How do cats learn to open doors?

Cat Opening Door
Cat Opening Door. Image: supplied.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Domestic cats have good learning abilities as shown by the fact that they adapt to indoor living. They make sense of their surroundings by classical conditioning and learn how to open doors through ‘operant conditioning’.

  • Classical conditioning is learning by association. Cats might learn that when their owner comes home, they will receive food. In my case when I tap the bed it’s an invitation to my cat to jump up on my lap when I am in bed.
  • Operant conditioning is a type of learning by trial and error with a reward when they get it right. The cat repeats behaviors that have desired consequences and avoid behaviors that lead to undesirable consequences.
  • There is a third way: observational learning – copying.

We see a lot of videos online of cats opening doors; often interior doors and sometimes fridge doors. It looks like a clever cat trick. We are often impressed.

It is not natural for a cat to open a door. Doors themselves are strange objects to cats as they are unwelcome barriers to something interesting the other side.

Tabby cat is an excellent fridge burglar
Tabby cat is an excellent fridge burglar. Screenshot.

But they can learn to open doors by first having a desire to jump up to the handle which might be seen as a vantage point or a staging post to climb higher. Cats like to climb.

When they grab the lever handle and hang onto it, it moves downwards and the door swings open slightly.

Their inquisitiveness leads them to look through the gap into the room next door and then they walk into it. An interesting place to explore even if they’ve been there before.

The have their motivational reward: a place to explore and perhaps new experiences.

They link the pleasure of the reward with their actions to arrive at it and repeat their actions. There may be some variations which work less well or better. They progressively arrive at the best way which is to stretch up and pull the lever handle down.

That’s operant conditioning which applies to many areas of their lives. Cats learn that meowing grabs our attention. The human learns that the meow is a request for food. The cat gets their dinner. They have their reward from meowing. Another example of operant conditioning.

Explaining how this cat so competently opens this door
Explaining how this cat so competently opens this door. Screenshot from video.

Cats go a step further sometimes and learn by observation from their owner’s interactions with a bayb that a baby-like meow elicits a more rapid and certain response. This would be a combination of learning by observation and operant conditioning.

Each cat has their own meow which can be tailored to the specific goal by trial and error which can be interpreted by their owner. It is a form of language between a specific cat and a specific owner for a specific purpose.

The meow is ‘an arbitrary, learned, attention-seeking sound rather than some universal cat-human language’. The quote is from Dr John Bradshaw’s book Cat Sense.

There is more to the cat than stimulus-response. They can make relational decisions but it is not their forte.

Comprehending physics!

Cats don’t really understand physics or their understanding is very rudimentary.

When they were tested, they indicated that they do things through operant conditioning rather than rational thought.

In a test in which there were two handles attached to two strings and one of those strings was attached to food, they continued to arbitrarily pull on each handle until they figured out one handle produced the food rather than rationally deciding after the first instance of the food being produced that one of the handles was connected to the food.

The experts decided that cats are unlikely to be able to use tools. Some birds can such as corvids.

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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

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