How to Discipline a Cat - 7 Things You Can Do

How to Discipline a Cat - 7 Things You Can Do

I am amazed to see how many posts exist about disciplining a cat that got it completely wrong. How can it be that google recommends articles that recommend punishing as the best way to discipline a cat?

Some of the traditional ways to discipline a cat to recommend:

  • Using a loud voice to scare your cat away
  • Clapping hands very loudly
  • Using a water bottle to spray the cat
  • Using deterrents to scare the cat
  • Put the cat on time out

The problem with these tactics is that your cat will stop doing what you want them to, but the side effect will be a damaged bond. 

There are better ways to correct cat behavior that will keep the trust and the bond intact, which I believe it's as much a priority for you as it is for me.

Anticipate Your Cat's Needs

Your cat is very good at fulfilling its needs. This is why misbehavior happens. They are trying to fill in a gap that's missing.

Most misbehavior is triggered by:

  • Hunger
  • Boredom
  • Anxiety
  • Medical conditions

Understanding the source of the misbehavior is the first step toward correcting it.

How to know what your cat needs?

Cat Meowing

Some cats can be particularly vocal and will have no problem using it as their main mode of communication.

Cats meow mostly as kittens to call for their mom's attention and as they grow older, they might keep it to call their caregiver's attention, but that's only visible in domesticated cats. Feral cats don't meow except to complain during fights/rough play.

When a cat meows to their owner, it often means that the cat it's:

  • Demanding attention
  • Seeking to be fed

Note that some cats might do deep long meows when they are sad, anxious, or in pain. If your cat starts meowing and you can't recognize the sound and it happens suddenly, it's a good idea to visit a vet.

Lying Down on Laptop or Working Setup

Most cats like to be present but sometimes their presence can be... overwhelming. If your cat is stepping on your work or lying on your stuff, could mean 2 things:

  • Demanding attention
  • Seeking heat

Particularly for cats that sit on top of computers during winter months, what's driving the behavior is your cat seeking heat. Offering a heating mat will usually solve the issue right away.

Running Behind You Every Time You Leave a Room

Cats that dart behind us when we leave a room are usually hoping to follow us to a place they'd rather be. That place's usually outdoors or in the kitchen.

Your cat might be hoping to be let out or fed.

Physical Touch - Pawing and Nudging

Physical touch is another common way for cats to seek attention.

This might happen during meals, while we work, or sleep. Pawing or Nudging will often mean that our cat is hungry or wants to be pet or entertained.

If your cat wakes you up when you are sleeping, continue reading because there are a few things you can try out!

Waiting Outside Your Door

Working from home, you likely have learned to focus in a different way than when working at the office. With kids and pets around the house, it's not as easy to work as it is at an office. However, keeping your cat outside your work zone might trigger unwanted behavior.

If you find your cat waiting outside your door or scratching and meowing outside of it, means that they consider that's part of their territory and they lost access to it. The same goes for outdoor doors.

Destructive Behavior

Cats are not inherently destructive creatures, as cat owners know. Even so, you may discover your residential feline knocking over items, scratching furniture, or going to off-limits areas, like the kitchen counter. If you see your cat engaging in destructive behavior, it is very possible that your cat needs attention.

So, what should we do when our cats engage in behaviors we don't want?

Understand and Accept Your Cat's Behavior

Because we are restricting cats from being fully free outdoors, they can't fulfill their needs without our help. Most of the cats' misbehavior happens because we fail to meet their needs in some way.

We've just gone through the reasons behind cat misbehavior. Understanding what triggers your cat's misbehavior is the first thing we need to do, the second one, is to accept it.

Sharing our lives with someone should come with a compromise. Our cats will pee and poo in buckets of sand, won't have a territory to control or a colony to interact with, won't be able to produce offspring, and will be incapable of chasing and hunting. In exchange, we will provide them with high-quality food and water, love and affection, and the enrichment they need to be happy.

Whenever we limit our cats will, we are asking them to do even more compromises than those they are already doing for us. Is it that bothersome that a cat jumps on a piece of furniture? Is it that bothersome that they jump on the counter?

I know that some behaviors might appear antyhygienic but my question is:

If a cat jumps on the shoulder, should we put our focus on trying to get the cat off the counter, or would it just be EASIER and SAFER to disinfect the surface every time we cook?

Next time you see your cat doing something you don't want, consider: Is this a compromise I want my cat to make, or is it a compromise I can make for my cat?

I am writing this as Mia lies at the dining table. I use a table cloth so even if Mia was on the naked table, I know that where food goes, there are no traces of litter :)

Cat on a Table

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning was first studied by Edward L. Thorndike (1874–1949). He used cats and observed their behavior while trying to escape from a home-made-maze. The maze had a lever that would allow the cats to escape. With repeated trials, successful responses occurred more frequently and as consequence, Edward defined the premise that behaviors followed by satisfying consequences tend to be repeated.

A little later, B.F. Skinner (1904–1990), who is often referred to as the Father of operant conditioning further dug into operant conditioning to better understand the causes and effects of intentional behavior. 

Operant conditioning defines 5 ways of shaping behavior:

  • Positive reinforcement occurs when a behavior's response is rewarding - Such behavior will happen more often.
  • Negative reinforcement occurs when a behavior is followed by the removal of an aversive stimulus. Such behavior will happen more often.
  • Positive punishment occurs when a behavior is followed by an aversive stimulus. Such behavior will happen less often.
  • Negative punishment occurs when a behavior is followed by the removal of a positive stimulus. Such behavior will happen less often.
  • Extinction occurs when a behavior that had previously been reinforced is no longer effective. Such behavior will happen less in the future unless it has become a habit.

