trigger. Here’s how it works:

  • Reintroduce your cat to the stimulus. Be very careful with this. Successful DS/CC never elicits the unwanted emotional response. Placing the intruding cat in a carrier on the opposite side of the room or allowing the training cat to smell the intruder’s fur in its absence are ideal methods. These are very gently reintroduction techniques that shouldn’t elicit the same aggression as the actual stimulus. 

  • During the reintroduction, offer your cat a positive stimulus. The main idea of counterconditioning is that you are replacing negativity with positivity. This means that you’ll need to make a previously uncomfortable situation into a calm one, at least. Eventually, your cat should feel neutral about the other cat’s presence and may even come to enjoy it. 

This example of classical conditioning (albeit counterconditioning) represents a nice blend of desensitization and counterconditioning. The first half of the process is spent getting your cat used to the previously negative stimulus. This functions nicely alongside the typical traits of counterconditioning, which is the reward to distract from and discourage the undesired behavior. 


On its own, desensitization does not normally involve positive or negative reinforcement. In a sense, it’s similar to S-R psychology, in that the brain is allowed to form and lose associations on its own by mere repetition. In fact, desensitization can be thought of as the strategic application of a CR going “extinct.” After being repeatedly exposed to the stimulus over time, the cat will simply stop reacting to it. 

Dinnertime Meal Cart

For one, take the daily experience of pet care technicians. Whether they’re working in a clinical setting or boarding establishment, chances are that their responsibilities run on a regular schedule. Each day before closing, they grab a cart and head to the cattery to feed all their feline guests. At the sound of the cart’s wheels rolling down the aisle, the cats get excited, start meowing excitedly, and head over to their food bowls. 


These behaviors, especially the excitement and probably some anticipatory drooling, are the result of classical conditioning. The sound of the food cart was unknown to the cats before they started staying at this boarding facility. However, now, they know that the cart is associated with mealtime. Because of this, the same enthusiasm the cats had for the food is now applicable to the cart, too. 

Clicker Training

Another example that most pet owners can relate to is clicker training. Training your cat with a clicker entails squeezing the device and making the “click” sound each time they do a task or trick correctly. For instance, say you’re trying to teach your cat to sit on command. Each time the cat sits when told, you click the button. This accomplishes two things for the cat: 

  • The click lets your cat know when it has done something correctly, marking the moment with an audible signal. 

  • The click signals that a treat or another reward will soon follow. 

Interestingly, although this is a part of training, which is typically operant conditioning, clicker training better matches the definition of classical training. Why? The clicker elicits an involuntary (or unmediated) response from the cat in an almost identical way to the bell and Pavlov’s dog treats. The cat immediately expects a tasty piece of food upon hearing that sound. 


However, the clicker is also a part of positive reinforcement, a crucial, differentiating element in operant conditioning. Perhaps this is part of why clicker training is widely considered one of the most powerful training tools an owner can use, especially when working with service animals. 

Miscellaneous Examples of Classical Conditioning with Animals

As noted a few times thus far, classical conditioning isn’t always intentional. In many cases, it could be happening right under your nose, and you’d hardly even notice. A few examples of this conditioning in action include:

  • A herd of cows moving out of the street when a driver honks their horn. In this case, the CS is the car horn, and the CR is the cows evacuating the road. 

  • Your cat running into the kitchen the moment it hears a can opener. Every mealtime, you’ve been inadvertently conditioning your cat to the can opener, the CS. The rush to mealtime is the CR. 

What Does an Animal Learn with Classical Conditioning? 

Cats and other animals learn in a myriad of ways. There are many possibilities on how it may retain information from classical conditioning exercises, all of which are dependent on the individual cat’s preferred type of learning and personality. In fact, this was one of the core motivations for Pavlov to continue his experiments and discover the process by which living things form these behavioral responses to stimuli.


Despite the many learning mechanisms, below are a few of the primary types that can emerge from conditioning:

  • Generalization: After experiencing extensive conditioning, your cat might display the CR in response to other stimuli that are similar to the CS. For example, imagine that you use a different bell to signal mealtime to your cat after conditioning, but its melody mimics that of the training bell. Your cat might generalize and realize that any bell-type music played at that time of day means food.

  • Discrimination: This is essentially the opposite of generalization. Instead of placing a group of like stimuli in the same shared category, the cat will learn to differentiate between specific stimuli. For example, a cat might naturally employ discrimination techniques when learning the differences between aggressive pouncing and playful tackles. 

  • Second-order conditioning: This is the “meta” type of classical conditioning, if you will. In this case, you would present your cat with a CS and a new, second US. Your cat will form a double association, per se, and display the CR to both. For example, the household cats might associate you with going outside, if you let them out more than your housemates. However, they always hear your morning alarm before you appear to let them outside. So, they’ve extended the “outside” association with you to your alarm, and get excited at the sound of your clock each morning. 

From these examples alone, it’s clear that there’s an endless list of possibilities of what your cat might learn when you use classical conditioning (intentionally or unintentionally). It is one of the most effective teaching tools you can have at your disposal as a cat owner and can enhance the quality of your training, whether you have a kitten, adult, rowdy, or shy cat. 

What Are the Benefits of Classical Conditioning? 

One of the primary benefits of classical conditioning is that it is an incredibly effective way to modify your cat’s behavior. In fact, it’s so efficient that most people don’t even realize that they’re doing it most of the time. Any time you whip out the spray bottle when your cat jumps up on a table or you open that bag of treats, you are conditioning your cat. 


However, when you apply this training technique on purpose, it can help improve both your and your cat’s life. This is especially important in cases involving aggression between multiple household cats. Helping your cats associate each other’s company with treats, cuddles, peace and quiet, or other positive things can reduce your pets’ chances of being bullied, or worse, injured, while you’re absent.


Adopted cats also need a bit of TLC. One of the best ways to give it to them is through conditioning. These cats often come from rough backgrounds, where their previous owners abused or traumatized them in some way. Heartbreakingly, the Humane Society of the United States estimates that almost one million animals are abused or killed each year in a domestic violence event. Additionally, rescue organizations address hundreds of cruelty cases and thousands of animal maltreatment reports. 


When these animals get the Forever Home they deserve, they need a bit of help returning to normal and learning to trust humans again. For example, one thing you can do to desensitize and counter-condition your adopted pet using classical and operant conditioning is to feed your cat treats by hand if it’s still a bit fearful of humans. 


Classical conditioning is a gentle, low-stakes way of training your cat at its own pace. Plus, it doesn’t require any specialized training or tools, and you can do it yourself in the comfort of your own home. Of course, if you’re trying to teach your cat complex tasks beyond “sit” or “paw,” you may want an expert’s help. Still, repetition and patience are entirely free methods of getting your cat to behave appropriately – and the results are undeniable! 


From these examples alone, it’s clear that there’s an endless list of possibilities of what your cat might learn when you use classical conditioning (intentionally or unintentionally). It is one of the most effective teaching tools you can have at your disposal as a cat owner and can enhance the quality of your training, whether you have a kitten, adult, rowdy, or shy cat. 

About the Author

Jazmin “Sunny” Murphy began writing informal scientific content on nature and animals in 2015. Four years later, she launched her freelance career as a digital content and copywriter. This work merges her academic perspective, rooted in her B.S. Zoology, and professional experience as a veterinary tech, university research assistant, and more with relevant marketing, SEO, and engagement techniques across various industries. Jazmin now covers pet care, pest control, cannabis, outdoor recreation, STEM research and news, and product reviews across several niches.


Visit Black Flower Writing Services for more about Jasmin "Sunny" Murphy.

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