do cats understand punishment?
Behavioral Problems

How Do You Discipline a Cat?

Cats have many great qualities, but some of their behaviors are undesirable. It’s quite common for cats to scratch the carpet, jump on kitchen counters, or urinate outside of the litter box.

How can you change a cat’s bad behavior? Many cases of bad behavior occur because the cat is expressing a natural feline instinct. Instead of punishing your cat, find alternative ways for your cat to express itself. Reinforce this new behavior with treats and affection. Behavioral modifications should be mutually beneficial.

Occasionally, bad behavior is caused by stress or illness. Punishment could end up making these conditions worse. We’ll explain why cats behave in certain ways, and what you can do about it.

Handling Your Cat’s Bad Behavior

Cats do not misbehave on purpose. When they act in undesirable ways, it’s usually due to one of the following reasons:

  • They are displaying a natural feline behavior – For example, cats scratch to sharpen their claws and to mark their territory. Cats clawing furniture is one example. Although this behavior can be destructive, it is not done with malice.
  • Fear and anxiety – When cats are anxious, they tend to overgroom and urinate outside of the litter box. They may also scratch the carpet excessively.
  • They don’t like your stroking technique – If you are too heavy-handed with a cat, they may bite, hiss, or scratch to defend themselves.
  • There is an underlying health problem – Medical problems can cause litter box problems. Urinary tract infections (UTI’s) and chronic illnesses are frequently to blame.

Understandably, you would want to stop your cat’s bad behavior. But before stopping the behavior, you should try to understand why your cat is like this. That way, you’ve got more chance of fixing the problem.

Should you Discipline your Cat?

Lots of studies show that disciplining a cat is not effective. Some people spray water at their kitty, tap them on the nose, withdraw food, or shut their cat outdoors.

These reactions might stop your kitty from behaving badly at that moment, but they don’t work in the long run. Here’s why:

  • Stress and anxiety – Disciplining a cat often leads to anxiety. Cats are more likely to spray and scratch when anxious, so you might make the problem worse.
  • Negative reinforcement – According to National Geographic, telling your cat off may reinforce the negative behavior. This is because attention (in any form) can shape a cat’s behavior. Cats who feel bored or under-stimulated are more prone to negative reinforcement.

Dogs can be quite receptive to discipline, so we tend to assume cats are the same. Also, many children are brought up with some form or discipline, so disciplining your cat seems like the most appropriate thing to do. But cats rarely respond to punishment.

Even laboratory scientists agree that discipline and forced coercion are not effective tools for shaping a cat’s behavior.

Ways to Improve Your Cat’s Behavior

So, if discipline doesn’t work, then what does? There are three strategies you can use to make your cat’s behavior more desirable. These include:

  1. Ignore Bad Behavior – Don’t blow off the handle when your cat starts scratching the couch or clawing the carpet. You can still try to modify the behavior but try not to react.
  2. Rewards-Based Training – Reinforce good behavior with treats and attention. So, if your cat sometimes claws their scratching post instead of the carpet, reward this with a treat. According to MDPI, rewards-based training improves cats’ behavior and makes them better pets.
  3. Meet your Cat Halfway – According to popular cat behaviorist Jason Galaxy, you should always see things from your cat’s point of view. When attempting to change your cat’s behavior, you should make sure her needs are being met. So, if you want her to stop drinking from your kitchen tap, you should provide a low-level water fountain instead. This step requires you to be creative and think of cat-friendly alternatives.

Now you know the most effective way to shape a cat’s behavior, you can test these methods on your cats. Putting these tips into practice can be a bit of a challenge.

Here are some examples to get you started.

My Cat Bites Me When I Stroke Her

Biting is an undesirable behavior, especially if there are kids in the household. Cats tend to bite when they are feeling stressed, anxious, or under attack.

This is often caused by excessive or inappropriate stroking. If your cat hisses and spits, this is an additional sign that they feel threatened.

Occasionally, cats may bite if they are bored or hungry. For example, cats who are under-stimulated or hungry may bite your ankles as you walk past.

Cats with hyperesthesia are extremely sensitive to touch and may bite when stroked on the back.

How to Respond to a Cat Biting You

Modify your Stroking Technique – Cats often bite because they are in defense mode. Sometimes, cat owners don’t realize they are being a bit too rough when stroking their kitty. Cats are very sensitive, so they should not be rubbed and patted like a dog.

