do cats understand punishment?
Behavioral Problems

How Do You Discipline a Cat? (Biting, Clawing, Hissing + Aggression)

Cat discipline issues can drive a wedge between an owner and feline. Cats are independent animals and like to live life on their own terms. If the cat abides by rules of the house, that is fine. If a cat starts to act out, and training is unsuccessful, some form of discipline may be required.

Cats do not speak English, so yelling at and scolding your cat is completely ineffective. Equally, never smack or slap your cat. This will cause trauma and irresolvable damage to the human-feline bond. Make it clear that your cat is acting inappropriately by quickly removing it from a situation. Once the cat has calmed down, use training to prevent a repeat of the unwelcome action.

Discipline must always be used sparingly. If you constantly berate and punish a cat, discipline loses much of its meaning. The cat will just see you as a threat to its safety. Only admonish a cat when it’s necessary. Most cats prefer to live in harmony, and thus respond better to training.

My Cat is Suddenly Misbehaving

Caring for a cat is not unlike raising a child. You need to learn how to communicate outside of traditional language and display patience. A misbehaving cat is rarely acting in malice. Rather, it is trying to tell you something.

Try to discover if your cat is sick or in pain. Cats do not like to reveal injury or ill health as they consider it a sign of weakness. As explained by Animals, though, pain can make felines act out of sorts, which would explain a sudden change in feline behavior.

As your cat is unlikely to volunteer this information, you’ll need to observe from afar. Look for any of these warning signs of a cat acting strangely:

If your cat has a clean bill of physical and mental health, something else is afoot. It is likely that the cat is pushing boundaries. This is another comparison to young children. Cats are curious and like to know how much they can get away with.

Most cats will respond well to training. The golden rule of this is to reward positive conduct and to ignore bad behavior. Cats are fast learners are easily swayed by the promise of reward. If this is not effective, you may need to resort to discipline.

Discipline is not to be used lightly with felines. Society and Animals believe that cats understand complex, symbolic interactions with humans. A patient reaction to unwanted behavior, treating your cat with kindness, will reap superior results.

How to Effectively Discipline a Cat

Felines will always respond better to the carrot than stick. If you need to resort to discipline, you risk harming your bond with your cat.

Keep in mind, there is a thin line between discipline and training. The margin can come down to how harshly you verbalize your commands, or how you handle a feline. Physical discipline, in particular, should always be a last resort. Even then, it must be gentle. The key rules to effectively disciplining your cat are:

  • Exhaust all possible training methods before resorting to discipline
  • Prioritize education, not punishment, when utilizing discipline
  • Use discipline immediately after bad behavior
  • Make up with your cat after discipline to prevent damage to your bond

In addition, there are four primary forms of discipline open you. Verbal scolding, water discipline, enforced solitude and physical admonishment.

How do you discipline a cat?

Verbal Scolding

Arguably the most common form of discipline in the book is verbal scolding. This approach quickly and efficiently makes displeasure known to humans. In cats, though, it is largely redundant.

This does not mean that you can never raise your voice to a cat. Just avoid ranting and raving. One short, sharp command will capture your cat’s attention. This makes it clear that a behavior must cease to prevent further repercussions.

Prolonged yelling serves no useful purpose. Cats do not speak English. Your cat has no idea what you are shouting. All it knows is that a loud, booming noise is emerging from a human. This will terrify the cat, but not be linked to discipline or behavior.

Imagine somebody towering over you on the street, screaming in your face in a foreign language. You would understandably be intimidated. This person is much bigger than you, and you do not know how you upset them.

This is how yelling feels for a feline. Cats are hardwired to assume that anything bigger is a threat to their safety. You will need to work hard to gain your cat’s trust. Yelling at it will evaporate this trust in an instant.

The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery explains that communication is essential to feline compliance. Learn how to communicate with your cat to avoid behavioral issues. This will negate the need for verbal discipline.

Squirt Guns and Water Discipline

Some people use the typical feline aversion to water as a disciplinary measure. Most cats loathe getting wet. This makes a blast of water from a squirt gun a powerful deterrent. Is disciplining a cat with water really OK?

Water is best used as for prevention, not punishment. In the moment, a cat being squirted with water will realize it is doing wrong. This method is popular to stop cats digging, for example. When water hits the cat’s face, it is immediately distracted and flees.

