How to Discipline Your Cat

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Brown and white cat scratching corner of couch

It is possible to discipline a cat for harmful or destructive behavior. Cats are frequently known to jump on the counters, chew on wires, and scratch household items that are not designed to be scratched. Some of these behaviors are natural reactions to a cat’s environment, while others are simply bad habits. Allowing a cat to behave badly without consequences reinforces the idea that the behavior is acceptable. Fortunately, it’s possible to change a cat’s behavior, by rewarding it for good behavior and disciplining it for bad behavior. However, because you don’t want to damage your relationship to the cat or hurt it, it’s important to know the right way to discipline a cat.

Train Your Cat

Cats are smarter than many people think and they have a great memory. Experts state that cats have both long-term and short-term memory so they are trainable. At the same time, it also means they know what they can get away with repeatedly.

Pets, like people, react well to positive reinforcement, so cats will remember when they get something they enjoy. Most cats like attention, food, toys, or all three. Choose a motivator that you can use to 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 the desirable item for training, it will add to the value of the reward and make it that much more enticing to your cat.

If you are struggling to find an item that your cat 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. 

An illustration featuring 5 ways to deter bad cat behavior, like shaking a noisy can or spraying with water.

An illustration featuring 5 ways to deter bad cat behavior, like shaking a noisy can or spraying with water.

 The Spruce / Catherine Song

Discourage Bad Behavior

Cats are much more receptive to rewards and treats then they are to 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 pets from chewing on things.
  • Use a water spray bottle: No one, including cats, likes to be squirted with water. Try a quick spritz at your cat if they are somewhere or doing something they shouldn’t be. It’s likely that after a few times, just reaching for the spray bottle deters the bad behavior.
  • 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. This is effective for cats that are aggressive with people and may bite or grab onto your arm or leg.
  • Give a timeout: Gently put your cat in a bathroom or other room without any people in it for 20 minutes if it is misbehaving. Quite often, it will emerge from the room with a different attitude.

Double-sided aluminum foil on corner of couch to discourage bad cat behavior

Double-sided aluminum foil on corner of couch to discourage bad cat behavior

The Spruce / Ana Cadena

Why You Should Not Scruff a Cat to Discourage Bad Behavior

cat laying down on floor

cat laying down on floor

Encourage Good Behavior

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.

Cat eating treats on floor to encourage good behavior

Cat eating treats on floor to encourage good behavior

The Spruce / Ana Cadena

Problems and Proofing Behavior

It is important that you never physically hurt your cat. This includes spanking, hitting, kicking, or hurting your cat intentionally. Attempting to teach a cat a lesson through physical means does not work and can actually lead to more disruptive, even aggressive, behavior.

Do not scruff your cat. This is no longer recommended as a method of restraint or transport for adult cats. Scruffing is painful and when you cause a misbehaving cat pain, it 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.

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.

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