How to Discipline a House Cat

The first thing to do is to stop thinking of it as 'discipline'.

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Cats, as the saying goes, do as they please. Which is another way of saying that these beloved house pets, while adorable, are beyond discipline. But they can be swayed to not scratch the couch or shit on the floor given the right incentive. The thing is that cat punishment is significantly different (and way less effective) than dog punishment or kid punishment because cats are, well, cats.

“Corporal, or hands-on, discipline does not work with cats, and can actually make them more fearful — or force them into attack mode,” says Amy Shojai, a nationally recognized pet behavioralist and author of 11 books on the subject. “Most of the ‘bad’ behavior that pet parents want stopped is actually normal cat behavior hardwired into the kitty brain, and cannot be stopped.”

Scratching objects, meowing constantly, knocking things off high places? All of these fall on the list of things that cats are going to do no whether you want them to or not. This isn’t to say that these behaviors can’t be adjusted. It’s just a matter of reframing how you think of discipline. “The term ‘discipline’ actually isn’t terribly accurate when speaking about cat behavior,” says Shojai. “It hearkens back to ‘punishment’ and punishing a cat for a normal behavior is just as effective as punishing a human infant for crying or reaching out to touch and grab.”

She adds: “Cats always have a reason for doing what they do, and it’s to their benefit — or they don’t do it. I would say the majority of cat behavior is normal for the cat but doesn’t fit in with the owner’s expectations.”

At the end of the day, a lot of a house cat’s behavior is due to simple misunderstandings. A quick example: Shojai’s cat used to rattle the wooden blinds in her home, a trait that would drive her husband mad. “Not because she wanted to see out,” she says. “But because it made my husband crazy and he’d yell and get up and chase her — a great kitty game.”

If these behaviors are ever-present, they still need to be corrected. A more accurate term for correcting a cat’s actions, per Shojai, is not discipline but “shaping behavior.” And this boils down to diverting behavior by presenting them with better options or responding positively to the signals they’re presenting.

Here’s how to reshape three common cat behaviors that might be driving you mad.

Excessive Scratching 

What it means: Scratching is a territorial marking behavior used by cats to leave visual and scent cues. “They’re marking important territory that, for instance, smells like a beloved owner who sits on the sofa,” says Shojai.

What to do: “Pay attention to what he likes to scratch and the location, and give him a better option,” says Shojai. “Place the fabric-covered scratch post near the window or sofa, for instance, to change his scratch-allegiance. Spike it with catnip. And only move it to a better-for-you location once the cat has accepted the post.”

Going to the Bathroom Outside the Litter Box

Why? Much like scratching, a cat relieving itself away from the litter box could also be caused by a marking behavior as, per Shojai, urine spraying often happens with intact kitties. But this could also be a sign of stress or illness.

What to do: You want to handle these situations first by bringing your pet to the vet to be sure they’re healthy. “Then, address the cleanliness of the box, and the location, to be sure it’s acceptable,” says Shojai. “A dog (or a baby) that gets into the litter box may keep the cat away.”

Constantly Playing Rough 

What it means It’s a natural, rambunctious behavior.Cats may play rough, especially kittens under about nine months of age. They race around, ambush human ankles, and pounce on each other.”

What to do: Cats outgrow the worst of this. “In the meantime,” says Shojai. “Wear the kitten or cat out with long-distance interactive games. For instance, use a ‘fishing pole’ style toy with a feather or other lure on the string. That gives the cat something to claw and bite, and keeps your tender skin out of reach.”

Your Cat Being Aggressive with a Young Child

Why? Many cats are very curious about infants because they make weird, high pitched sounds that may remind the cat of prey–or of kittens crying. Infants also smell like milk, so cats often enjoy sniffing around them. Infants also are very warm, and cats are heat-seekers and may think the baby bed is the perfect place for a cat nap.

What to do: “I’m a big fan of baby gates to keep cats and kids safe from each other,” says Shojai. “That way, they both can see through and feel a part of the baby being fed, or the cat playing with the feather toy, but at a safe distance.”

Perhaps the most important advice for shaping a cat’s behavior is this: “Think about what your reaction means to the cat and if you are inadvertently rewarding a behavior you don’t like simply by reacting,” says Shojai.

Sort of like how you act with your child. As is also the case with children, it’s best to try to correct behavior at a young age. “It’s easiest to shape and direct kittens into acceptable behaviors than to change habits of a lifetime in an adult cat.” This, of course, doesn’t mean an adult cat can’t change. It’s just that, per Shojai, “it’s likely to take longer and require more patience on the human — and the cat’s — part.” Because, at the end of the day, cats will still do as they please. It’s a matter of giving them different ways to be pleased.

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