When Discipline is Needed With a Cat

How to Identify and Correct Real Behavioral Problems

Although a concerned cat caregiver may find occasions when discipline is necessary for a behavioral problem, more often than not, that behavior is the cat's way of letting its human know that there is a problem with something in the household. Cats are basically pretty well-behaved critters, and rarely "act out" unless there is a problem. For example, a cat will not urinate on your bed because he is "mad" at you, nor scratch the arms of your favorite chair because he is "stubborn."

Effective correction of a true behavioral problem is a three-fold process:

  1. Determine first, if it is really a behavioral problem
  2. If not, find and correct the real causes of the undesirable behavior
  3. In the rare cases of a true behavioral problem, find and use a correct means of discipline or retraining.

We'll explore each of those steps more fully with a few common undesirable behaviors. Rather than trying to "reinvent the wheel" I'll direct you to behavior-specific articles when indicated.

Litter Box Avoidance

The classic example is a cat who suddenly starts urinating outside the litter box. You'll need to eliminate the possible causes, starting with the most urgent, which could be a urinary tract infection or blockage. See these articles for full details:

    What NOT to Do

    Never, ever rub a cat's nose in his pee or feces. He has no idea why he is being punished for performing a natural body function, and it teaches him nothing, except perhaps that you are a big bully with nasty manners. For the same reason "spanking" is an ineffective discipline for the above or any other violation.

    Inappropriate Scratching

    Cats are born to scratch. It provides a means of "sharpening their claws," which is really the process of removing the grown-out sheath that covers them, and it offers the kind of stretching, pulling exercise that helps build strong muscles, tendons, and joints. (Think isotonic exercise.) A cat who scratches furniture needs a scratching post. If he already has one, he needs another one or two, of different sizes, textures (carpet, wood, or sisal) and configurations (tall, flat, or inclined). For more help with scratching problems, see these resources:

    What NOT to Do

    Obviously, do not declaw because of property damage. If you have read the articles linked above, you'll know there are many other humane alternatives.

    Fighting or Bullying Other Cats

    Cats sharing a household will often "play fight." It's a way of honing their skills and is usually harmless fun. However, if one participant is clearly "out of his league," real damage is being done, or one cat seems to be stalking and bullying another, you need to hone your own investigative skills.

    It could be something as simple as a strange cat lurking outside a window. Read this article for more causes and cures to in-fighting among housemates.

    What to Do 

    First, clap your hands and shout "No!" to get their attention. Next, if possible, remove the cat on the short end of the fight to another location. If the bully seems intent on bloodletting, try throwing a large stuffed toy near him to help him redirect his aggression. If all those attempts fail, use the scruffing technique.

    What NOT to Do

    Never try to physically separate two cats bent on doing damage to one another. You can be seriously scratched or bitten. Instead, practice some of the techniques given in the above-referenced article.

    Next > Painful Scratching and Biting of Humans, Counter-Surfing

    Painful Scratching and Biting (of Humans)

    This form of behavior is most often caused because your cat is not in the mood for a belly rub. Learning to read his body signals will go a long way to prevent future "attacks" by your cat. Remember that with cats, hands are not meant for toys.  For more insights into causes and ways of discouraging painful scratching and biting, read this article.

    What NOT to Do

    • Don't jerk your hand away or you may be seriously scratched.
    • Never shake a cat, hit or spank him. Shaking can cause internal injuries much like "shaken baby syndrome," and as one forum member said, "All the cat knows is the human they love hit him, and he doesn't know why!"

    Jumping on Counters (Tables, etc.)

    Training a cat to stay off forbidden areas is possible, but will take some patience and creativity on your part. Read Countering Counter-Surfing for some ideas.

    What NOT to Do

    Never throw a cat off a counter; you could inflict serious injury to him. If he is in immediate danger (close to a gas stove), approach him without alarming him, then pick up up and gently place him on the floor.

    Almost all other behavioral problems can be corrected by the three methods discussed at the beginning of this article.

    For specific problems or unusual situations, see the Behavior/Training resources (linked below), or post your questions to the  All About Cats Facebook Group.

    I guarantee it; you'll get plenty of help!