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Discipline and Cats

By Linda Hall and Rita Reimers

I’ve noticed some friends who aren’t “cat people” find me confusing. It appears that our cats are quite spoiled. They seem to have no limits. They view my cats as undisciplined. I also hear from people who recently got their first kitty, asking how to correctly discipline their cat. My answer is … you don’t. Let me explain.
If my human kids do something wrong, I can ground them or take away privileges. The kids will make a connection between the punishment and the crime. “Oh … if I don’t follow the rules, I might lose a privilege. It’s in my best interest to not do that again.” My dog’s mind works in a similar way, although it’s a bit more complicated. A cat will never change their behavior as a result of discipline. It’s not how their minds work.

It’s important to consider motivation. When my human kids act in ways I find unacceptable, it might be an act of stubbornness, rebellion, laziness or forgetfulness to name a few. I had a rule regarding discipline with my human kids. Discipline only happens if it’s an act of will. If my child does something wrong willfully, discipline will follow. If it’s not done purposely, we work to find ways to correct it without discipline. My cat’s behavior is based on instinct, or it can be a result of stress, anxiety, territory issues or illness. These are not acts of willful disobedience.

Now hold on! I hear you! Your cat just peed on your clothes and you are mad! I’ve been there. It stinks! It can stain your clothes and those smells are tough to get out! It’s maddening! And now I’m telling you not to discipline your cat? The nerve!

Let’s discuss discipline. Lots of kitty parents are fans of the water bottle. Most cats hate water so giving them a spray when you catch kitty in the act of scratching your sofa, will get them to run away, which stops the scratching. Yay! But let’s look deeper. They will stop immediately because they don’t like the water and will run from it. It does not teach a lesson and can actually cause more behavior issues. Cats are so smart! They see you. They see the water bottle. They see you squeezing the trigger and getting them wet. The final conclusion is not that scratching the sofa is bad. The conclusion is that you are a jerk and just got them wet. Hitting has the same result. Dad hit me = Dad is mean. This will never correct the behavior and will harm your bond with kitty and kitty’s trust in you.
I can imagine your thoughts as you read this. “Fine Linda! I get it. Discipline is bad. So what do I do? Do I just ignore it and let my cat pee on my clothes, scratch my furniture and walk on the table while I eat? Hmmmph!” No, of course not! We need to correct these behaviors. We just have to do it in a different way.

Let’s look at motivation. When cats avoid the litter box, there could be a physical issue. Urinary tract infections for example, can cause a lot of pain when urinating. They may associate the litter box with that pain and start avoiding it. For this reason, our first advice is always to get a veterinarian to check kitty out. If kitty gets a clean bill of health, we can move on to other possibilities like litter box issues. I recently wrote about the common mistakes made with litter boxes which you can read here: If kitty is cleared by the vet and you have followed all of the rules of litter box use, we usually look at stress and anxiety.

Cats are sensitive and get stressed for many reasons. The anxiety they feel often results in naughty behaviors. They aren’t trying to be bad. They are reacting to stress and unless we help relieve their stress and anxiety, we will not stop the behaviors.

Cats are territorial! If they feel their territory is threatened, they may respond with urine. Cat’s urine has pheromones in it which they use to claim their territory. Has your cat ever peed on your partners clothes? They may be feeling anxiety as they feel this human is taking your attention from them. You are your cat’s territory and they can react badly if they feel your attention and love is being taken away by another.

Cats LOVE their humans. Did you ever go on vacation and come home to find Fluffy peed on your bed? This is often a result of separation anxiety. Of course you can’t stay home all of the time. We need to make a plan to alleviate this anxiety and help Fluffy to feel better! Helping Fluffy will help end the problem, without discipline.

There are other behaviors that people ask for help with which are not destructive. A common example is your cat walking on your counters, or table. You watch your sweet kitty step out of the litter box and jump on your kitchen counter and you want to make this stop. This is not an issue with the cat. It’s not related to stress or illness. It’s in his nature to jump up on high places to investigate and possibly take a little nap. You can’t get your cat to stop doing it because you want them to. You have to make the cat decide he doesn’t want to jump on the table. When my cat was jumping on a table to munch on plants, we needed to discourage this to save the plant. We bought some two-sided tape that is marketed for this purpose. We put it on the table. It causes no pain, but the cat didn’t like that sticky feeling on his paws. After trying it twice, he decided he didn’t like that table. That was the end of it.

To solve a problem with a cat, we need to think like a cat. If you have a problem you can’t solve, I would urge you to reach out to a qualified behaviorist. They will ask a lot of questions to unpack the situation and find the root causes before giving advice on how to handle it. Whatever you do, please don’t discipline your cat. I promise it will not solve the problem and can create even more problems.

Have a question about cat behavior that you’d like answered?
We’d love to hear from you!
Send us an email at questions@stopcatlittersmell.com

For information or help with your cat’s behavior, visit The Cat Behavior Alliance​