Try giving your cat light, gentle strokes on her face and chin. Some cats (especially deaf cats) don’t like being stroked on their backs as they can’t see your hand approaching. The best way to pet a cat is to take their lead. Hover your hand near your cat’s face and allow her to rub up to you.

Don’t React to Biting – It might be hard not to shout “ouch” but try not to respond if your cat does bite. Stand up and calmly walk off. If your cat is biting for attention, this will break that pattern of negative reinforcement. Eventually, your cat will learn that biting doesn’t earn your attention.

Play with Your Cat – Cats are carnivorous, and they use their teeth to tear apart prey. Try to provide toys that your cat can bite into (such as sock balls, string toys, laser pointers, etc.). This will allow her to express her natural behavior and exercise her jaw. It’s better to play with your cat for 3 x 5 minutes per day than 1 x 15 minutes.

Reward Good Behavior – If you stroke your cat and she doesn’t bite you, give her a small treat to reward the good behavior.

Regular Feeding Schedule – Cats sometimes bite if they are hungry or if their feeding schedule is unpredictable. Feed your cat at the same time each day. Little and often is better than one or two big meals. Use the feline calorie counter from PetSci to make sure your cat is getting enough food.

Medical Treatment – If the above tips don’t improve your cat’s behavior, your cat may be chronically stressed. Signs of chronic stress include patchy fur, weight loss, and toileting problems.

Also, if your cat’s fur ripples and shakes when you touch her, this may be due to a condition called hyperesthesia. Speak to a vet for advice.

do cats know right from wrong?

What Not to Do if your Cat is Biting

Physical Punishment – When a cat bites, people tend to respond with aggression. It’s common for cat owners to shout or tap the cat on the noise. You should avoid doing this because it may lead to anxiety. In some cases, it may even reinforce the behavior.

Ignore the Cat – Although you should walk away when your cat bites you, you should not ignore her for the rest of the day. Some cats bite due to boredom so ignoring your cat could aggravate the problem. After a cool down period, continue playing with your cat (use string toys to stay at a distance). Stroke your cat if you feel it is safe to do so. If you follow the tips above, the instances of biting should reduce over time.

My Cat is Scratching the Furniture and Carpets

This is one of the most common complaints amongst cat owners. Scratching is undesirable, but we shouldn’t try to stop it altogether. Cats need to scratch to sharpen their claws, mark their territory, and feel more comfortable in their surroundings.

Cats should not be punished for scratching because they cannot help this behavior. Added to which, punishment is not an effective treatment for cat scratching.

How to Respond to Destructive Scratching

Sticky Tape – One of the easiest solutions is to put double-sided sticky tape on the surfaces you don’t want to be scratched.  However, you must get a scratching post for your cat. This helps to redirect the behavior elsewhere.

Positive Reinforcement – This is where positive reinforcement comes in. Every time your cat uses her scratch post, reward her with a small treat and positive attention (Over time, positive attention alone may be enough to sustain this behavior). Cats can be reluctant to start using a scratch post. Try introducing the post during play.

Don’t React – Don’t clap your hands, shout, or spray water at your kitty if she scratches the carpet. This attention (though negative) may reinforce her behavior. Don’t pick her up and take her to her scratch post either. A study on Sage found this is not effective, probably because it interrupts the cat’s desire to scratch. It’s better to encourage cats to approach the scratch post of their own accord (you can do this by introducing the scratch post during play time).

Manage Stress – Excessive scratching can be a sign of stress. You can minimize stress by making sure your cat has enough resources, a place to escape to, and that noise is kept to a minimum. Also, plug-in pheromone devices can help to calm down your cat and reduce unwanted behaviors.

How Not to Respond

Punishment – Don’t use a spray bottle (or any other type of physical punishment). It’s impossible for you to be there every single time your cat scratches the carpet so spraying them with a bottle can send mixed messages. This can lead to anxiety and make your cat’s behavior worse.

Declawing – If your cat is tearing up the furniture, don’t declaw her. There are alternative solutions, such as those mentioned above. Catclaw covers are not a good idea, either, because cats need to sharpen their claws regularly. Trimming a cat’s claws might be appropriate in some cases. Speak to your vet for advice.

