How To Discipline A Cat
By Elizabeth Racine, DVM May 16, 2019
Did you know that it is possible to discipline a cat? If your cat has been displaying undesirable behavior, it may be necessary to begin a training program to curb the problem. However, disciplining your cat is more complex than simply grabbing the spray bottle. In order to encourage appropriate behavior and keep your cat healthy, you will need to learn how to discipline your cat correctly.
Types Of Reinforcement To Discipline A Cat
Before you begin disciplining your cat, it is important to understand how animals learn. Most methods to discipline a cat rely on operant conditioning to either encourage or discourage certain behaviors. Operant conditioning is a method of training in which the animal learns to associate a particular action with a specific consequence. The consequence can be either a reward or a punishment. Although operant conditioning is by far the most commonly used training method, many people confuse the different types of conditioning and this can lead to problems. There are four categories of operant conditioning, which are:
- Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement, also referred to as R+ training, relies on the use of rewards to encourage desired behavior. When the animal performs the desired action, they receive something desirable in return, such as food or praise. This increases the likelihood that the desired action will be performed again. For example, giving your cat a treat every time he uses the scratching post appropriately is positive reinforcement.
- Positive Punishment
Positive punishment is the use of an aversive consequence to discourage undesired behavior. If the animal performs an undesirable action, they receive an undesirable consequence in return. Spraying water on your cat, hitting your cat with a newspaper, or scaring your cat with a loud noise are all examples of positive punishment. This method of reinforcement should never be used to discipline your cat.
- Negative Reinforcement
Negative reinforcement is the removal of an aversive stimulus in response to the animal’s action. For example, there are some products on the market that play a loud scary noise when your cat jumps onto your kitchen counter. The noise stops when your cat jumps down, which removes the aversive stimulus of the loud noise. In this case, the scary noise encourages your cat to stay on the floor.
- Negative Punishment
Negative punishment is the removal of something the animal wants in order to decrease the occurrence of an undesirable behavior. This training method is sometimes used in combination with positive reinforcement. Stopping play time because your kitten bit you is an example of negative reinforcement. Play time is desirable for the kitten, but it is removed if he behaves badly. Once the kitten calms down, you can positively reinforce the calm behavior by resuming play.
Disciplining A Cat With Punishment Is Not the Answer
Unfortunately, you have likely seen some popular celebrity trainers recommending positive punishment and negative reinforcement methods to train both cats and dogs. This includes “corrective” training methods such as electric shock, alpha rolls, spray bottles, and yelling. These methods may seem like they work, but they only work because they result in learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a state in which the animal essentially “shuts down” due to fear and feeling powerless to control their own environment. While this may result in better behavior, an animal that feels helpless is not happy, does not have a good quality of life, and certainly does not have a good bond with its owner.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior strongly advocates against the use of punishment based training methods. Using these methods to discipline a cat cause fear and anxiety. In addition to being harmful for the cat, these methods can also lead to further behavior problems such as aggression and inappropriate urination. Imagine punishing your cat for scratching your sofa, only to have him start urinating on it instead!
How To Train Your Cat
Fortunately, there are better ways to train your cat. Using positive reinforcement training will not only teach your cat appropriate behavior, but it will also help your cat feel relaxed and confident in his or her environment. Even more importantly, positive reinforcement training methods are a great way to bond with your cat.
To train your cat, focus on rewarding desired behaviors. Food rewards, such as treats or canned cat food, work well for many cats. Other cats will work for praise, petting, or a favorite toy. It is essential that the reward is given immediately after the cat performs the desired behavior. Waiting too long to offer the reward will make it more difficult for your cat to understand why he or she is being rewarded, and your cat may end up associating the reward with something else entirely.
If your cat is behaving badly, avoid using punishment as a deterrent. Instead, try to redirect your cat to a more appropriate activity. For example, if your cat is scratching the sofa, gently guide him or her to the scratching post. Then reward your cat when he or she uses it. This is far better than punishment alone because it not only discourages scratching the sofa, but it also demonstrates and reinforces the appropriate behavior.
Positive Reinforcement Training Examples
To help you better understand the use of positive reinforcement training, two examples of unwanted behavior are provided with steps on how to use positive reinforcement to modify the behavior. Hopefully these examples will help you better communicate with your cat.
Example 1: Your cat bites during play.
Biting is a normal play behavior for cats. But it still hurts! In this case, your cat is not trying to cause harm. He or she just does not understand what constitutes appropriate play behavior. If your cat bites you while you are playing with him, follow these steps to encourage better behavior.
