cat won't push cat flap open
Questions About Cats

Why Won’t My Cat Use the Cat Flap?

Cats can develop a sudden phobia of using a cat flap. Others may never have been trained on how to enter or leave the home this way. To coach your cat into using a flap, you need to understand its reluctance to do so.

Some cats won’t use the flap as an act of dominance. It wants you to let it into the house. Overweight cats may find the flap too small, or it may cause whisker fatigue. The flap may smell of another cat or wild animal. The cat may be frightened of blindly using the flap because it doesn’t know what might be waiting for it on the other side.

Whatever the explanation, training is essential. Stop jumping up to let your cat in and out. Instead, teach it to use the cat flap. A cat’s desire for freedom and independence will usually be greater than its reluctance to use a flap.

My Cat Refuses To Use The Cat Flap

Has your cat suddenly stopped using the flap, or has it never done so?

If your cat has never used the flap, it likely never learned. Not all homes have cat flaps. A previous owner may never have taught the cat how to use a flap. It may have accessed the home through open doors and windows.

All cats can be taught to use a cat flap, even senior felines. Just bear in mind that older cats can be stubborn. Your cat will be set in its ways, wondering why you are changing the routine. You will need to show more patience.

Never physically force a cat through a flap. This will create an association of fear in the cat’s mind. Cats need to feel like everything they do is of their own free will. To train a cat to use a cat flap:

  1. Play with your cat close to the flap
  2. Apply a familiar scent to the flap to encourage investigation
  3. Place a soft mat on either side of the flap
  4. Hold the flap open so your cat can see outside
  5. Place a treat on the opposite side of the flap
  6. If your cat walks through, praise it heavily and offer another treat
  7. Repeat until the cat is content to use the flap

If your cat is still reluctant to use the flap, there will be another explanation. You will need to learn what is behind the problem.

Show of Dominance

A common reason for cats to refuse to use a cat flap is dominance. Your cat does not consider you to be its master. Instead, your cat thinks that you just another cat in the home. This makes you a peer or a subordinate.

Groups of cats divide themselves into hierarchal structures. As Animal Behavior explains, this is most noticeable in feral colonies. The same structure will apply within the home.

Cats show dominance to each other in a number of ways. Your cat may be applying these same techniques to you. Traditional signs of feline dominance over humans include:

  • Marking to excess, via cheek rubbing or inappropriate domination
  • Assuming aggressive posture when you pass
  • Staring
  • Blocking your path when entering or leaving a room
  • Unprovoked aggression

Refusing to use the cat flap is another classic display of dominance. A dominant cat will enjoy making you let it and out of the door at will. The cat is aware that it is inconveniencing you. It is making it clear that you are a facilities manager, not an equal or superior.

Letting your cat decide may seem harmless, but it leads to numerous behavioral issues. The cat will become aggressive if you do not immediately respond to its every whim.

cat goes out cat flap but not in

The key to managing dominance is by applying the golden rule of cat training. Ignore unwanted behaviors and praise positive actions. This means not jumping up to open the door for your cat. Instead, train it to use the cat flap. Use the techniques outlined above to achieve this.

It will take time and patience to coach a dominant cat out of this behavior. You are attempting to unravel some powerful instincts. Remain firm and vigilant. Once the cat acknowledges that you are no longer acting as its butler, it will adapt.

Wrong Size Dimensions

A common reason for a cat refusing to use a cat flap is that it simply isn’t big enough. All cats will reject a flap that is too small to comfortably use. According to the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, many owners are unaware that their cats are overweight.

The fear of getting stuck will be prevalent in a cat’s mind. The cat will feel vulnerable to attacks from inside or outside the home. If a cat needs to defend itself, it desires access to all four sets of claws.

The ideal dimensions of a cat flap depend on your cat’s size and weight. The flap should always be located at a cat’s eye level. On average, the measurements of a cat flap should be:

Standard cat (under 12 lbs):5.5” (W) x 5.2” (H)
Larger cat (over 12 lbs):7.2” (W) x 7.5” (H)

Bigger is not always better. If your cat has gained weight and cannot fit through the flap, do not automatically upsize. Encourage your cat to lose weight until it fits through the flap. Your cat’s BMI should be reduced.

If your senior cat is arthritic, this will also make it reluctant to use the flap. In this instance, the flap must be an appropriate height. Arthritic cats struggle to crouch or maneuver tight spaces.

You can consider a larger flap for cats with chronic pain. For your own safety, consider a microchip-controlled flap so only your cat can access it. This will prevent larger wild animals, such as raccoons, gaining access to your home.

Whisker Fatigue

Whisker fatigue is a soreness of the whiskers. The main purpose of a cat’s whiskers to determine if they will fit through a space. If a cat’s whiskers are wide as a cat’s body. If the whiskers fit into a space, the cat will too. This is how cats fit into small boxes.

The tips of a cat’s whiskers, also known as vibrissae, are extremely sensitive. If a cat uses them too much, any contact will become painful.  This is known as whisker fatigue. The cat avoids putting itself through this discomfort wherever possible.

Aside from refusing to use the cat flap, food bowls are the biggest sign of whisker fatigue. A deep, high-sided bowl will agitate a cat’s whiskers. If your cat tips over its food bowl and eats from the floor, whisker fatigue is likely.

