My 7-month-old Tonkinese cat, Paco, has been with me 5 months. I take him with me everywhere I go while my husband is deployed. Every night Paco and I play with his cat toys or chase each other around the apartment and afterward we fall asleep in our bed together.
During meal times, he invites himself onto my lap and assumes the food is for him. I used to feed him scraps, but now I rarely do. I have tried giving him “time outs” when he shows this begging behavior by putting him in his carrier during meal times, but he still insists on tasting everything I eat. He has even stolen snacks from me when my head was turned. I can’t even eat a potato chip without him reaching out to steal it. As extremely endearing as this is, it’s very naughty and unhealthy. What should I do to stop the behavior?
The bond that you and your cat have for each other is an example of how companion animals enhance our lives and help us through rough times. It sounds like Paco’s companionship is helping you cope with your husband’s deployment.
The good news is that you can stop Paco’s food grabbing without putting him in solitary confinement when you eat. But, you have to modify your behavior as well. You reinforce his foodie activities by feeding him scraps and by letting him sit on your lap while you eat. The consequence of giving Paco scraps from your plate is his escalating his attempts at appropriating your meals.
Instead of allowing your cat to sit on your lap while you eat, train him to hang out on a more appropriate place. Stools work perfectly for this. Through cat clicker training, a positive reinforcement training method, your cat can learn to favor the stool over your lap during meal times. When your cat jumps up on the stool, reinforce him with a click and a treat. After your cat learns that he gets rewards for hanging out on the stool, teach him to jump up on the stool when you cue him by tapping a pencil or chopstick on it. Next, train him to sit and stay on the stool when cued. Always reinforce the desired behaviors with clicks and treats. Read more details on reinforcing cats’ behavior in my book Naughty No More!
In addition to giving him an appropriate place to hang out during meal times, do not allow your cat to sit on your lap while you eat. Make your lap a difficult place for him to go by putting objects on your lap or by sitting in such a way that Paco cannot jump up into your lap. The mealtime lap sitting and food grabbing is not reinforced, but hanging out on the stool is. Be consistent, reinforcing him on the stool while simultaneously not allowing him in your lap while you eat. Do not give in and occasionally sneak him a snack from your plate — doing so will encourage him to increase his efforts of making your food his own.
Along with teaching your cat good mealtime manners, feed him his meals at the same time you eat yours. Feeding him when you eat will keep him occupied for a short time and should take the edge off his hunger; helping to decrease his desire to steal your food.