- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
However much you love your cat, there’s a good chance they do some things you don’t love. Maybe they scratch the sofa all the time, or wake you up at 5 a.m. (if not earlier!) to demand breakfast. These disruptive and frustrating behaviors might lead you to wonder you can actually discipline a cat.
But before you explore feline discipline methods, it’s important to understand where their “bad” behavior comes from.
If your cat behaves in a way you don’t like, the most common explanation is that you haven’t provided an opportunity for them to perform natural feline behaviors, according to Molly DeVoss, certified feline training and behavior specialist and Vitakraft Cat Advisor. For example, a cat who constantly shreds furniture may be saying they need a scratching post.
Figuring out the best way to discipline a cat, then, lies in addressing the cause of the behavior and offering a better way to get their needs met. Using gentle training techniques to redirect the behavior can improve your relationship with your cat and help you live together happily and harmoniously. Here’s how to get started.
5 Safe Disciplinary Techniques for Cats And When To Use Them
Tapping into the why behind your cat’s behavior can help you discourage that behavior in a more positive way—one that doesn’t involve an angry or frustrated reaction.
“Typically people get frustrated or angry and react in the moment. I suspect most of us are guilty of doing this at one time or another,” says Stephen Quandt, qualified behaviorist and founder of Stephen Quandt Feline Behavior Associates.
It’s completely natural to feel upset if your cat has just peed on your bed in the middle of the night, or cry out in pain when your kitten claws your legs as you walk by. But yelling at your cat won’t help. Choosing the right technique to address the behavior can, however, make a difference.
DeVoss recommends reframing this as behavior modification, since cats don’t really understand disciplinary responses.
“When trying to modify a cat’s behavior, you need to show them what you want them to do instead. Think of it as saying, ‘Do this, not that.’ This means you need to be responsible for figuring out what natural behavior your cat is trying to do and provide an acceptable outlet for that,” DeVoss says.
Here are five expert-approved techniques that work.
You can’t stop innate feline behaviors like scratching, so redirection is your best option.
“If your cat is scratching the sofa, lead them to a scratching post, play with them there, and as soon as they scratch the post, give them a treat,” Quandt says. “This is called positive reinforcement, and timing the treat to the desired behavior is key to making the association stick.”
As your cat gets the hang of this, you can reinforce the behavior further with intermittent reinforcement.
“After your cat learns they get a treat for the desired behavior, you start randomizing when they get the treat,” Quandt says, adding that this may get your cat to do the desired behavior even more in an effort to get that treat from you!
Ignoring your cat, also called extinction training, can also work. Just be prepared for a potential battle of wills!
“Your cat meows because it works, not because they like the sound of their own voice,” Quandt says.
He goes on to add that if you ignore your cat completely, they’ll eventually stop the behavior, but this can take a while.
What’s more, if you ever give in, the work you’ve done is lost. Your cat has just learned a new time frame to get the reward, whether that’s playtime, a treat, or more food. Keep in mind, too, that the unwanted behavior may get worse before it improves.
This method involves changing the environment to keep your cat away from specific areas. You can use gentle environmental corrections, like cat repellent mats, double-sided sticky tape, or aluminum foil to make counters or the kitchen table a no-cat zone.
The advantage of this technique, compared to a squirt of water when your cat jumps on the counter, is that they won’t link the change in the environment to you. In other words, it won’t damage your bond with them.
Some undesirable behaviors, like yowling at night or peeing outside of the litter box, may relate to anxiety or stress. If that’s the case, calming devices could help improve your cat’s mood and the behavior.
Calming pheromones, released by devices like Feliway plug-ins and calming collars, can help, Quandt says. He adds that if you use calming collars, stick with breakaway collars for safety.
Remote control noise makers and sound mats may help stop undesired behaviors in certain circumstances, but it’s best to use these with caution.
Quandt says that more aggressive noise devices, like motion-sensitive cans of compressed air, will likely scare your cat and should only be used as a last resort.
Before you use any noise devices, it’s always best to speak with a trained cat behaviorist.
3 Cat Discipline Methods To Avoid
Quandt cautions against using discipline methods like shouting, hand clapping, tapping your cat’s nose, or squirting them with water.
These methods teach cats to avoid you or avoid doing that behavior when you’re around. They can also increase your cat’s stress and fear, which can damage the bond between you and raise the chances of them acting out in other ways.
