Stuck in a Chain: When the Behavior Just Keeps Happening

Does your cat continue to do the same unwanted behavior, even with repeated attempts to train them to do something different? Feel stuck in a loop you can’t seem to change? You might be experiencing a behavior chain!

Your Cat is Training You!

A behavior chain is a sequence of behaviors that leads to reinforcement (getting something your cat wants). The first behavior triggers the next, which leads to the next, and so on, until there’s something desirable or rewarding. This is true for all species and isn’t always a bad thing, but can cause trouble if you accidentally create chains that include unwanted behaviors. 

Most unwanted behavior chains start with a cat doing something you don’t like. Upon seeing that behavior, you try to intervene, to redirect them or show them the correct behavior and then to reward that. You think you are showing your cat what to do instead; however, they are learning that the first behavior can start a chain of events that leads to good things. 

Basically, your cat has trained you to respond to their behavior (even though you don’t like it) and reward them. Probably not what you were going for!

Do You Have These Problems?

Unwanted behavior chains are as common as they are annoying. If you are continuing to see a problem behavior, even after trying to teach your cat to do something else, you might be experiencing a behavior chain.

Common examples:

  • Getting onto Counters or Desks: Cat jumps onto the counter; you cue them to jump down and reward them for doing so.
  • Playful Aggression: Cat pounces on your feet or bites your ankles; you grab a toy to redirect them and give them a play session.
  • Demanding Attention: Cat starts meowing, pawing or batting at you, sitting on your keyboard, etc; you ask them to go to their bed/cat tree/to do tricks and give them treats.
Cat on Kitchen Counter
Photo Credit: Nick Karvounis/

In each of these examples, the cat’s actions ultimately lead to a reward. From their point of view, there is zero reason to change their behavior!

A Different Way to Better Behavior

Your cat is never going to stop their problem behavior if it keeps paying off at the end of the behavior chain. Instead, you need to break the pattern and get ahead of the unwanted behavior.

Be Proactive

Rather than only responding to your cat’s behavior, be proactive in reinforcing good behavior when you see it (before the problem appears) and meeting your cat’s needs on a regular basis. 

If your cat often asks for play in inappropriate ways, look at their daily routine and make sure it includes enough regular play and enrichment. Don’t wait for them to signal when they need to play; meet that need as part of daily life. For more, check out these posts about routine play and enrichment. (This can also help with that demanding behavior.)

If your cat has a tendency to jump on counters or get into things, do your best to reward them before they get to this point. Show them that being on the floor (or their cat tree, or wherever is appropriate) will pay off, before they ever jump up. 

Use Management

Management is the process of setting up your cat’s environment to prevent unwanted behaviors from happening or from being reinforced. 

If you are going to do something that might trigger your cat’s desire to play (for example, laying on the floor to stretch), put your cat in another room first. Now there is no way for them to practice the problem behavior or be reinforced for it. 

If you are working on counter surfing, make sure there is nothing interesting on the counter to reward your cat for jumping up. Combined with finding interesting activities in other places, your cat will eventually lose interest in the boring counters. 

Be Careful with Redirecting

Redirection, the process of directing a misbehaving cat to an appropriate option, can be useful. Especially with kittens who are just learning the ropes, showing your cat what works to get what they want is a step in building desirable behavior. 

But… be careful with relying too much on redirection. If the main way your cat gets play time, attention, or treats is after they do something you don’t want them to do, that’s a recipe for a behavior chain that will continue to include the unwanted behavior. 

Make sure redirection is a small part of your plan. With proactive strategies, you should see a decrease in the problem behavior that needs redirecting. If the behavior is staying the same, rethink your strategy. 

Ignore the Behavior?

If part of the behavior chain is your response, does that mean you should ignore the behavior to make it stop? Maybe, maybe not. If the behavior is targeted at getting your attention, this might be a part of your plan, but it must be combined with being proactive and meeting your cat’s needs in other ways. If the behavior has nothing to do with your attention, then ignoring it won’t help. 

You can read more about whether or not ignoring your cat will help with their behavior here.

Breaking the Chain

Behavior chains aren’t inherently bad, but if they include unwanted behavior, you’ll need to address the whole chain to get the change you want. Luckily, once you see the chain, it gets easier to break it. By being proactive, using management, and being careful about how you redirect the problem, you can get on the path to the behavior you want!

If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.