BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

How to Discipline a Cat: Non-Harmful Ways to Help Your Cat Understand

Close-up of a beautiful ginger cat
Stella Noble
Written by Stella Noble

Disciplining a cat is something that even longtime cat owners often don’t know how to do. In fact, for a lot of people the only answer to the question “How to discipline a cat?” is a simple “You can’t.” Some cat owners go so far as to exact physical punishments or even abandonment because they couldn’t find a way to deal with their feline. These are things that you mustn’t resort to; why would you, when there are perfectly good, non-harmful, and effective ways to discipline your cat?

A properly raised cat is a furry bundle of love and joy. A cat that is brought up in a loving home and is taught what to do and what not to do in the right manner is a cat that views you as her best friend and as someone who deserves all her time and gratitude.

How to Discipline a Cat

An anti-social, grouchy and misbehaving cat is nothing more than a sign of improper upbringing. So whether your cat grows up to be a troublemaker or an important contributor to the family dynamics depends on you. No parent is perfect, but don’t worry because you’re not alone.

In this article, we’ll see how you can properly discipline and raise your feline friend. We’ll go over all the tips and tricks and all the subtlety of properly disciplining a cat. We’ll not only see which disciplinary acts work and which don’t, but we’ll also see why this is so.

Prior Preparations to Disciplining Your Cat

So that your disciplinary measures will be effective, you need to first understand the cause behind your cat’s misbehavior. Before you start telling them that they are wrong, first you need to understand their way of thinking.

Acknowledge the Differences in Way of Thinking

Humans and dogs are social animals, so the way we think is often quite similar. Cats are lone animals, so their behavior is entirely different from ours. This doesn’t make them “worse”—it just makes them cats.

For example, while dogs can love and appreciate your petting and attention at any time and any place, cats hate to be touched and picked up when it wasn’t their decision. This isn’t because they love you less—they just have a higher sense of personal space and time.

Beautiful fluffy cat looking at the camera

Respecting your cat’s personal space and not bothering her while she sleeps, for example, is a sure-fire way to show her that you love her and your cat will be happy to return that love. Hugging and cuddling your cat against her will, however, is seen as an “invasion of her privacy.”

Cats are also often seen as less obedient because they are less inclined to follow your instructions and orders. This, however, is not because they don’t love and respect you, but simply because they are not social animals and don’t recognize or understand the idea of a “command structure.”

Black and white cat feeling tired

So, while a dog will follow your commands even when they aren’t in his best interest, a cat will do what you ask only if she sees a practical incentive for her to do so. Following commands for the sake of following commands is just not something that cats are built to do.

So, whenever a situation arises, try and look at it from a cat’s point of view. Properly understanding your cat is crucial for disciplining her. Otherwise, you’ll often end up disciplining your cat for the wrong things and in the wrong way.

Consider Medical Reasons for Your Cat’s Misbehavior

If you notice an unusual behavior in your cat, consider consulting a veterinarian first. A lot of the typical feline misdeeds often have medical causes. It is very possible that your cat started peeing outside of her litter box or chewing your books and belongings not because she’s misbehaving, but because of a medical condition.

Veterinarian doctor checking cat at a vet clinic

For example, a case of “Pica” in cats sometimes involves chewing and eating inedible objects. A urinary infection, on the other hand, is often the reason for peeing outside of the litter box.

Consider Behavioral Reasons for Your Cat’s Misbehavior

It’s easy enough to know when your cat’s done something wrong, but it is important to understand why she has done it. Our cats don’t misbehave because they are “bad” or “evil.” Not all mischief is done to anger us, in fact, most misdeeds aren’t.

Instead, one of the main behavioral reasons for your kitty’s “bad” behavior is boredom. So, instead of yelling or punishing your cat (let alone beating her—never beat your cat!), it’s often best to start paying her more attention and playing with her.

bored black and white cat

Of course, don’t start playing with your cat immediately after she misbehaved – this will teach her that misbehaving is actually desirable. No, stop the unwanted behavior and tell your cat a harsh word to show her your displeasure. However, play with her a little after that.

Consider Whether Your Own Behavior is the Trigger or Not

Of course, sometimes your cat’s behavior is a direct response to yours. Sometimes she is doing something just to get back at you. The main way to stop this is to identify the behavior to which your cat is responding and to stop doing it yourself. More often than not, the things that cause your cat’s “vengeful behavior” are precisely the punishments you use to stop said behavior.

Find Out about Your Pet’s Previous Owners and/or Experience

If you’ve taken an older cat from somewhere, try to learn as much as you can about her previous owner and the way she’s been raised. Even with a relatively young cat, if you’ve found her in a shelter, on the street, or you’ve taken her from a previous home, learn how she’s been brought up.

a cat scratching a scratcher

Knowing the behavior of your cat’s previous owners can tell you a lot of how she sees people and how she reacts to commands and treats. A cat that’s taken from the street, for example, is a lot different and requires a drastically different training than a cat that’s adopted from another cat owner.

