The Comparison and Reliability of Domestic Cat (Felis Catus) Preference Assessments

Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Arts



First Advisor

Dr. Cynthia J. Pietras

Second Advisor

Dr. Lisa Baker

Third Advisor

Dr. Alan Poling


Applied behavior analysis, domestic cat, preference assessment, reinforcer, behavior

Access Setting

Masters Thesis-Abstract Only

Restricted to Campus until



Domestic cats are often thought to be difficult to train. This is unfortunate because training cats, especially shelter cats, can enhance cat welfare by improving interactions with humans. Difficulties with training cats may be the result of using ineffective reinforcers for behavior. In applied behavior analysis, reinforcers are identified through procedures called preference assessments. Few studies have conducted preference assessments in cats. The present research sought to determine which of two commonly used preference assessments was more reliable and easier to use with shelter cats: a paired-stimulus assessment (Fisher et al., 1992) or a free-operant assessment (Vitale Shreve et al., 2017). In Study 1, cats completed both assessments, were trained for five days using the most-preferred stimulus, and then were retested. Study 2 replicated Study 1 but extended the duration of the free-operant assessment. Study 3 omitted the training phase and reduced the time between the test and retest. Across studies, the assessments had low test-retest reliability and often identified different preferred reinforcers (typically a food in the paired-stimulus assessment and petting in the free-operant assessment). The differences across assessments were interpreted in terms of the different test environments. Overall, the paired-stimulus assessment was easier to implement, required less space, and produced fewer stress behaviors. The results indicate, however, that cats’ preferences may change rapidly, and that frequent assessments may be necessary to identify preferred reinforcers.

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