Whisker fatigue is a temporary issue. After a rest, the sensitivity of your cat’s whiskers will cease. After this, your cat should theoretically be willing to use the cat flap. Ensure that your cat has not developed a phobia of the flap through previous pain.

Never trim a cat’s whiskers to encourage the use of a cat flap. You only really have two options. Wait for your cat’s whiskers to shed and regrow naturally or widen the cat flap.

Type of Door Material

Think about the material that your cat flap is constructed from. Your cat will need to use its head to open this. A heavy flap may be uncomfortable for the cat to use. The cat may be afraid of the door slamming shut on its head or back.

This can be a balancing act. Do not use a material that is too lightweight either. This will blow open and closed during a stiff breeze. This, in turn, will create a draught. Cats loathe this sensation and will avoid the flap as a matter of course.

A solid and sturdy plastic flap is usually best. Even then, consider whether your cat is allergic to plastic. If the cat also refuses to eat or drink from plastic bowls, this may be the case. If the flap makes your cat’s skin itch, it will avoid using it.

Unappealing Smells

Cats explore the world through scent. If a cat flap smells unappealing to a cat, it will not consider using it. As cats need to use their noses to push the flap open, the smell is critical.

There are many things that can make a cat flap smell unappealing. In multi-cat households, a dominant cat may have urinated on the flap. This is a message to other felines that the flap belongs to this cat. Other, more submissive cats will then reluctant to use it.

The same action may have taken place on the outside of the flap. A neighborhood cat or dog may have staked a claim to the cat flap. You may not be able to smell this, but your cat can. Other wild animals may have behaved in a similar way.

Start by washing the flap to create a neutral scent. Create a solution of one part white vinegar, three parts water. Apply this to a spray bottle and scrub the flap. This will eradicate any urine smells. Remove the flap from its frame and remove any cat hair too.

Even if this smells neutral to you, a cat may still detect traces of another animal. Mask this by applying some appealing scents to the flap. Smells that cat love include:

  • Catnip
  • Olive oil
  • Honeysuckle
  • Thyme
  • Sweet fruits, especially strawberries

Restrict these scents to the inside of the cat flap. If you put them outside, you will attract other cats. This will restart the issue, as neighborhood cats will claim the flap as their territory.

Many cats also love the smell of plastic bags. You could try wrapping a shopping bag around the cat flap. Just be aware that cats also enjoy chewing plastic bags.

Fear of the Unknown

Using a flap can be a frightening experience for a nervous cat. The cat will not know what is on the other side of the door. This can lead to apprehension, and outright refusal to use the flap.

Some cats also experience a form of agoraphobia. Cats are governed by survival instinct. If emerging into a wide-open space, the cat will feel exposed. It will be easy pickings for predators that may roam outside.

Combat this by enclosing the exit point of the cat flap. Place large plant pots on either side of the flap. This way, the cat will not feel that it is walking straight into danger. Ideally, create a path to cover using plants and other outdoor decorations.

Once you have done this, position your cat close to the cat flap and hold it open. Let the cat peer through the flap and survey the terrain. This is showing the cat that there is nothing to worry about outside. A transparent plastic cat flap will have the same effect.

As always, do not force the cat through the flap at this point. This will only enhance the cat’s apprehension. Just show the cat that there is nothing to fear on the other side. Do this multiple times a day. Eventually, the cat will build confidence.

cat scared of cat flap

Bad Past Experiences

Cats have long memories when it comes to trauma and bad experiences. If ill-fortune previously befell your cat using the cap flap, it will remember. This can lead to a refusal to use the flap again in the future. Examples of mishaps surrounding cat flaps include:

  • Getting stuck
  • Emerging into poor weather
  • Attacks from another cat upon using the flap
  • Being locked outside overnight due to a closed flap

The experience does not necessarily need to revolve around the flap itself. Imagine that your cat exited the home using a cat flap. If it was then attacked or ate a toxic plant, it may blame the cat flap. In the cat’s mind, pain or ill health was inflicted after using the flap.

In such a situation, you will need to rebuild your cat’s trust in using the flap. This is done using traditional training techniques. You will need to work slowly and steadily, so as not to further traumatize the cat.

Start by making the flap as appealing as possible through scent. Once the cat is confident enough to investigate the flap again, encourage use. Praise and treat the cat when it uses the flap. You need to make the cat flap a source of pleasure, not further fear.

Cognitive Decline

If a geriatric cat has stopped using the cat flap, cognitive dysfunction may be to blame. Cats older than 15 years can experience cognitive dysfunction. This is akin to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. Your cat will grow increasingly confused by previously basic tasks.

General disorientation and confusion is a symptom of feline cognitive dysfunction. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice lists other signs as:

  • Reversed sleep-wake cycles
  • Increased anxiety
  • Changes to social interactions
  • Loss of memory
  • Regular elimination outside the litter box

A cat experiencing cognitive decline should be kept indoors, for its own safety. The disorientation that such felines experience could lead to traffic accidents or other injuries.

A cat refusing to use the cat flap can be frustrating. Try to avoid the temptation to let your cat in and out yourself. Learn why your cat is reluctant to use the flap and adopt appropriate training.