How to Discipline a Cat: Behavior Modification, Not Punishment

how to discipline a cat

If you’re wondering how to discipline a cat, you may have endured a scratch or two. Or maybe your feline friend has left yet another fragrant gift on the floor next to the litter box.  

Whatever the reason is, don’t give up hope. Your cat’s behavior is usually something you can shape and change through adjustment, which is just another type of training.  

First, remember the following: 

  • Your cat is not a child. Lectures and other displays of displeasure will not be effective. 
  • Your cat is not a dog. They do not consider themselves a member of your pack, or any pack for that matter. 
  • Your cat is a cat! Their behavior is a direct result of instinct, environment and interactions between the two. 

The first step in disciplining a cat is to think about it as behavior modification, not punishment. The goal is to help them associate an undesirable behavior with an undesirable consequence, while they are still free to express normal cat behaviors. 

Never Physically Reprimand a Cat

Hitting or shaking your cat can scare them, create hand-shyness or potentially cause harm. You’re more likely to experience these unintended consequences than to teach a lesson.   

Similarly, yelling at your cat can stress them out and over-emphasize the attention to bad behavior.  

Use Positive Reinforcement

Praising good behavior can work wonders with your cat. When you see them doing something desirable such as scratching their post instead of your furniture, or using the litter box rather than your shoe, reward them with a treat immediately.  

How to Discipline a Cat for Aggressive Behavior

If your cat behaves aggressively, startling them can help curb the unwanted actions. Do not scare them or use physical contact. A whistle or other loud noisemaker may do the trick, as long as they’re used immediately.  

It also helps to understand what’s causing the aggression. Your cat may not like being petted or may feel territorial after the arrival of a new feline in the home. Assess these environmental factors as well.  

If the behavior persists, contact your veterinarian to see if health issues are to blame. 

More Solutions to Cat Aggression  

Misbehavior: Your cat tries to grab your feet or legs as you walk by. 

Possible Solution: They may need more playtime. Buy or create a swinging toy they can bat for 10 to 15 minutes each day.  

Misbehavior: Your cat shows aggression toward a new person in your life. 

Possible Solution: Ask the person for an unwashed piece of clothing (shirt, scarf, hat, etc.). Then place it in the room for the cat to explore, and maybe even wear it while holding them, so they can get used to the new person’s scent. 

How to Train a Cat to Stop Inappropriate Playing or Chewing 

If you’re playing with your cat and they start to nip or scratch, stop paying attention to them immediately. You’ll send a message that the behavior is unwanted. You can also redirect them in the moment. If they like to scratch your furniture, give them a toy or object that’s acceptable to scratch. 

More Solutions to Scratching and Chewing 

Misbehavior: Your cat chews on something they shouldn’t, like electrical cords or furniture. 

Possible Solutions: Buy or create a topical solution with smells and/or tastes undesirable for your cat (e.g., hot pepper sauce or vinegar, and citrus scents like orange or lemon) and apply to the trouble spot. Keep in mind that many plants and chemicals are toxic to cats, and their sense of smell is more sensitive than ours, so a little goes a long way. You may also try a whistle or other loud noisemaker to startle your cat if they start chewing. 

Misbehavior: Your cat claws/scratches something they shouldn’t, like curtains or furniture. 

Possible Solution: Buy or create a scratching post, ideally covered in cardboard or sisal (instead of something that resembles carpet or upholstery). Next, rub the scratching post with some catnip. Once you have your cat’s attention, encourage them to scratch the post by dangling a swinging toy next to it or demonstrate on the scratching post yourself. 

Wondering if you should discipline your cat when they don’t use the litter box? Read our guide on how to litter train a kitten.  

Get more tips on how to manage cat behavior from our experts, or visit our Pet Expertise page. 

 

References: 

Becker M and Spadafori G. Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet? 2006: 118–20. 

Brunner D. The Cat Owner’s Manual. 2004: 90–2; 212–6. 

Shojai A. The Purina Encyclopedia of Cat Care. 1998: 391. 

Siegal M, Ed. The Cornell Book of Cats. 1989: 62–7. 

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