- Step 1: Stop Play
Immediately stop all play. Put your hands behind your back to signal that play time is over. This is an example of negative punishment as discussed above.
- Step 2: Walk Away If Your Cat Continues to Bite
If your cat continues trying to bite or attack you to instigate play, simply get up and walk away.
- Step 3: Let Your Cat Settle Down
Allow your cat some time to settle down. Once he or she is calm, you can restart play with an appropriate toy. This is positive reinforcement, which rewards your cat for calming down and behaving appropriately.
- Step 4: Monitor Behavior
Monitor your cat’s behavior during future play sessions. Bad behavior can often be prevented if you can spot the triggers and early signs. In this case, if your cat begins to get too worked up, you can encourage appropriate play and prevent a bite by redirecting him or her to a toy.
Remember, consistency is the key to any good training plan! It may take a few repetitions, but your cat will soon learn to play appropriately. Never allow your cat to play with your hands or body during this training. You do not want to send him or her mixed signals!
Example 2: Your cat scratches the furniture.
Scratching is a normal, healthy behavior for cats. In some cases, getting your cat to stop scratching your furniture is simply a matter of providing appropriate scratching materials in the right locations.
However, some cats do need help understanding the difference between scratching their post and scratching the sofa. This training method uses positive reinforcement to reward your cat for scratching the appropriate surface. In the example below, we will use a scratching post as the item you want your cat to scratch.
- Step 1: Make the Scratching Item Enticing
Make the scratching post enticing for your cat. Keep it in an area of the house that your cat frequents, and experiment to determine the texture he or she prefers. You can also spray pheromones or catnip on the surface to encourage him or her to explore it.
- Step 2: Monitor and Correct the Undesired Behavior
If you catch your cat scratching the furniture, do not yell, hit, or try to scare your cat. Instead, calmly and gently pick your cat up and place him or her on or near the scratching post.
- Step 3: Encourage Desired Behavior
Allow your cat a moment to sniff and explore the scratching post. You can also pretend to scratch the surface with your own hands to encourage your cat to do the same.
- Step 4: Reward Desired Behavior
When your cat scratches the post, even if it is only for a second, immediately reward him or her with some high value treats or canned food. If he or she scratches again, give another reward! Treats and food are not the only rewards a cat will work for; some cats will work for pets and attention.
- Step 5: Continue Rewarding Desired Behavior
Any time you happen to see your cat using the scratching post appropriately, reward your cat! The more often you do this, the more the behavior is reinforced in a positive manner.
Underlying Causes for Behavior Problems
Bad behavior rarely occurs in isolation. Often there is an underlying cause or trigger for your cat’s undesirable actions. Some behaviors, such as scratching furniture, are totally natural for your cat and simply need to be redirected to a more appropriate outlet. Other behavior problems may be brought about by a number of underlying factors, such as:
- Stress, fear, or anxiety
- Social tension with other cats in the household
- Lack of environmental enrichment
- Poor litter box management
- Lack of adequate resources, or difficulty accessing resources
- Illness or pain
If you need more information or help with each factor listed above, click on the links to get additional details.
Any changes in your cat’s behavior should be evaluated by your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will first try to determine whether your cat’s issue is due to an underlying illness. The veterinarian will perform a full physical examination, and may recommend additional testing such as blood work or a urinalysis to identify changes in your cat’s health. If no medical problems are identified, your veterinarian will discuss potential triggers and management of the problem behavior. In some cases, your veterinarian may also recommend medications or supplements to help your cat.
What If the Problem Continues?
Sometimes behavior problems persist despite medication and appropriate management. This is especially true in cases where it is difficult to pinpoint an underlying trigger for the inappropriate behavior. If this occurs, it is best to seek the help of a board certified veterinary behaviorist. A board certified veterinary behaviorist is a veterinarian who has completed years of additional training in animal behavior, and who specializes in dealing with problem behaviors. The veterinary behaviorist will help you identify triggers for your cat’s behavior, and will also develop a behavior modification plan to train your cat to behave appropriately. You can find a board certified veterinary behaviorist in your area here.
Problem behaviors can be tough to deal with, but fortunately your cat can be disciplined to behave appropriately. For your cat’s health and safety, it is important that you avoid punishment and focus on positive reinforcement training methods. By offering rewards for desired behaviors, you will not only teach your cat new tricks, but you will also strengthen the bond with your feline friend. Happy bonding!