“You never want to yell at your cat,” DeVoss emphasizes. If you do, your cat will likely begin to think of you as scary and unreliable.
What’s more, yelling doesn’t usually work. DeVoss says this is because cats are smart. They can figure out pretty quickly that the scary stuff, like you yelling, won’t happen if you’re not in the room to catch them. So, they’ll probably just keep doing the same behavior when you aren’t around.
Remember, your cat isn’t purposely acting out. They’re doing something they need to do, whether that’s scratching or jumping on the table to look out the window for entertainment.
Other aversive techniques
Aversive methods are anything your cat finds extremely unpleasant.
This includes things like clapping your hands, shaking a tin can with coins in it, spraying water, or, worst of all, electric shock—and these methods should be avoided at all costs, says Susan Nilson, qualified canine and feline training and behavior expert and founder of The Cat and Dog House.
Sure, these tactics may interrupt the behavior. But they only work because they create pain or fear—which is no good for your cat or your relationship. They don’t fix the issue or show your cat an alternative behavior.
“When an animal is in a state of high emotional arousal, their rational brain becomes inhibited, meaning they are unable to learn anything new. All they care about is escaping the painful or frightening stimulus,” Nilson says.
Nilson also cautions against giving your cat a tap on the nose to correct a behavior.
“Not only does a boop not teach the cat anything, but you also risk antagonizing them when they’re already in a state of heightened emotional arousal. You could get scratched or bitten—and it’ll be your fault, not theirs!”
(A gentle and loving boop, however, is always fine—as long as your cat welcomes it.)
When Should You Discipline A Cat? Unwanted Behaviors to Monitor
Does your cat consistently show aggressive or destructive behavior, like scratching, biting, hissing, or fighting with other pets?
Before exploring ways to discipline your cat, a good first step involves checking in with your vet. Once they’ve ruled out any underlying health issues, Nilson recommends consulting a feline behaviorist. They’ll be able to create a tailored behavior modification plan to address your cat’s emotional state and pinpoint any motivations for the behavior.
Not all behaviors require training
You might think it strange that your cat sucks blankets—but no matter how you feel about this behavior, you’ll never want to discipline a cat for it.
This natural behavior mimics nursing, which soothes and calms cats, DeVoss says. Unless your cat actually swallows pieces of blanket or develops any related health issues, it’s best to let them enjoy their blanket time. You can always check in with your vet if you’re concerned.
Training may not also solve house soiling, or peeing and pooping outside the litter box.
“Underlying medical issues are often at the root of litter box avoidance,” DeVoss says. Your cat may also dislike the box, feel stressed, or have a need to mark their territory, so it’s important to find the root cause as quickly as possible and correct it for your cat, she says.
A certified cat behavior specialist can help you uncover the reasons behind this behavior and explore possible solutions.
When Should I Bring In A Vet, Behaviorist, Or Trainer For My Cat?
If you’re getting frustrated by your cat’s behavior, it’s time to call the professionals.
“I always suggest that as a rule, your vet is your first call,” Quandt says. A vet can make sure your cat doesn’t have any health conditions contributing to the unwanted behavior.
After that, you can work with a certified feline behavior specialist or consultant to dig into possible causes of those behaviors. A cat trainer can also offer more guidance on providing your cat with regular mental and physical enrichment to help keep them happy and healthy.
What’s The Best Way To Train A Cat?
Behaviorists agree that the best approach for training cats is to use positive reinforcement.
“Reward the behaviors you like and ignore the ones you don’t,” DeVoss says. She adds, though, that this doesn’t work well with issues like house soiling, since this often relates to medical problems.
“It’s also important to remember cats won’t change their behavior for a ho-hum reward. You need to use a treat that is very motivating for them,” DeVoss says.
To start using positive reinforcement, give clicker training a try. “Cats learn through positive reinforcement when the reward is timed precisely to the desired behavior,” Quandt says. “Because it can be hard to time the giving of a treat to the exact moment when your cat does the desired behavior, you can teach your cat that a ‘click’ means a treat is coming. So the cat works to get the click.”
Cats are independent creatures who tend to do best with short training sessions, which you can start when they’re still kittens. (Rescue cats may need time to settle into a new home before you start training.)