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Why Consenting Cats Are Happier Cats

The rise of consent training and animal agency.

Key points

  • Allowing cats to have their say supports their need for safety, security, and trust and enhances the bonds you form with each other.
  • It's easier to get your cat to a veterinarian or get them to enjoy something else like being petted or playing when your cat agrees with you.
  • Consent underlies the development and maintenance of friendly relationships within and between species, and across a wide variety of activities.
Natalie Bond/Pexels
Source: Natalie Bond/Pexels

by Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., and Steve Dale

The latest buzzword in the dog training world is referred to as consent training or cooperative care. Cats may benefit from this practice even more than dogs.1

These are less productive approaches: “Just get it done.” “I’m the boss and you will do what I say when I say it." However, the concept of consent training allows a companion animal to partake in decisions and make choices. This practice recognizes that these animals have agency, or are able to make choices about what they want to do. The dog or cat and their caretaker are partners—they both have to consent about something that is going to be done. For example, teach a cat that if you ask them to lift a paw before clipping their nails, in return they will receive a big payoff.

Getting your cat to the veterinarian

While dogs and humans benefit by feeling a sense of control, arguably this is true 10-fold in cats who are control freaks, to begin with. Think about it; being in control is synonymous with a sense of safety, which cats must have to feel secure. One reason cats like high vantage points is because they feel safe and in control of their world. And that’s one reason why cats are especially panicked at veterinary visits. They are suddenly kidnapped, forcibly removed from their safety zone, and whisked off to a place where they can sense the terror of others because of the pheromones that remain. They also are forcibly poked and prodded without their consent.

Imagine if you could merely ask a cat to simply hop into a carrier. There would be no chasing them all over the house to attempt to stuff a screaming cat into the carrier where a ladder to terror is then ascended with a car ride. By the time the exam begins, the cat may be struggling for dear life, actually thinking, “I am going to die.”

Rather than taking an unhappy, freaked-out cat to the veterinarian, carrier training can be conducted in a method consistent with consent. Here are some practical tips.

  • Leave the carrier out 24/7. If the cat was previously afraid of a carrier because of the negative association made with the veterinary visit, purchase a new carrier that looks different.
  • Randomly drop treats into the carrier so it becomes an automatic treat dispenser.
  • Once comfortable inside the carrier, begin to feed the cat in the carrier. Most cats may now hop inside, expecting a treat for doing so. Cats do train peopleand now you comply.
  • Now, ask your cat to hop into the carrier on cueand always offer high-value award for doing so.
  • Ask your cat to leap into the carrier, close it, and walk to another part of the house. Once there, open the carrier and feed. Good things happen after being inside the carrier.
  • Finally, teach the cat that car rides aren’t badbefore going to the vet, just drive around the block, and when returning home give them a meal. And when you do go to the veterinarian, go for a happy visitno exam, only treats.

Of course, you can use force to get the job done, but we know there are deleterious psychological impacts, not to mention an erosion of trust.

Petting is okay as long as the cat consents

Another good example of how to use consent in cats is the issue of petting-induced over-stimulation. Some cats can be petted all day long, but others manage only a minute or two at a time before lashing out. Several reasons may help to explain why some cats barely have any petting patience. For some, it actually may begin to feel uncomfortable when touched for too long. The same goes for dogs, some of whom like to be petted or hugged, and others who don't.

For cats who typically allow only a minute or two of petting, stop petting after around 30 seconds. Quit while you’re ahead, leaving the cat to decide, “I want more.” If so the cat asks to be petted more, offer only a few seconds, continuing to leave the cat wanting still more. At some point, the cat will likely say, “Okay, that’s enough.” You can increase the time you spend petting your cat while still allowing the cat to maintain control.

Likewise, if you want to play with your cat, be sure your cat tells you it's okay. Cats, dogs, and other animals clearly express their intentions and have to consent for fair play to continue; it's best to be sure they want to play with you.

All of this is consistent with the Fear Free initiative, which is designed to minimize fear, anxiety, and stress.2

The ubiquity of consent

Consent underlies the development and maintenance of friendly and happy relationships within and between many species, including animal-human relationships, and across a wide variety of activities. When you want a cat or other animal to do something, why force the issue when you don’t need to? The most significant explanation given by cat parents whose cat doesn't like to go to the veterinarian is transit. Getting them into a carrier and the way cats respond in the clinic also are deterrents. Obviously, being able to see a veterinarian regularly benefits the welfare of our cats. Petting a cat who likes to be petted can be good for them and for us. A consenting cat is a happier cat.

Giving cats control by granting them agency and asking for their consent supports their need for safety, security, and trust, makes them happier, and enhances the social bonds you form with each other.

Facebook image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock


1) This essay was co-authored by Steve Dale, a Certified Animal Behavior Consultant (CABC) who hosts several pet radio shows and has contributed to and authored several books.

2) For more details about how to make cats happy, see Dr. Zazie Todd's Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy.

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