How Do Cats Learn To Open Doors?

People would like to know how cats open doors fitted with the lever-type handle. They search for an answer using Google. This page attempts to provide an answer.

Cat opening door

Cats learn to open doors with a lever handle under the process called “operant conditioning”. What is operant conditioning? Operant conditioning is also called “instrumental learning”. It is learning which occurs because of the consequences that the cat’s behaviour brings to the cat. The terminology originates from the fact that cats are constantly operating on the environment and altering their behaviour accordingly.

When people train cats they employ operant conditioning but it is not confined to deliberately training your cat. It is a way that cats learn how to deal with their surroundings in which they find themselves. Cats have adapted to indoor living through their learning abilities despite the fact that they have not evolved to live in apartments. Instinctively cats are still evolved to hunt in the open air. Cats make sense of their indoor surroundings through associations built through classical conditioning. They are able to learn how to manipulate objects around them. This includes how to get what they want from their human companions in various ways including the meow and baby-like purr/meow.

There are a number of videos on YouTube showing what is considered to be a very clever trick by a cat in opening an inside door by jumping up and pulling down on the handle.

Cats are not evolved to live in a world where there are doors. In fact, cats probably hate doors because they get in the way of their natural movements when, for example, patrolling their territory. Opening doors does not come naturally to a cat.

However, one aspect of the process of opening a door does come naturally to him and this is to jump up to high ground from where he has a vantage point from which he can check out alternative routes and methods to get to an unobtainable place.

The theory is that the lever handle presents as a small platform upon which the cat can jump. Once the cat jumps up onto the lever, the weight of the cat pulls it down, the cat slips off and the door opens, if he is lucky. This is the beginning of the learning process. Immediately the cat receives the reward which is to explore the room beyond the door. I would like to add too that cats are great obervers; they learn by observation. Seeing humans use the handle is probably noted and used as a guide.

As mentioned, cats are territorial animals and it comes naturally to him and rewarding to explore new areas or an area where he has been unable to explore for a while. The cat associates the reward with his activities and as a consequence has learned his trick. He will try again and possibly fail again but there will be successes and he will quite possibly modify his behaviour in order to achieve the reward more quickly. He will arrive at the most efficient solution. If the handle is within his range (without jumping up) he may then lift his paw up to handle and pull it down just like a human being.

Sometimes, on YouTube, you will see a cat jump up to a platform next to the door handle and use that position from which he can operate the handle. On other occasions, you will see cats opening fridge doors in much the same way by jumping up and pulling the handle away from the fridge. The reward in this instance is quite clear: the food within. This is operant conditioning without the involvement of the cat’s human companion.

P.S. you’ll even see cats opening doors with a knob-type handle that has to be turned. The process applies with more learning.

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How Do Cats Learn To Open Doors? — 9 Comments

  1. My boy Bandit used to open folding doors from the bottom by pulling on them. Those doors didn’t have lever handles, just knobs. We used to joke around the house that if he opened the doors the least he could do would be to close them back up. He ignored us.

  2. Sophie was probably the most intelligent cat I’ve had and could easily open most types of doors.

    Like Serbella’s cat Bandit, she could open folding and sliding patio doors by pulling on the bottom of them. With interior doors she never used the handles. Instead she’d discovered that if she continually pawed at a certain spot on the door, that pressure would eventually cause the lock to loosen and the door would open. I had to resort to locking doors with a key if I needed to exclude the cats from a certain room.

    Her favourite tactic for getting attention, was to grab the door knob of my bedside cabinet, slightly open the door and then let it bang shut. She’d repeat that little trick until I attended to her.

    Charley, has taught himself to lift the front door knocker with his paw if he wants to be let inside.

    Cats are much smarter than some people give them credit for.

  3. Michele, your Sophie is my kind of cat. You’re right, we don’t give them credit for being smart.

    Years ago I had to keep my bedroom door closed at night, else Angel, Ruby and Rocky wouldn’t let me sleep. In the morning I always found a couple of toy mice on the floor in front of the door. I guess they thought that would tempt me to open up. One morning I heard something break in the bathroom. When I came out I saw that one of the glass bottles in the bathroom had somehow hit the floor. The cats were in the hallway looking innocent.

    I cleaned up the glass and replaced the lotion dispenser. I didn’t think anything of it. The next morning I had a feeling something was going on. I opened up my bedroom door and crept out. Angel sat on the closed toilet seat. Ruby and Rocky sat on the floor staring at her, like they were egging her on. Angel took her paw and very deliberately nudged the glass bottle onto the floor. It bounced but it didn’t break. When they ran out of the bathroom they saw me.

    That afternoon I replaced the lotion dispenser with one made out of hard plastic. They knew if I heard glass breaking I would come investigate.

    • Serbella, it’s funny you should mention your cats deliberately knocking things over to get your attention. Sophie used to do exactly the same and was cheeky enough to check to see if it had got a reaction, before deciding whether she needed to knock something else down.

      We used to call that behaviour “going Ruprecht”. If you’ve ever seen the Michael Caine/Steve Martin film, ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ you’ll know what I mean 😉

  4. Michele, I’ve seen “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” I know exactly what you mean by that! Sophie needed to check so she could decide whether to escalate or not. Now if that isn’t intelligence I don’t know what is.

    Angel had a problem with me watching tv and videos in the living room. This was way before dvd players and cds. I had this huge African wall hanging in the living room. It was so long the ends were about a foot from the floor. Angel would stroll over and stand by the wall hanging. She’d turn and stare at me long and hard. Then she’d bat at the tassels, then look at me as if to say “Did you see that? Did you see what I did?” Finally she’d really yank at the edge and take off running. I tried ignoring her and that never worked. She’d come back and do it again.

    One day I came home from work. I went into the living room and I saw these long drag marks in the carpet. I didn’t know what it was at first, but the marks went from the tv, across the living room, into the hallway. I had a litter box set up in the hallway closet. I looked in the litter box and sure enough, there was a videotape in there, covered over with litter. To this day I suspect Angel was the one who did that. I got the hint. We had regular play time every day after that.

  5. Serbella, picturing Angel batting at the tassles on the wall hanging made me laugh out loud. As for burying the videotape in the litter box, now that is definitely the sign of a very imaginative, highly intelligent cat.

    It sounds like Angel and Sophie had a lot in common – too clever for our good 😉 Though I must admit I enjoy the ‘challenge’ of keeping an intelligent cat, happy and fulfilled. You never know what new little trick they’re going to come up with.

  6. Angel and Sophie did have a lot in common. I enjoy the challenge too. And even the cats I’ve lived with who didn’t impress me with their wits surprised me on occasion if they saw something they really wanted.

    Angel was a Turkish Angora. Ruby, Angel’s housemate, was a big ginger tabby, a former barn cat. Once she realized there was such a thing as upholstered furniture in this world, there was no stopping her. Ruby claimed the living room couch and the oversized chair. She liked to lounge around and watch Angel and me, which leads me to believe that Angel did the deed with the videotape. Of course, I could be wrong.

    • Serbella, how about this for a spooky coincidence. Sophie was a long haired cat from Cyprus. The cat fancy there call this native breed the Aphrodite Cat, but as Harvey Harrison can confirm, they are really Turkish Angoras.

      I wonder if other owners of cats with Turkish Angora heritage also found them to be of above average intelligence?

  7. Michele, that is a VERY spooky coincidence. I’ve heard of the Aphrodite Cat before, but I had no idea they are really Turkish Angoras.

    I’ve been on other cat forums and whenever Turkish Angoras are discussed their exploits and problem solving abilities are nothing short of amazing.

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