The Trick to Using Treats

Do you have a scaredy cat? You’ve probably heard the advice to give them treats to help them overcome their fear. It’s great advice (unlike some of what’s out there…) but there are a few important tricks to using those treats effectively!

Why Treats?

Fear can’t be controlled in the same ways other behavior can be. Your cat can’t decide to be scared or not. In order to stop this emotional reaction, you need to create a new one to take its place. This happens through the process of “classical counterconditioning” (sometimes just called classical conditioning). The situation or person that causes the fearful reaction is paired with something that causes a very positive reaction. With repetition, that positive emotional reaction becomes connected to the previously scary thing and replaces the fearful one. 

Shy cat hiding in tree

Food and treats are wonderful tools for classical counterconditioning because eating is a basic need and thus a natural positive for cats. There’s no learning needed for your cat to have a positive feeling about food. Treats are also easy to use and can be given repeatedly at specific times during a training process.

Doing It Right

There are three main tricks to using treats to work with a fearful cat. 

1. Choose the Right Treat

The best treats to help your cat feel safer are extra special and desirable. Your cat should really want them! Dry cat food or treats probably aren’t enough. Think about soft, smelly, and/or meaty options like meat-flavored baby food, bits of canned tuna, or freeze-dried meat treats. The treat should also be easy to give in small pieces or licks so you can give a lot quickly without filling your cat up too quickly.

2. Order Matters

One of the keys to this process is the order. The “scary thing” always happens first, then the treat immediately follows it. This way your cat learns that the scary thing is a predictor of the treat and begins to anticipate the (formally) scary thing because good things come along with it.

For maximum impact, every single time the scary situation or person appears, the treats should follow right behind. 

3. Manage the Scary Thing

No matter how good a treat is, your cat can’t enjoy it if they are too scared. If the scary situation is too much for your cat, they won’t be able to think about their treat. Always keep the “scary thing” at a level where your cat can and will eat their treat. There shouldn’t be any running away, hissing, growling, or swatting. If your cat is having a negative reaction while you are trying to give them treats, they are too overwhelmed and you need to slow down. 

Kitten Hiding Under Sofa
Photo Credit: Said80/Pixabay.com

You can keep the scary thing from being overwhelming by moving further away (ex. a person or dog), making it quieter (ex. a noise), or doing it for less time or less intensely (ex. petting or handling).

Common Mistakes

Using the Treat as a Distraction

The most common mistake when using treats is trying to use them as a distraction from the “scary thing.” Distractions can work to hold wiggly kittens still or when a cat just needs something to focus on. However, if your cat is fearful a distraction won’t help them feel safe. In fact, they are likely to become wary of the treats because now they predict something scary happening. This is the opposite of the association you were trying to make!

Always have the treat come after the “scary thing.” For example, lightly pet your cat once and give them a treat. Don’t give a treat and then try to pet while your cat is eating it. If you feel like you need the treats to keep your cat from running away, you are moving too fast. Back up a step to so they are comfortable staying with you and begin offering the treats again. 

Not Protecting Your Cat From Their “Scary Thing”

While working on your cat’s fears, they should ideally only be exposed to the thing that scares them when you are able to work with them on it. If a cat continues to be scared by something outside of the treat sessions, they can’t learn a new emotional reaction. They need you to protect them from that fear as much as possible. 

Some examples might be:

  • Keep your dog and cat is separate parts of the house when you aren’t there. Have the dog on leash around the cat so there can be no chasing.
  • Never force petting or handling on your cat. Let them approach or move away as they want.
  • Put your cat in a different room when guests visit.
  • Use a baby gate to keep young children out of an area where your cat spends time. 

This kind of management doesn’t directly address the fear but prevents it from getting worse and lets your treats have an effect. Short positive sessions can have a big impact but only if they aren’t being undone by lots of negative interactions at other times.

No More Scaredy Cat

Not every cat will become a confident, outgoing feline but all cats can feel safer and more comfortable. With time and practice, you can build a tighter bond and give your cat their best life. Treats are just one important part of that journey!

If your cat is fearful, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.