Get to Know Your Cat’s Personality

Another thing to remember is that cats simply have different personalities. Some cats simply are a bit more anti-social than others. Some are loud and vocal. Some cats love to be talked to, while others appreciate silence, and so on.

Kitten sleeping in a shoe

A lot of these behavioral differences are affected by the cats’ breed. For example, Siamese cats love to talk, while other cats find talking and mewing to be a useless waste of time. Researching your cat’s breed can offer you quite a lot of insight, but even within the same breed, cats can have a lot of individual traits and quirks. So, don’t follow all the cat stereotypes. Recognize your cat as an individual and treat her as such.

The Right Approach to Disciplining Your Cat

If you have identified the cause for your cat’s misbehavior, you should be able to devise a suitable approach to dissuade her from doing it again. Here are some examples of non-harmful yet effective ways to discipline her.

Ignore Her

A lot of the undesirable behaviors of cats are best treated by simply ignoring them. This is something that might seem counter-intuitive for a lot of people, but it is actually effective.  We’re used to actively fixing problems when we find them, not ignoring them. However, cats develop a lot of their behaviors specifically to manipulate us. If your cat realizes that you feed her when she starts mewing at you as loudly and as irritatingly as possible, you can expect her to keep mewing for food non-stop.

A lot of cats find even more ingenious ways to manipulate you. They will scratch at something until you pay them attention, they will play with something noisy until you get out of bed to feed them, and so on. There are even cats that will literally get on your head in the morning so that you finally get up and pour them some breakfast.

Ignoring your cat completely will discourage him from scratching the carpet under your door.

And every time you follow their manipulation, you reinforce their behavior. Now, we’re not saying that you should stay in bed with a cat on your head until she goes away—of course, you should remove the cat and even tell her a harsh word. But do not feed her or she’ll wake you up in the same way tomorrow.

Instead, ignore your cat’s cries for attention or food until they stop and feed your cat when she’s quiet. This will quickly teach your kitty that mewing and misbehaving doesn’t get her anything. On the other hand, simply waiting for you does.

Give Your Cat Outlets for Her Energy

We mentioned boredom above, but a lot of cats’ misdeeds are not out of boredom as much as they are out of necessity. Cats need to sharpen their claws and kittens need to chew with their teeth. Depriving your cat of a couple of nice scratching posts and multiple nice chewing toys is a sure-fire way to make her scratch the sofa and chew your pens.

Use a Special Tone of Voice and a Special Phrase

Yelling at your cat is often ill-advised. If you often yell at your cat for different things she will quickly learn to be afraid every time you raise your voice—including when you are happy about something.

A cat paying attention to her owner

Instead, find a unique (for you) and harsh tone of voice and use that to let your cat know when you’re unhappy. You can also use a special word or phrase (or even just a noise)—something that your cat won’t hear in any other situation. However, beware using your cat’s name for when she’s misbehaving, or she’ll decide that her name is a threat.

Learn to Scruff Properly

Knowing how to “scruff” your cat can be a good tool for disciplining bad behavior. Firmly catching your cat by the scruff (the skin behind the neck) is something that will remind your cat of the way her mother used to bite her there when she misbehaved. However, it is important to do it correctly, or you risk depriving the act of any meaning and turning it into a kind of physical punishment.

  • Grab your cat firmly by the scruff. You don’t need to be rough, just firm. Remember that you’re not doing this to punish your cat.
  • Firmly press your cat down to the floor. Tell your cat a harsh “No!” or simulate a hissing sound. Again, don’t be rough, just firm.
  • If you are going to try a hissing sound, it is important that you do it right. A hiss can be done in different ways—aggressively or in a command-like fashion. If you can’t pinpoint the difference, go with a harsh “No!”
  • Keep hold of the cat’s scruff for several seconds or up to a minute. Don’t let her go until you feel her relaxing.
  • After you release your cat, pet her on the back and tell her a nice word.

It’s important to combine holding her by the scruff with a display of love. This way your cat will start recognizing it with a disciplinary action instead of punishment. Don’t do anything else while holding your cat by the scruff.

Image showing how to Hold-a-Cat-by-the-Scruff

For example, if your cat has peed outside of her litter box, don’t push her nose to the spot. This won’t teach your cat not to do it—it will just teach her that you like punishing her. If anything, this way you also remind her that this is a good peeing place.

Also, don’t yell or hiss any more than necessary. Holding your cat by the scruff for 30-60 seconds doesn’t mean that you should hiss non-stop in the meantime. Just hiss or say a harsh “No!” in the beginning and then just hold the cat until she calms down.

Consider Water Aversion or Other Sprays

A lot of times a spraying bottle of water is a great way to discipline your cat. Simply spraying her is unpleasant enough for your cat to learn that you don’t approve of her behavior. However, be careful not to turn this into a form of punishment as well.

A persongs holding a plastic bottle with a sprayer making mist

Another way to stop cats from eating your plants or scratching your furniture is to simply spray said places with something unpleasant for the cat. Even something homemade like a distilled apple juice or lemon juice can be unpleasant enough for the cat to stop her from chewing the leaves of your orchid. Remember not to spray the cat, however—just the places of her undesirable interest.