Let's see how can we use them to shape cat behavior:

Correcting Behaviors in Cats

Cats are not vindictive or bad. They do things because they are programmed to do so.

If there's food, they'll eat. If they are bored, they'll entertain themselves. If they feel threatened, they'll mark their territory to prevent others from entering it. If they are in heat, they'll go find a partner. If they need to seek a vantage point, they'll climb cabinets, curtains, and other furniture.

Any behavior happens because your cat is fulfilling a need and thus, once we understand what our cat is seeking, we can offer an alternative so that they fulfill their need in a way that we find acceptable.

Cats like most animals will respond to all operant conditioning stimuli but the ones that we will use to discipline a cat are 3:

  • Positive Reinforcement
  • Positive Punishment
  • Negative Punishment

Positive Reinforcement

It occurs when a behavior's response is rewarding.

An example of this to reward our cats is Clicker Training. Clicker Training is all based on positive reinforcement.

Teaching your cat tricks is best achieved with clicker training and positive reinforcement. If that's what you are looking for, take a look at this post to learn 12 tricks you can teach your cat!

Positive reinforcement is used in correcting bad behavior to reinforce the alternative we want our cats to use. For example, giving our cat treats when they are on a cat tree but not when they are on the kitchen counter.

Positive Punishment

Positive punishment is the punishment as we know it. When a behavior is followed by negative stimuli. Spraying a cat with water is a form of positive punishment.

Should I use a water spray to discipline a cat?

Plain and simple: NO

Using a spray bottle has mainly 2 bad consequences:

  • Your cat is going to link the bottle with you and will likely affect your bond.
  • Your cat might develop anxiety, reinforcing the misbehavior you are trying to stop in the first place.

Should we use positive punishment to discipline a cat?

Certain types of positive punishment can work. Spraying with vinegar or a bitter product on plants will deter your cat from munching on them.

The behavior of munching on plants will be followed by a bitter flavor that's going to diminish the frequency of that happening.

The good thing about positive punishment is that once the cat has learned about the negative stimuli, the behavior will stop and you don't need to have the negative punishment method in place anymore.

In conclusion, while positive punishment works, you should never be the purveyor of the punishment, use methods that will work without you being present:

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment occurs when a behavior is followed by the removal of a positive stimulus.

If our cat has access to food and by doing something the access to food is removed, we are using negative punishment as a behavior shaper. If our cat bites too strong and we stop playing immediately, our cat will learn that biting too hard stops playtime and will do it less often.

Negative punishment, for instance, is used to teach a cat to sit and stay.

Get a Cat off the Kitchen Counter

A cat that jumps on the counter is either seeking food or high ground. Is it tolerable that your cat jumps on the counter? Can you ensure there's never food on the counter? Can you disinfect after them instead of trying to stop the behavior?

If you need to stop the behavior, you can use any of the 3 forms of operant conditioning we reviewed before:

Stop a cat from jumping on the counter using positive reinforcement:

If your cat is seeking high ground, offer an alternative (cat trees are worth it) to your cat and reward them when they use the alternative.

If your cat is seeking food, remove food from the counter and reward them when staying on the floor while you are cooking.

Stop a cat from jumping on counters using negative punishment:

A properly placed air spray can scare your cat every time they jump on the counter discouraging the behavior. Once the behavior has stopped, you won't need the spray bottle anymore (as they won't notice).

Stop a Cat from Opening Cabinets

Cats open cabinets seeking food, entertainment or to get attention. Can you lock the cabinets? Can you remove things your cats are trying to reach from inside the cabinets? Do you pay enough attention to your cat?

If you need to do something about it, you can try a bitter ointment or an air spray.

Alternatives to reinforce other behaviors would be feeding your cat away from the cabinets so that they don't expect good things to come from them but other places.

Stop a Cat from Eating Plants

I don't want to enter too much into this topic as I have a full post talking about cats eating plants and how to stop them.

Stop a Cat from Scratching Furniture

This one is an easy one to solve with a good alternative option and positive reinforcement.

Cats need to scratch to release anxiety and mark their territory. They will do it whether we like it or not. If we want to stop them from doing it on surfaces that we want intact, we need to provide them with surfaces that they can tear apart. 

Cat trees and cat scratchers are amazing for that and they are designed in such a way that your cat will prefer them over any other piece of furniture. If on top of the amazing alternative, you reward them with catnip or treats when they use the scratchers instead of your sofa, you won't see your cat playing with your sofa ever again.

Stop a Cat from Peeing on Bed

Good litterbox practices are key:

  • A litter that your cat likes, doing a litter menu can help you understand what litter is best for your cat. More about it in this video.
  • Enough litter boxes in rooms that your cat would consider their territory.
  • Cleaned litter box, at least once a day

If you are having a good litter box routine and your cat keeps peeing or pooping outside, consider visiting a vet as many health issues would have bad litter box habits.

Stop a Cat from Meowing at Night

All you need to know about keeping your cat from waking you up at night can be found in this video:

Offer an Alternative to stop cat misbehavior

All in all, the process of stopping a cat behavior goes as follows:

  • Understand why your cat is doing the behavior
  • Offer an Alternative to fullfill your cat's needs
  • If behavior doesn't stop
    • Discourage the behavior with positive or negative punishment
    • Encourage the alternative with positive reinforcement

If this post was useful, share it with a friend! Better behavior makes happier cats and happier families!

Stay Wild, Stay Safe, See You Outdoors!

Albert & Mia


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