How do I de-program my paper-ripping cat?
June 10, 2014 3:39 PM   Subscribe

I have accidentally trained my otherwise lovely cat to be as annoying and destructive as possible when he wants to be fed by just giving in and feeding him. How do I get him to stop this behavior?

Note that this ONLY happens before mealtimes. He is perfectly behaved all other times of the day. It primarily manifests itself as ripping up any and all paper he can find --- this has included bills, important documents, and homework -- so normal methods like spraying bitter apple or cayenne pepper on things won't work because it'll ruin the paper.

Things I've tried:
- Ignoring him, but he just keeps ripping.
- Interrupting him, he'll run away for a bit and then come back and keep ripping.
- Putting away all papers, he'll open notebooks, shred Post-It pads, and pull out Kleenex - just to have something to rip.
- Feeding him before he starts ripping, but he just starts even earlier the next mealtime.

How can I make him stop?!
posted by shesdeadimalive to Pets & Animals (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Whoops, forgot the obligatory cat picture. Here is Mephistopheles, the devil in question
posted by shesdeadimalive at 3:41 PM on June 10, 2014 [13 favorites]

If it's literally not possible to hide all the papers, I might put out some decoy papers -- scraps, trash, things you don't care about, so he thinks he's ripping up Important Things but you can feel better about ignoring him and therefore training him out of ripping = food. You can also do the spraying of nasty stuff on this paper without fear of ruining it.
posted by brainmouse at 3:43 PM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Squirt bottle or canned air. As soon as he starts ripping, squirt or puff him (note, don't use canned air extremely close to the skin/eyes/face as it is an irritant, it's mostly the noise you want) and say no. Generally after 2-3 days you don't even have to have water in the water bottle, just pointing and pulling the trigger will make them squint and take off.

Wait until he specifically does something else (maybe a ball or mousie can be deployed) and then feed him.

You could also start feeding him 2-3 times a day, slightly randomly, and just confuse his evil kitty brain. Alternately or additionally switch to an automated feeder so the act of being fed is no longer associated with an action that can be provoked.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:48 PM on June 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

I swear that cats know the difference between ignoring them and trying to ignore them. When I come home my cats will go bezerk for food... if they know I'm going to feed them. If I emotionally detach and just go about my business they calm down until *I decide* to feed them.

It's not terribly scientific but there you have it.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:49 PM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oooh here's another - say "NO" loudly & firmly and when he stops ripping THEN he gets a treat. He'll pick that up pretty quick. We're training my cat not to run out the door that way.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:50 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

So cute!
Are you sure he wants to be fed? Maybe he just wants your attention and to play with you a little bit. If I get busy and forget about "OMG THE RED DOT" time, my guy acts out by doing things he doesn't usually do. I'd try playing with Mephistopheles for a bit and see if that tires him out.
posted by NoraCharles at 4:04 PM on June 10, 2014

What a knockout.

Negative reinforcement might or might not work. In general, best response to undesirable cat behavior like this is to remove the Rippable Thing without otherwise reacting. But positive reinforcement will work. I'd suggest using St. Peepsburg's approach. Alternately, keep a sneaky eye out for desirable behavior, like calm sitting, and as soon as it begins say Dinner! or some other marker word and feed kitty. Kitties figure out what gets positive rewards mighty quick. Just mark the behavior with a particular word and reward after the marker word. Rewards need NOT be simultaneous with the marker word, but you do have to be quick to get the marker word or sound out when you get the behavior you want.

I got all my cats to sit on command before they ate using this technique. You can get cats to do anything if they see a payoff coming for doing it.
posted by bearwife at 4:23 PM on June 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

Make the paper inaccessible. Then he can't rehearse this behavior. Provide him with something he is allowed to scratch on, and encourage him to do this by pretending to scratch this item yourself. I successfully redirected my cat from scratching a screen door this way (always at the same times of the day). After she would race over to the post and scratch, I started leaving the door accessible again and she never went back to it.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 4:23 PM on June 10, 2014

There is also made a thing that will spray air when it detects motion. I forget what it is called so couldn't google for it, but I'm sure it is marketed as some kind of cat deterrent. :)
posted by AllieTessKipp at 4:24 PM on June 10, 2014

That is one handsome devil!
posted by ainsley at 4:54 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

In similar circumstances, we developed a tragic learning disability, causing us to misinterpret behavior X as the cat's way of saying he wants to be picked up and snuggled. We carried out what we perceived to be his wishes with great and sincere affection.

