How to Discipline a Cat: Do’s and Don’ts

Correcting unwanted behaviours in cats is a topic that is plagued with misinformation that is not only counterproductive but can also be abusive. Most pet lovers don’t want to harm their pets, which is why it is so important to use safe and kind methods when attempting to correct unwanted behaviours in cats.

While some feline behaviours can be frustrating,  cats aren’t inherently naughty and they don’t engage in behaviours out of spite, no matter how much it sometimes feels that way.

Physically punishing a cat is ineffective, destructive and cruel, as the caregiver, it is your job to find out why the cat is behaving the way he or she is and find a solution that works for both of you.

There are several reasons why cats do the things they do;

  • It works for them
  • It is a natural behaviour
  • There is an underlying medical reason
  • Fear

It works for them

Most of us will engage in behaviours that either feel good or confer a benefit. Kitchen benches are a common source of frustration for cat owners. It is not safe to have a cat on benches in the kitchen, they risk burns from hot stoves or boiling water, can potentially contaminate benches and food, and eat something that is poisonous.

Remove the reward

Keep food off the bench to avoid temptation, and provide the cat with alternative perches for the cat to sit on. Feed the cat treats on the alternate perch to reinforce that this is a good place to be.

Find a compromise

The kitchen bench is attractive to cats for two reasons, it’s a place to find food, and it’s high up, which cats like because they can be a part of what we are doing, and it gives them a higher vantage point.

Use deterrents

If the cat continues to jump on the kitchen bench, deterrents or booby traps can be effective. Cheap placemats covered with double-sided tape can be placed on kitchen benches to deter the cat. Fill cans of soft drink with coins and placed close to the edge of the bench can be an effective ‘remote punishment’. The sound of the can falling to the ground can startle the cat without them associating the unpleasant experience with you.

Spraying cats with water is a no-no

Spraying with water is commonly recommended as a deterrent. Yes, cats hate water, but is it worth risking your relationship? For a ‘punishment’ to be effective, it must be consistent, and unless you plan to sit in the kitchen 24/7 waiting for your cat to jump on the counter, spray bottle in hand, it’s not going to work. The cat will either ignore you when you spray him or her or will continue the behaviour when you are not watching. 

It’s a natural behaviour

Two of the most frustrating but completely natural cat behaviours are hunting and scratching (stropping).

Hunting:

We cannot expect to rewind tens of thousands of years of hardwired behaviour which was critical to the survival of the animal. Therefore the onus is on us to prevent hunting, not expect our cats to not hunt. There are several options to reduce or eliminate hunting in cats.

  • Keep the cat indoors only, but it needs to be said that indoor cats need to be provided with an enriching environment to compensate. Perches, cat trees, interactive cat toys, and plenty of opportunities to burn off energy are critical for a happy and well-balanced cat.
  • Build a catio or enclosure which allows the cat to enjoy time outside and some fresh air, but keeps wildlife safe.
  • Use a cat bib that acts as a barrier between the cat and its prey, or brightly coloured collars which alert birds to the presence of the cat.

Scratching:

Scratching is a completely natural behaviour that cats need to do to remove the loose outer layer of the claw, stretch the shoulders and back and an area to mark (cats have glands on their feet). We cannot and should not stop a cat from scratching, but we can provide them with more appropriate places to scratch to save our furniture.

Cat trees and cat scratching posts come in all shapes and sizes and in different materials. A tall (1.5 times taller than the cat), and sturdy cat scratching post can meet your cat’s needs as well as provide a place to hang out (cats like to be up high). Look for a post that provides the opportunity to scratch horizontally as well as vertically as each cat has his or her own preferences.

Redirect the cat to his or her scratching post every time they use an inappropriate object, and if necessary, cover the area with plastic or double-sided tape until the habit is broken.

Dirty litter trays

Inappropriate urination and defecation have several causes, which will be covered in this post. Cats are fastidiously clean animals and if their litter tray is dirty, they won’t use it.

Remove solids from the tray twice a day and empty once a week. There should be one tray per cat, plus one extra. So if you have two cats, there should be three trays.

There is an underlying medical reason

Behaviour changes that are often put down to bad behaviour can often have an underlying medical condition. This can include the following:

  • Going to the toilet outside the litter tray: FLUTD, constipation, cystitis, bladder stones
  • Overgrooming which can lead to baldness: Allergies, skin mites, hyperthyroidism and pain
  • Sensitivity to touch: Pain
  • Aggression: Pain, neurological disturbances, hyperthyroidism
  • Excessive crying: Neurological changes including toxicosis, senility, tumours, vascular disease, trauma

Seek veterinary attention if your cat suddenly develops behavioural changes. Once a medical condition has been ruled out, the veterinarian can help to determine an underlying cause.

Fear

Fear can make the most rational person act out, and that is no different for cats. The fight-flight response is a defence mechanism that enables the cat to protect itself from a perceived threat. Most cats will avoid a threat by running away, but if there is no way out, they will fight.

Veterinary visits

One of the biggest yet unavoidable fears for cats is the veterinarian. As intelligent as they are, cats don’t understand those hands-on exams and needles are there to help the cat. The cat quickly learns to associate the cat carrier with a trip to the vet, and before you know it, he or she has vanished.

Unfortunately, health checkups and treatments are important to keep your cat healthy. So we must focus on making the trip as stress-free as possible.

  • Leave the cat carrier out all the time, so the cat doesn’t associate it with a trip to the vet, make it a safe haven with soft blankets and feed treats when the cat goes inside it.
  • Once the cat is comfortable with the carrier, make short visits to the vet, just to say hello (Covid restrictions aside, obviously), have the receptionist give the cat a treat and leave.
  • Look for a fear-free or cat-friendly practice. These methods are kinder on the cat and avoid the use of restraint during examinations.
  • For annual check-ups and vaccinations, find a veterinarian who does home visits.

Bullying

Inter-cat aggression or bullying is traumatic for a less-dominant cat and can lead to inappropriate urination or defecation if the cat feels unsafe. In this case, try to resolve conflict between cats and provide plenty of resources for each cat. This includes lots of perches, multiple litter trays, in different locations, and separate food and water bowls.

Position the cat trays so that the cat has a vantage point while in the tray, and has an escape route.

What not to do

The Internet is rife with harmful advice which has the potential to damage the human-cat bond or escalate the issue.

  • Smacking: Physical punishment is ineffective and cruel, it can also seriously damage your relationship with your cat. Cats do not learn anything from a smack other than fear and mistrust.
  • Spraying with water: This is cruel and ineffective. Spraying a cat with water won’t work when you’re not around.
  • Yelling: It’s easy to get caught up in the moment when a cat has done something we aren’t happy with but yelling will not deter a cat, only instil fear.
  • Rub a cat’s nose in urine or feces: This is downright cruel behaviour. If a cat isn’t using the litter tray, there is always a reason. Rubbing an animals nose in his or her waste is spiteful, completely ineffective, frightening, and damaging.

Animal and human psychology has begun to move away from punishment as a way to deter unwanted behaviours and finding the underlying cause or using positive reinforcement. This reduces fear and stress while maintaining a close human/animal bond. 

Conclusion

Punishment isn’t effective at curbing so-called bad behaviours, but positive reinforcement works. High-value treats positive associations, gentle hands, and understanding what makes a cat tick are all effective ways to live in harmony with cats. We must remember that we choose to bring cats into our home, and it is up to us to create a cat-friendly and safe environment.