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

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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.

11 thoughts on “How Do Cats Learn To Open Doors?”

  1. This sounds like a lot of convoluted human bullshit to explain a simple fact: consciousness is the base reality. A cat is conscious, and not just that – like humans, cats are demonstrably observant and intelligent. Intelligence is the ability to solve problems and get around obstacles, like opening a door. That’s about it, really.

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  2. 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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