My Cat is Counter-Surfing in the Kitchen

Cats love to climb and explore their surroundings.  In the wild, cats elevate themselves to get a better view of predators and prey.

It can be frustrating if your cat climbs on the kitchen counters. This is unhygienic, so should be prevented where possible. So, how can you stop your cat from counter-surfing in the kitchen?

What to Do if your Cat Likes the Counter Tops

Provide Alternatives – Cats need to climb to stay healthy (and feel safe). Try to provide plenty of cat furniture throughout the house. If your cat specifically likes the kitchen worktops, provide a cat tree (a climbing post with a ledge on the top) that’s about the same height as your kitchen tops. Place it near to the kitchen tops, but not so close that it encourages your cat to jump onto the worktops.

Positive Reinforcement – You should use positive reinforcement to shape your cat’s behavior. Give your cat a treat each time she uses her cat tree.

Remove temptation – One of the reasons cats love kitchen worktops is because there is a high likelihood of finding food there. Keep all food off the worktops and wipe them down after every use.

Play – Your cat may be bored. If you spend 5 minutes playing with her before you make dinner, this might help to keep her out of the kitchen. That means that she won’t knock items on the floor.

What Not to Do if your Cat is Counter-Surfing

Shout or Use Physical Punishment – Shouting is not effective, especially if you fail to provide your cat with alternatives. Cats feel safer and more in control when they are up high, so it’s essential to provide climbing opportunities.

My Cat Keeps Catching Birds

If you let your cat outside, they’re likely to hunt. Cats prey on birds and mice. Some cats will bring their catch home and hide it in the house.

This doesn’t mean you’re underfeeding your cat. Hunting is a natural behavior that some cats will do regardless of how hungry they are.

Hunting releases endorphins in the cat’s brain and allows them to stretch and flex their muscles, so it provides multiple “rewards.” It can be hard to manage this behavior, but it’s not impossible.

do cats understand physical punishment?

What to Do if your Cat keeps Killing Birds

Regular Play – When playing with your cat, choose games that mimic the act of hunting. String toys can help you achieve this. If you can tire your cat out, they may be less inclined to hunt birds outdoors.

Daytime – If you only let your cat out during the day, this may minimize hunting behavior. Cats are nocturnal and tend to hunt prey at night. There is also more visibility for prey during the daytime, so they may find it easier to escape.

A Cattio – Consider building a Cattio (cat enclosure) in your garden. This will keep birds and mice out. A Cattio will also protect your cat from predators, such as coyotes and foxes.

What Not to Do if your Cat Enjoys Hunting

Withdraw Food – You should not punish your cat by withdrawing food. Domestic cats are reliant on humans, and they get used to their feeding schedule. If this changes, this can make the cat anxious. It may cause other undesirable behaviors such as scratching and spraying.

Studies show that cats do not connect their actions with the punishment. If they don’t realize they are being punished, the punishment won’t have the desired effect. In many cases, it will just make the cat more anxious.

Instead of punishing a cat for killing a bird, try to offer alternatives for your cat.

My Cat is Not Using the Litter Box

It might seem like your cat is urinating outside the litter box to spite you, but this is not the case. Toileting problems are usually caused by anxiety or illness. Both issues need to be treated sensitively and sympathetically.

What to Do if your Cat has Toilet Problems

Help your Cat Scent Mark – Cats may urinate around the house to mark their territory (this helps them feel more secure). You can help your cat to scent mark in other ways. Take a clean cloth and rub this gently along your cat’s cheeks. The cheeks release a pheromone that helps the cat feel secure. Rub this cloth along the door frames and skirting boards. You could also use a pheromone-plug in, which will have a similar effect.

Improve the Litter Box – Cats may refuse to use a litter box if it is dirty, used by another cat, or positioned too close to the food bowls. Some kitty litters are very grainy and can be sharp on your cat’s claws. It may be worth trying a few different litters to see which your cat prefers.

If you have an opened-top litter tray, position this in a place with clear exits so your cat doesn’t feel vulnerable when using it.

See the Vet – Toileting problems are often caused by illness. UTI’s, kidney problems or diabetes could be to blame. That’s why it’s important not to punish a cat for spraying or pooping outside the litter box.

What Not to Do

Reduce Food or Water Intake – You should not change the amount of food or drink you give your kitty. Withdrawing water can quickly lead to dehydration.  If your kitty has diarrhea, take her to the vet immediately.