After the event, this is just cruel and unnecessary. Unless the cat is actively engaging in an activity, it will forge no association with water. It will just assume that you are tormenting it.  


As cats are independent animals that crave peace and quiet, solitude seems like a lousy punishment. Surely this would be misinterpreted as a reward by an antisocial feline?

In reality, it is a myth that all cats are loners by nature. It is true that some felines prefer their own company, just like certain humans. Cats like to choose when to be alone and when to socialize, though. Leaving a cat in solitude gives it something to think about.

Moreover, solitude will benefit the cat. If a feline is misbehaving, it is usually because it is aggravated in some way. Time alone gives a cat time to cool off. This does not take long. Cats can be quick to anger, but equally fast to calm themselves.

Once the cat has been alone for a few moments, it will typically revert to a desirable demeanor. It will also learn that particular behaviors trigger time out. This will be recalled by the cat, who will avoid these reactions in future.

Physically Punishing a Cat

This should not just be a last resort – it should be avoided. Never strike a cat, whether with an open hand, rolled up newspaper, or anything else.

It’s very simple. Hitting a cat is animal cruelty. Not only will this attract the attention of the ASPCA, but your cat will remember it. You will be associated with trauma by your cat.

Cats can forgive. Cats understand that tails can be stepped on by accident, for example. The cat may be a little huffy, but it will recover. Deliberate physical abuse is different as it creates psychological scars.

The closest thing to acceptable physical reprimanding of a cat is scruffing. Even then, it should be avoided unless strictly necessary. Scruffing involves gripping the loose skin of a cat’s neck. This is reminiscent of how a mother cat handles her kittens.

do cats know right from wrong?

Is Scruffing a Cat Cruel?

Many feline experts are firmly against scruffing. Others consider it acceptable, provided the technique is used sparingly. We do not advocate scruffing unless absolutely necessary.

One thing is certain; scruffing should not be a punishment. It should only be used to protect a cat or a human. Scruffing cats to punish bad behavior is like hitting somebody to explain how violence is wrong.

An alternative handling technique will always be preferable, no matter how gentle you are. Scruffing can provoke stress and anxiety in cats. Only use it in an emergency, such as preventing a cat from biting a child.

Managing Bad Behavior in Cats

Unwelcome feline behavior comes in many forms. This means that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to disciplining a cat. Variations on the four themes previous discussed is key. These can be used in conjunction with training – and an understanding of your cat’s actions.

Once you know why a cat is acting a certain way, you can often avoid discipline. You may find that punishment is unnecessary and unavoidable.

You also need to recognize the difference between willful wickedness and feline instinct. You may not like everything that your cat does. Your cat is equally perturbed by some of your behaviors. A cat doing what comes naturally does not always merit punishment.

All the same, some actions can remain to go unchecked. If your cat is behaving badly – or, more importantly, dangerously – it must be stopped. Take the necessary steps based on the actions of your cat.

Unprovoked Aggression

BSAVA claim that aggression is the most common concern reason why feline owners approach veterinary surgeries. Feline aggression can be a dangerous problem, and it manifests in two key ways. Some cats will attack humans at will, while others will hiss and growl.

Verbal aggression may not appear concerning. Be aware that hissing and growling are often precursors to physical attack, though. Cats hiss, in particular, to warn that physicality is imminent.

If you’re wondering how to punish a cat for hissing, the answer is that you shouldn’t. Instead, learn why your cat is so afraid. Get to the bottom of your cat’s anxiety and work to resolve it. Do not hiss back. This convinces the cat that its instincts were right, and you are a threat.

Physical aggression must be managed carefully. Determine if this was an accident or deliberate attempt to wound. Some cats are unable to retract their claws and may scratch in error.

If the cat does scratch deliberately, consider why. Common reasons for a cat to bite or scratch include:

  • Petting the cat for too long, ignoring signs that it wanted to leave
  • Ignore verbal and non-verbal communication cues
  • Inflicting pain on the cat, whether by accident or design
  • Frightening the cat with loud noises or by startling it
  • Encouraging the cat to play rough, letting it get carried away

If you can understand why your cat reacted the way it did, learn from the experience. If the aggression was wholly unprovoked, place your cat in solitude for a while. Let it cool off and consider why it behaved in such a way. If the attacks continue, seek advice from a vet.

do cats understand physical punishment?

