How to Discipline a Cat

Grey cat biting its owner

Cats can be wonderful companions, but any pet can bring problematic or seemingly inexplicable behaviours with them, and feline friends are no exception. Here, we'll discuss where these behaviours come from and outline the best methods for how to discipline a cat or, for that matter, how to discipline a kitten.

Why Bad Cat Behaviours Happen

Feline hunting instincts and the nature of feline evolution can lead to cat behaviours that sometimes confound pet owners.

Scratching the Furniture

Cats will often feel the need to mark territory or trim their claws by scratching objects. Unfortunately, this will sometimes include furniture in the home.

Biting or Chewing

Biting can be a show of dominance for cats, a form of misjudged play, or a form of communication—trying to get you to pay attention to some need or event. Cats can also develop an oral fascination with certain objects. Whichever the case might be, it's essential to show them other ways to play or communicate.

Animal Trophies

Cats have certain habits they use to teach their young to hunt, one of the most common being to take them a dead bird or small rodent to feed them and to encourage them. A cat who has come to regard you as part of their family might try to feed and educate you with dead animal trophies.

Unwanted Pouncing

Stalking and pouncing is another instinctively feline form of play tied to the hunt. Some cats drive their owners to distraction by targeting the feet and ankles of people walking in play.

Territorial Aggression

Cats are territorial and can sometimes show aggression toward unfamiliar people whose scents they have never experienced. Socializing them to deal with such stimuli constructively is crucial to bringing new people into your home.

Bad Litter Box Discipline

Especially with kittens or rescue cats, they may do their business outside of the litter box, presenting problems in your home. It's crucial to learn how to discipline a cat for peeing outside the litter box.

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

Training your cat will take some extra time, patience, and above all, understanding of what will work and what won't. Cats are very distinct from dogs in the kind of training they'll respond to, so having the right approach is essential.

What Not to Do

When contemplating discipline for your family's feline friend, understand what won't work. 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 don't think like members of a pack (yours or anyone else's).
  • Your cat's behaviour is a direct result of instinct, environment, and interactions between the two.

Disciplining your cat is not about punishment but correction and a blend of negative and positive reinforcement. It should never be about violence or intimidation: You don't want your cat to fear you. The goal is to make them associate an undesirable behaviour with an undesirable consequence.

When to Train Your Cat

You need a strong bond with your cat, one that makes them likelier to listen to you, before you start implementing discipline measures. If possible, it's best to begin training young. The tips for training cats also apply to disciplining a kitten.

It's best to avoid late punishments. If you discover bad behaviour hours after an incident, attempting to discipline the cat for it will likely not produce a meaningful sense of cause and consequence. 

Imposing Consequences for Bad Behaviour

One simple method of discouraging bad behaviour is to impose consequences that clearly demonstrate that they're doing wrong. There are a few different forms this can take:

  • Removing them from the situation, such as simply carrying them out of the room if they're climbing on someone's workstation or pouncing at ankles
  • Startling them with a whistle or a loud noisemaker if they're showing inappropriate aggression or taking a play behaviour too far (not to be used for litterbox training)
  • Using a special tone of voice to indicate that something is a problem while saying "no" (this isn't about raising your voice or shouting, just adopting a distinctive tone that means discipline is happening)

Providing Alternatives

Another means of showing your cat that something needs to change is to give them alternatives for behaviours that are damaging your furniture or their environment. This can include:

  • Buying or making a swinging toy for restless cats or those who are taking forms of play too far
  • Placing a piece of a possible guest's unwashed clothing (such as a shirt) near your cat's food bowl to get them used to the scent and reduce the chances of territorial aggression
  • Applying a topical solution with smells or tastes undesirable to a cat to any surface they're chewing or biting inappropriately  
  • Buying a cardboard or sisal scratching post to discourage furniture scratching (possibly even coating it with a small amount of catnip to motivate the cat to prefer it)

Rewarding Good Behaviour

When your cat does the right thing, positive reinforcement can effectively shore up good behaviour. This can take the form of an edible treat or a show of attention and affection, and it's particularly useful for reinforcing the correct use of the litter box.

Consistency and Repetition

One of the most important elements of effective discipline for your cat is having consistent rules and repeating the chosen discipline whenever a line is crossed. Without consistency, the cat may become confused as to why you respond to behaviour at some times but not others.

Your Well-Behaved Cat

If done correctly, discipline is a great way to correct undesirable behavior in your cat. It just takes some extra time, consideration and patience. And with the above tips in mind, you'll be well prepared to build a better, more disciplined life for your cat.

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