BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

How to Punish Cats: Tough Love to Discipline an Ill-Behaved Feline

A cat sitting on books and looking at the camera
Stella Noble
Written by Stella Noble

Our cats are dear to us, and we love to spoil, pamper, and care for them. But they can be so naughty and even destructive at times that you may feel like pulling your hair out over the mess they leave in their wake. You don’t need to get your blood pressure up over their behavior. Just calmly and sternly try out our methods on how to punish cats to let them know you are displeased with them.

Cats know how to give that iconic big and teary-eyed look to have their way. You may be tempted to cave, but if you do, your cat won’t know what he’s doing is wrong. So he will keep pooping on the floor, urinating on the couch, biting one of the kids, or scratching your favorite furniture. Some tough love which will not hurt or harm your cat but will curb that behavior is necessary.

Little kitty hiding under a hat

In this article, we will explain what punishment is, the types of punishment available, and outline the steps on how to punish your cats with the purpose of evoking a better behavior from them. We will give you a perfectly safe yet effective method to let them know not to do that again by discussing the why, when, and the how of punishing a cat.

Why Should You Consider Punishing Your Cat?

According to the dictionary, punishment is the imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense or wrongdoing. It is an aversive stimulus that follows an undesirable behavior, intended to eliminate or decrease the occurrence of that behavior.

A cat rolled into a paper

The whole reason behind punishment is to enforce proper behavior. It is a form of discipline to bring the best out of your cat. The motivation for punishing your beloved feline is love with the goal to make them live a better and happier life.

When Should You Consider Punishing Your Cat?

Is it ever okay to punish your cat? The question is one that does not have an absolute answer. It is similar to the question of “which comes first, the chicken or the egg?”

Different people have different opinions regarding this topic, but if you count yourself among those who believe that tough loving is somehow necessary, you should also consider the right timing to exact punishment: when you should reprimand your cat and when you shouldn’t. There is a delicate balance you need to pursue.

Cat hiding from loud noise

It depends on the circumstances and most especially whether you as the cat caretaker have done all you can for your cat or not. It is not okay to punish your cat’s behavior when you have not fulfilled your responsibilities in these areas:

  • Feeding your cat when he is hungry and/or as required
  • Providing a warm and appropriate shelter

  • Keeping him clean and healthy which includes regular visit to the veterinarian

  • Ensuring he is safe and not left in an environment that can be dangerous

  • Providing plenty love and toys that allow your cat to express his natural instinct to scratch and play

If you have failed in carrying out your duty as stated above then, your cat’s so-called bad behavior may just be a cry for help, a way to get your attention, or an expression of his nature that has not been provided an outlet for.

Beautiful gray cat laying down

If you have fulfilled the aforementioned responsibilities, then perhaps your cat is in his rebellious stage and is indeed in need of some reprimand. However, as cats are not human and they may not understand that you’re doing this for their own good, you need to be careful about what type of punishment you exact.

Types of Punishment

The types of punishment widely include the good, the bad, and the ugly. However, punishments can generally be categorized into two major types—the right punishment and the wrong punishment—especially when it has to do with cats.

The Right Punishment

The right punishments are a form of acceptable and healthy ways of disciplining your cat. The right punishments are exacted within reason and for a good reason. What is the right punishment methods that you can apply to your cat when there is bad behavior or wrongdoing?

The Right Punishment #1: The Reward System

It is all about a reward system. You may be wondering: What does reward have to do with punishments? Our pets love treats, toys, petting and all the love they can get. It makes them feel all warm and fuzzy, appreciated and approved.

Little cat getting a treat from her owner

On the other hand, when they do not get rewards they feel sad and unappreciated. Refusing to give them rewards can be used as a form of punishment.

The Right Punishment #2: Interactive Punishment

As the name implies, it means punishment applied while you’re interacting with your cat. These are mild punishments like a tap on the head, making a hissing sound, clapping your hands, and the likes to stop your cat from biting or swatting at you during play time.

The Wrong Punishment

These types of punishment should never be used on a cat. They are not done for a good reason and could cause actual harm to the cat. Anyone who does these should be reported to animal police except in a case where it has a professional approval.

The Wrong Punishment #1: Physical Punishment

This may be the type of abuse that most people think of when they hear the word punishment. We do not support any form of hitting, beating, or physical abuse on cats, no matter their wrongdoing. That is not the language they understand.

A cat hiding under a car

Abusing your cat physically does only harm and no good at all. It may bring out the following reactions from your cat:

  • Fear: Your cat sees you as a terror and may begin to whimper in fear anytime you approach him.

  • Aggression: He follows his natural instinct to attack you for hitting and maltreating him. This aggression may manifest in scratching, biting, and clawing.

  • Avoidance: This is similar to fear, but a bit different at the same time. Your cat plays with other people but totally avoids you like the plague.

  • Anxiety: This may manifest in meowing all the time, urinating all over the house, and other behavioral issues.

  • Runaway: Your cat may decide he has had enough and disappear.