Scratching Furniture

Scratching furniture is a constant menace. Leather furniture and stairs are regular targets for a cat’s claws. It is important to remember that scratching is an instinct behavior for felines. Any punishment is likely to feel disproportionate to the crime.

Instead of disciplining a cat for scratching, train the feline to focus its energies on appropriate targets. Supply a scratching post and scraps of fabric for the cat to scratch. This will meet the cat’s needs and protect your possessions.

If you catch your cat scratching, stop it from being so. Start with a firm, loud command. If this does not garner an immediate reaction, remove your cat from the item. Place it in a solitary time out for a few minutes.

Over all though, punishing a cat for scratching is like punishing a cat for breathing. The cat will not understand what it did wrong. It will certainly not connect scratching to discipline after the event. This makes it important to react in a timely manner.

Peeing Outside the Litter Box

A cat urinating of defecating outside the litter box is almost never doing so willingly. As a result, discipline should not be used to rectify this behavior. Grabbing a cat by the neck and rubbing its face in its own waste is unacceptable.

There are many reasons why cats may eliminate outside the litter box. These include:

  • Incontinence
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Cognitive decline
  • Arthritis making it impossible to reach, or access, the litter box on time
  • Separation Anxiety (the Journal of the American Veterinary Association links this to defection in particular)

Punishing a cat for accidents outside the litter box will not help. This is not a disciplinary issue, but a problem relating to physical or mental health. If you discipline a cat, it will develop further fear of elimination. You must instead manage the root cause.

Jumping on Counters

Some owners do not like their cats jumping on counters. This can be unhygienic and dangerous to the cat. In addition, it blurs boundaries between what areas of a home are appropriate feline territory.

There is another risk of cats jumping on countertops – stealing food. Many human foods are toxic to felines. If your cat licks your plate clean, it may grow unwell. Keeping a cat off the table, or similar surfaces, will minimize this risk.

Training is more efficient than discipline here. Use a short, sharp stern command when your cat jumps on a surface. “Down” or “no” will work, as long as these do not sound like the cat’s name.

If the cat refuses to climb down, discipline will be necessary. In this instance, place your cat in a separate room. If the behavior continues, keep your cat secured whenever you eat or sit at a table. This will teach your cat more appropriate table manners.

Attention Seeking

Some cats can become infuriatingly needy. If your cat is clingier than usual, investigate why. It may have experienced trauma, fallen pregnant or be experiencing a nervous disorder.

Cats seek attention in a number of ways. Constant verbalization is a common example. In this instance, your cat is likely telling you something. Before resorting to discipline, stop, think and listen. What could your cat be trying to express?

Check your watch. You may have missed a scheduled meal or play time. If the cat wants to show you something, follow it. The cat’s litter box may be dirty or may have spotted an intruder on your property.

If the cat is seemingly meowing for no reason, ignore it. The cat is just used to you responding to its whims with immediate effect. The same applies if the cat knocks things over, like glasses. The cat is trying to garner a reaction.

If you discipline a cat for these actions, you are inadvertently encouraging a repeat. Any attention is good attention to a needy cat. Ignore the bad behavior, calmly and quietly cleaning up the mess. Being overlooked is the most effective punishment for a needy cat.

Nocturnal Disturbances

Bad cat behavior at night can be a nuisance. The cat will keep you up, often through verbalizing or physical interaction. Some cats will even bite your toes or ears at night.

Ignoring the cat is the best discipline here. You are showing the cat that it will not achieve results by disturbing your sleep. If the issue continues, take the cat out of the room and close the door. Be warned, this may lead to wailing and scratching at the door.

how to tell off a cat

Prevention is better than discipline here. Tire your cat out and encourage it to sleep through the night. Offer food and play late at night. This will lead to a longer slumber, hopefully until morning. Leave dry food out in case the cat wakes up hungry.

If this does not help, speak to a vet – especially if your cat is older. A reversed sleep-wake cycle is a key symptom of cognitive decline. Tests may need to be run to see if your cat requires urgent lifestyle changes.

My Cat Doesn’t Respond to Discipline

There are three primary reasons why a cat may not respond to discipline. You must identify a potential explanation and take action. If your cat feels it can do whatever it wants, you will have a problematic relationship.

Lack of Understanding

It is possible that your cat does not understand that you are attempting to discipline it. We have discussed the importance of understanding feline communication styles. Repeating the same approach to no avail will just result in frustration for all concerned.