Rub the Cat’s Nose in the Poop – When training dogs, some trainers will rub a dog’s nose in their poop to show them not to poop inside. This technique does not work with cats and will most likely cause anxiety.

Put them Outside as Punishment – If your cat asks to go outside, that’s fine. But putting her outside as a form of punishment is not a good idea. This may cause stress and anxiety.

My Cat is Aggressive Towards Visitors

Cats are sometimes unwelcoming to visitors. This is often due to fear, so try not to see it as naughty behavior. Antisocial cats can become more sociable around strangers, but they should be gently encouraged to do this, rather than forced.

What to Do If your Cat Hates Visitors

Escape Routes – Make sure your cat can escape if she wants to.  Shutting a cat in a room is the worst thing you can do because it forces the cat to stay. As mentioned, positive reinforcement works better than forced coercion when training cats.

Ask for Some Clothing – If you want your cat to be more tolerant towards a regular visitor, ask them for a piece of their unwashed clothing. Put this clothing near your cat so she can get used to the scent.

Reward Good Behavior – If your cat responds positively to a visitor, be sure to give her a treat.

Ask your Guests to be Gentle – As mentioned, it’s quite common for people to be too rough when stroking cats – especially if they only have experience handling dogs. Tell your guests that your kitty is quite shy and sensitive and that she doesn’t like being handled too much.

How do you discipline a cat?

What Not to Do if your Cat is Antisocial

Force your Cat to Stay in the Room – You should never block a cat’s escape routes as this can break down trust and cause anxiety.

Wake a Cat from Sleep – Cats are small mammals, so they require plenty of sleep. Waking them up and then expecting them to be sociable is a bit too much to ask.

Using Positive Reinforcement on your Cat

Most of these tips rely on ignoring bad behavior and encouraging good. This is referred to as positive reinforcement or rewards-based training.

Research tells us that positive reinforcement is the most effective way to train a cat. Below are some questions cat owners commonly ask when they start using positive reinforcement on their cat.

What Treats Should I Give My Cat?

Treats are useful for incentivizing good behavior, especially to begin with. Give your cat a small treat each time she behaves positively.

Tasty treats for cats include small chunks of tuna, small pieces of cooked chicken, bits of cat food, or shop-bought treats. Be sure to adjust your cat’s overall calorie intake so that she doesn’t put on weight.

Is Attention a Good Reinforcer?

This depends on the cat. You can change some cat’s behavior simply by showing them attention, whereas other cats respond better to treats.

If your cat responds well to food treats, try to use attention as a positive reinforcer, too. Think about your cat’s favorite type of interaction.

Perhaps it’s having her chin rubbed, or maybe she enjoys playing with a particular toy. If you are willing to go the extra mile and shower your cat with her favorite type of attention, you are more likely to see positive results.

Do I Need to Reinforce Good Behavior Forever?

One of the downsides of rewards-based training is that you need to be consistent. Over time, animals may unlearn the new behavior if they no longer get a reward from doing it.

This is something behavioral psychologists refer to as “extinction.” To prevent extinction, you can keep providing positive attention to your cat when she behaves positively.

Also, if you reinforce behaviors that are beneficial to your cat, this can help to prevent “extinction.”

For example, let’s say you teach your cat not to scratch the couch but scratch a post instead. You begin by reinforcing her good behavior with treats.

Over time, you stop giving her treats, but she keeps doing the behavior. This is because the scratching post provides with her a strong, satisfying surface to sharpen her claws on.

If you provide your cat with alternative options that benefit her, she’s more like to stick with the new behavior.

I Feel Bad for Yelling at My Cat – What Can I Do?

Shouting increases stress levels inside the home. If you’ve yelled at your cat repeatedly, this may have damaged the bond between you and your cat. But bonds can be repaired.

Your priority is to reduce stress levels inside the home. Provide clear escape routes for your cat, stroke her sensitively, and ignore the “bad” behavior.

Once trust has been regained, you can try to change the negative behavior by offering a cat-friendly alternative. Reinforce the new behavior with treats and positive attention. Over time, your cat’s behavior should start to change for the better.

Remember, a cat’s behavior can be changed, but the change should benefit both you and your cat. Discipline and forced coercion don’t work because they don’t take the cat’s needs into account.