The Wrong Punishment #2: Declawing

Removing your cat’s claws to prevent them from scratching surfaces is nothing short of amputation because the last bone on your cat’s paws is removed during declawing. When you do this, you render your cat disabled and out of balance.

Image showing an orange cat laying on the couch

Declawing is an inhumane act which has been banned in some countries. There are other alternatives to declawing. If you really can’t handle your cat scratching some furniture to bits, desist and instead just consider give the cat away.

The Wrong Punishment #3: Neutering

Some people think this is the obvious choice when you have an aggressive cat that you want to tame. Aggression is not always because your cat wants to express dominance. While neutering is usually considered a good thing because there are already too many homeless cats in this world, it is recommended that you see a vet first to get his/her professional advice. If the professional advice is neutering, at that point you can proceed.

How to Punish Your Cat

Below are methods that you can use to punish your cat. They can be used individually or can be combined together at different times, and for different bad behaviors, your cat may be exhibiting.

Scruff, Say No and Be Firm

When your cat has been bad, you have to be firm and learn to say no. Cats understand the word, especially when you use a stern, firm voice that shows your displeasure. You do not need to yell, shout, or scream at the cat. That will just scare the cat or provoke him to rebel.

Close-up of a cat looking up to her owner

You can also scruff your cat. It works when you catch your cat in the act. Hold your cat by the loose skin on their neck and put him down gently until he is calm. You must speak softly and positively to get him calm.

Ignore

Cats love attention, and sometimes they do wrong just to get it. If you have been too busy to play with your cat or they don’t have any cat trees and toys to keep them entertained, they can become rebellious and even desire negative attention. You shouldn’t reward his attempts at attention-grabbing because he will then consider it to be a valid method.

A cat sitting in front of a door waiting for her owner to open the door

Sometimes the best way to punish your cat is by simply ignoring him. If he sees that he can’t get any reaction either good or bad from you, he will lose interest and stop by himself.

Put Them in Another Room

This is similar to the timeout that we give kids when they have been naughty. It is effective in punishing cats because they are attention seekers and hate to be secluded.

Orange cat sitting in a box

Take them away from the environment and remove them from where they have been naughty or acting up. Put them in a separate room for a while; do not open the door until they are calmer.

Set “Traps”

The statement “don’t be a scaredy cat’’ truly applies and it can be practical too. Learn to set traps that will scare your cat away from doing things that you hate. Although these traps may be startling, they are not harmful.

Image showing sticky double-sided tapes

For example, you can use sticky double-sided tapes on counter tops, tin foil, or line the counter with empty pop bottles. This kind of non-harmful traps will dissuade your cat from bad behavior.

Use Devices

So what happens when the cat is left alone, and you have gone to work? You have to still ensure that he is behaving himself. This can be done using devices that can deter bad behavior. For example, if he likes to pee in the flower bed instead of his litter box, have sprinklers installed that will go off. Also, you can use motion detectors that will make a loud noise when disturbed to scare the cat away. Other safe devices include a cap gun which is a noise device.

How to Make the Punishments More Effective

The punishment methods we have listed above are all non-harmful and have been proven to be effective. However, if your cat is particularly stubborn or set in his ways, you may have to go one step further. Here are some tips on how to increase the effectiveness of any punishment.

Be Consistent

You can’t ignore him today for biting you and let it slide when he does the same thing tomorrow. You will confuse your cat by being inconsistent.

A cat palying with a cat scratcher

This may be the hardest part of the process. You must remain undeterred and consistent in letting him know who calls the shot and which behaviors are unacceptable.

Discipline Immediately

You need to apply your preferred method immediately after the cat engages in the wrongdoing with no lag. If you wait 20-30 minutes or more after the act to punish, then you are just abusing the cat. They can’t understand or relate what they have done to why they are being punished if there has been a long time gap. Discipline immediately!

Reward Him When He Gets it Right

If your cat starts to understand what you want—for example when he stops scratching the couch and starts sharpening his claws on the scratching post after you’ve reprimanded him—let your cat know that he’s doing the right thing by giving him a treat.

A cat being rewarded by her owner

So when he does the wrong thing, and you deny him the usual rewards, he knows you don’t like it and will stop.

Wrap Up

Tough love is sometimes necessary to help your feline be well behaved and healthy, but make sure you have fulfilled all your responsibilities towards your furry companion before you start punishing him.

Be observant of sudden changes in your cat’s behavior. Your cat may not behave badly intentionally. He may be reacting to factors such as increasing age, illness, or something in his environment. When in doubt on which steps to take, consult a professional.

A cat walking in her home

Also, ensure you don’t use any of the wrong punishments to deal with bad behavior. You know your cat and his personality, Do your part of understanding your cat. Read up on his breed if you are not sure. With some cats, you may never need to punish them. Simply reward good behavior and stop rewarding him when he does the wrong thing to make him understand.

What behavior made you consider punishing your cat? How did you deal with that behavior? Did you successfully curb it with a non-harmful method you thought up yourself? If you’ve got some effective tips of your own, please share your experience with us!

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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