If your cat is aged 15 or over, ensure it is not experiencing cognitive decline. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice explains how learning is one of the first casualties of cognitive decline.

This condition is akin to cat senility. You’ll need to be patient. Discipline will be ineffective if your cat is baffled by its root cause. Failing memory and cognition are not the only reasons why cats fail to understand discipline, though.

Discipline After the Event

Cats live exclusively in the moment. A cat is rarely thinking about what it did five minutes ago. This means that discipline must be enacted immediately to be effective. Cats have long memories for trauma, but not commonplace events.

If you come home from work to find your cat scratched furniture, you cannot enact discipline. This likely happened hours ago. The cat makes no association between the punishment and the crime. You need to catch your cat in the act, frustrating as this may be.

Your cat will associate discipline with whatever it was doing in that moment. If your cat is napping or grooming, it will assume the punishment relates to these activities. This will make the cat reluctant to sleep or groom in future.

Ineffective Discipline

Discipline is only effective if a cat knows it is being disciplined. Take the use of squirt guns as an example. Many cats hate having water sprayed in their face. Some love it, though. The cat may think you are playing, repeating the behavior to get the same treatment.

Essentially, discipline needs to give your cat something to think about. It should be used as a form of training. Think of it as a simple equation. Action A equals Consequence B. The cat needs to understand that unwelcome actions have negative penalties.

You also need to manage how you react after discipline. We mentioned previously that you should make amends with your cat. Do not offer a treat or reward immediately after punishment, though. This confuses a cat, who thinks it is being rewarded for bad behavior.

Inconsistent Discipline

Routine is critical to cats. Felines do not understand nuance. This means that, for discipline to be effective, it must be consistent. You cannot make exceptions to any rule.

Take jumping on furniture, for example. If your cat is not allowed on furniture, this rule must stand. Do not allow it some days, when your cat has otherwise been good. Do not stop to take a photo for your social media profile before enacting discipline. React at once, every time.

Give a cat an inch and it will take a mile. Do not allow the cat to try its luck and see what happens. You will only create further confusion. When it comes to cats, rules are rules. No ifs, buts or exceptions.

Lack of Respect

Your cat may not respond to discipline because it does not respect you. This suggests that the cat considers itself the alpha member of the household. This can be dangerous. A cat will not respond to discipline from anybody it considers beneath its station.

In fact, the cat is likely to step their unwelcome behavior up a notch. Your cat will likely respond with aggression to match its disdain. It is essentially determined to show you who is the boss of the house. No cat enjoys losing face in front of a supposed inferior.

To manage this, you must learn how to show your cat you’re the alpha. A power struggle with a cat is unlikely to result in any winners in the long term. Establish your dominance without resorting to actions that aggravate your cat’s behavioral issues.

It may also be necessary to assess why this became necessary. Some cats are just bull-headed and bloody-minded. In these instances, the battle for hierarchy is unavoidable. You may wish to question why your cat does not seem to respect your authority, though.

Consider how you treat your cat. Do you spend enough time grooming, playing and petting? Do you keep the cat on a reliable schedule of food and activities? Do you show affection for your cat will also respecting its wishes and need for space?

If you do not meet these needs but somebody else does, they will become your cat’s favored person. As a result, the cat is likelier to listen to this is other individual over you. While a favorite person and primary caregiver can differ, be clear that you set the rules.

Fear and Anxiety

If you overuse discipline, it will become counter-productive. Your cat will be treading on eggshells, wondering if its next action will result in admonishment. This is not a healthy way for a cat to live. This constant anxiety will take a serious toll.

Stress places immense and undue pressure on a senior cat’s heart. In addition, it will prevent the cat from thinking clearly. Your cat will be a constant state of, “fight or flight.” This will prevent it from making sensible, well-rounded decisions.

A stressed cat may seem to be ignoring your discipline. In reality, it has just learned to live with it. This is not a good thing. It means the cat assumes that feeling afraid is par for the course. As a result, it will just continue to inadvertently misbehave.

Disciplining a cat can be a challenging, and unpleasant, experience. Sadly, it may be essential on occasion. Some feline behaviors, such as hissing, scratching furniture, biting, and other aggressive acts, cannot be tolerated. Make this clear to your cat and establish what is acceptable. If you enjoy mutual respect, discipline will become less necessary.