Meanwhile, it's your duty to help Mephistopheles acquire another way to ask for food. As Lyn Never suggests, find a naturally occurring behavior -- giving him a new toy to use as his butler call-button sounds really smart. Respond to that signal with alacrity. For the first few days at least, become a complete sucker for that signal -- reward him with treats, even if it isn't mealtime.

The trick is to convince the cat that HE'S training YOU.
posted by feral_goldfish at 4:56 PM on June 10, 2014 [12 favorites]

1. Get a big box that you can shut. Or bags. Or similar. Keep your papers absolutely out of sight unless you are physically holding/using them. You can do it!

2. Get a nice sturdy scratching post, if you don't have one.

3. Replace the undesired behavior with a nicer one. Get one of those wand cat toys, or something similarly attackable. For 10 minutes before a meal, play with your cat. Play and feed like clockwork, until he associates play-time with food, and knows that he is not going to go hungry, and forgets about ripping paper.

Failing that, automatic feeder.
posted by zennie at 5:05 PM on June 10, 2014

There is also made a thing that will spray air when it detects motion. I forget what it is called

It is called the Hiss Monster in our household, but I believe it is sold as SSSCat or StayAway.

When our grumpy old black cat has a shit-fit over feeding, we either try distractions toward less destructive behaviour, to take away the cause-and-effect, or if he's still being a complete arsehole, time-outs in a space where he can't cause damage.
posted by holgate at 5:20 PM on June 10, 2014

**There is also made a thing that will spray air when it detects motion. I forget what it is called so couldn't google for it, but I'm sure it is marketed as some kind of cat deterrent. :)

posted by bowmaniac at 5:22 PM on June 10, 2014

Can you free feed? My jerk cat got a thousand times less jerky when I started leaving his dry food out in a bowl all day. Now he just yells for attention and when the bottom of the bowl shows.
posted by teleri025 at 5:43 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

omg lookit the kitty! black kitties are best kitties!


I agree that you need to start rewarding a different behavior. I broke my cat of waking me up in the morning by never feeding him when I got out of bed. I would only feed him after I was dressed and if he was quiet.

Some cats just learn to tolerate negative reinforcement (squirt bottles etc) as a "go fuck yourself" to humans. Redirection and positive reinforcement is really the only thing that works in my experience.
posted by desjardins at 5:47 PM on June 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Easy, but it will drive you crazy first. Do not feed or reward the cat in anyway when it does jerky I want to be fed NOW behaviour. Yes he will just keep ripping and it will go on for phenomenally long times until you break/retrain it of this behaviour, you have to outlast him, not respond in any way what so ever when it tries to get your attention. Live old bits of paper you don't care around for it to rip and lock away anything valuable. Right now from your cats POV it has you trained that it's signal to be fed is paper ripping. It's the same way pigeons end up superstitious.
posted by wwax at 6:37 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sigh. This is my cat too.

wwax is spot on about ignoring them - it works, but you have to be thorough. Don't respond AT ALL - don't even look at him! It takes a day or two but it's SO worth it. They are unbelievably relentless and good at figuring out what bothers you: do not underestimate! (Punishments have never worked for us - negative attention is still attention!)

Set out decoy paper so you don't have to wonder what it is he's ripping up.
(Cat-proof in general: when ripping things up quit working, my cat moved on to knocking things off the kitchen counter/table - preferably breakable things! We also set out decoys for this - plastic tubs of cranberries or something - noisy, but indescructable.)

Set an alarm for food time (we use our phones). He gets attention + fed as soon as it goes off.

We just returned from several weeks' vacation and had to do a day or two of re-training, in part because our first morning back we failed to set the breakfast alarm. The next morning he was pretty naughty, from about 4am until alarm time (6am) - purring in my face, knocking stuff over, scratching at the bedroom door etc.. This morning he came in about 5:30, purred at me for a minute, and then quietly left... and waited until the alarm went off. Yay!
posted by jrobin276 at 7:41 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

seconding jrobin276 - set alarms for his mealtime, and ONLY feed him when the alarm goes off. My cats still have some vestigial learned pre-meal behavior (swiping at the door while im sleeping mostly), but they have learned to anticipate meal time and understand that when the alarm goes off, THEN they get their food.
posted by rebent at 1:22 PM on June 11, 2014

My cats get unlimited high-quality dry food, in addition to their nightly can of wet food. Seems to work fine for me, they only complain if I forget to fill the dry food.
posted by zug at 2:07 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

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