When and How to Discipline a Cat

how to discipline a cat

Illustration: J. R. Bee. © The Spruce, 2018

You probably have a realistic expectation for your cat’s behavior, so if it is occasionally doing something it isn’t supposed to do, you aren’t completely surprised by it. But what about cats that consistently have bad behavior? Is it okay to discipline a cat? 

Cat Mentality

Cats are smarter than you may think and they have a great memory. Experts state that cats have both long-term and short-term memory so they are both trainable and know what they can get away with repeatedly. Pets, like people, react well to positive reinforcement, so cats will remember when they get treats, attention, or a meal.

Training a Cat to Do What You Want

Since most cats like attention, food, toys, or all three, choose a motivator that you can use to help entice your cat to do what you want it to do and to provide it with a form of positive reinforcement. If possible, reward your cat with this special item only when training for this particular behavior. By reserving this item for training, it will add to the reward value of the item you are using and make it that much more enticing to your cat.

If you are struggling to find an item that your cat likes or is motivated by, consider things like tuna, canned spray cheese, shrimp, and catnip toys. These may be items that your cat has never experienced before, so they may help in getting your cat’s attention. 

Unwanted Cat Behaviors

Jumping on top of counters, chewing on wires, urinating outside of the litter box, and scratching household items that are not designed to be scratched are all common unwanted cat behaviors. Some of these behaviors are natural reactions to a cat’s environment, while others are simply bad habits. But regardless of what bad or unwanted behavior your cat is demonstrating, you probably want to stop it.

Rewarding and Punishment

Cats are much more receptive to rewards and treats then they are punishment. But you can discourage bad behavior by trying a few tricks.

  • Shake a noisy can - If you see your cat jump on the counters or somewhere it shouldn't be, shake a can with some pennies in it to startle your cat.
  • Use deterrents - Some cats dislike citrus smells, red pepper flakes, and commercially available sprays designed to keep cats away from certain areas. There are also special sprays that taste bad to deter chewing things.
  • Use a water spray bottle - No one, including cats, like to be squirted with water, so you can try a quick spritz at your cat if they are somewhere or doing something they shouldn't be. 
  • Use double-sided tape or aluminum foil - These simple things can be placed on surfaces you don't want your cat on or scratching. Cats do not like the textures.
  • Say something - Startle your cat with a loud "ouch" or another word to end any rough behavior by startling it. This is effective for cats that are aggressive with people and may bite or grab onto your arm or leg.
  • Give a time out - Gently put your cat in a bathroom or other room without any people in it for 20 minutes if it is misbehaving.

    Whenever possible, give treats, praise, and attention to your cat if it is behaving nicely. If you notice it lying next to something it used to chew, reward it. If you notice it scratching the scratching pole instead of your sofa, reward it. Your cat will quickly learn the difference between good and bad behavior.

    There are also some things you should never try:

    • Never physically hurt your cat - Be sure you never spank, hit, kick, or hurt your cat intentionally. These physical means to attempt to teach a cat a lesson do not work.
    • Do not scruff your cat - Scruffing a cat is no longer recommended as a means of restraint for adult cats. An alternative to grabbing a cat by the scruff is putting a blanket over it and scooping the cat up inside it. This will keep you and the cat safe and allow you to transport the cat without stressing it out further. Scruffing as a means to transport a cat is painful for an adult cat and causing a misbehaving cat pain will only further exacerbate an issue. It is also thought that what appeared to be relaxation for some cats who are scruffed is actually fear paralysis.