Use Booby-Traps

Another neat idea is to use booby traps to dissuade your cat from misbehaving. For example, does your cat like to play with the toilet paper? Place a small, empty plastic bottle of water on top of the toilet paper roll, and the next time she decides to play with it, the bottle will fall and startle her.

Remove Your Cat from the Scene of Crime

In a lot of different situations, instead of ignoring your cat or punishing her, the best course of action is to simply remove her from the situation and isolate her for a while. This isolation can be done in any separate and empty room.

A cat in an empty room

However, do not put your cat in a box, a closet, a cold terrace, or any other unpleasant places. It is important for this not to be a punishment, but just a brief isolation. Depriving your cat of your attention and love for a while is enough for her to learn that she misbehaved.

Also, don’t isolate your cat for too long or it will still turn into a punishment. Just a brief isolation in another room is enough.

Extra Follow-Ups to Disciplining Your Cat

You have successfully helped your cat understand which behaviors are condoned and which are not. Your job doesn’t end here, however. To make sure the effect continues for good and your cat won’t resent you for disciplining her, you have to follow up the cautionary acts with some extra measures.

Reward Good Behavior

Don’t forget to reward your cat’s good behavior even when it isn’t something special. As we mentioned above, a cat doesn’t follow instructions that don’t benefit her. Cats simply don’t recognize the idea of a “command chain,” since they are lone animals and don’t have it in nature. However, a cat will be perfectly happy to follow an instruction if she knows that it is in her interest—if she’s learned that following said instruction can lead to a tasty treat or some pleasant petting, for example.

Such things are what we call “a cat’s motivator.” Simply find the perfect treat that your cat finds desirable and start training her. It isn’t always a treat either. For a lot of cats, there is a special kind of petting or brushing with a hairbrush that can be an excellent reward as well. If you like it when your cat sleeps in your lap, remember to pet her to talk softly when she’s there. Don’t just ignore her. Otherwise, she’ll have no reason to come back to your lap on the next day.

owner-treating-her-cat-to-a-treat

When your cat has finally given up on mewing for food and is waiting silently for you to feed her, don’t just feed her. Also, pet her and tell her a nice word. This will reinforce the idea that not only was mewing unnecessary but waiting quietly was a good thing.

So, if you simply find the cat motivator that works best for your kitty, you can teach and train her to do practically anything. Just remember that this will only work if your cat loves and respects you. If your cat fears punishment from you, no treat on the planet will make her follow you. Showing your cat what’s bad and undesirable is important, but showing her what’s good can speed up the disciplining process multiple times.

Love Your Cat

This one may seem a little too obvious. However, it is so crucial that it deserves its own section. Love your cat. Show your cat that you love her and respect her as a member of the family.

Owner tenderly touching her cat

If your cat knows that you love her and that she can expect only good things from you, she will do everything you want her to do. If instead, your cat feels unloved or afraid of you, you can expect zero cooperation from her. It’s that simple.

Be Patient with Young Kittens and Older Cats

Teaching your cat something doesn’t happen overnight. A lot of new cat owners get frustrated quite quickly when their cat doesn’t learn what they want her to after a couple of commands. After all, you did tell her “No!” right? Well, cats are intelligent, but just like dogs, they need repetition to learn. In some ways, they need even more repetition than dogs because they are more willful.

Two-kittens relaxing together

Both younger and older cats need patience and time to work things out. Young kittens are very playful and curious, so even if you’re doing everything right, they will often still misbehave, simply because they are young.

Older cats, on the other hand, can have a lot of “bad” experience and be much less responsive to training and discipline due to it. They can still learn and change their behavior, but it will take even more time and patience.

Wrap Up

Disciplining a cat is so counter-intuitive to us, that we view the image of an irritable, anti-social, often destructive, and grouchy feline as the norm for cats. Well, it isn’t. Disciplining a cat is a long and tricky process, but still completely achievable.

Ginger dressed cat in a womans arms

Just make sure you follow some key principles:

  • Always be mindful of the differences between a cat’s point of view and our own way of thinking.
  • Always keep in mind the unique personality of your cat and take it into account when you’re trying to discipline her.
  • Always be firm and consistent. Cats are creatures of habit. Even if you started disciplining them right, if you later change your behavior they’ll get confused by the mixed signals and can start misbehaving again.
  • Never punish your cat. Cats don’t understand the idea of punishment. For them, if you hurt them, that’s an act of aggression. If you want your cat to listen to you, you need to make sure that she loves, trusts, and respects you.

So, did you find anything new here that might help you and your cat? Or, maybe you have a different problem that probably can’t be fixed by any of our suggestions? There are a lot of tips and tricks to disciplining your cat. In fact, we’re certain that we’ve missed quite a lot of them too. We’d love to hear your suggestions and opinions in the comments below.

About the author
Stella Noble
Stella Noble

Stella Noble lives in Warren, Michigan with her family and three cats. She is a Certified Cat Trainer and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

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