3 Reasons Punishment Doesn't Work With Cats Title

Cinco and his big bad kitty walk.

Unwanted behaviors occur even in the best of cats. Every cat owner has seen them; scratching the furniture, climbing on counters, litter box issues, etc. It may be a knee-jerk reaction to punish the cat, but that never really has any lasting effect.

#1 Punishment doesn’t address the root problem.

Everything that your cat does is a form of communication. A cat’s unwanted behavior could be signaling an illness, a need that is not being met, or a longing to be closer to you. Punishment assumes that the cat is intentionally trying to break some rule. To really solve the problem, you have to identify what the behavior is trying to tell you. It can take time and several guesses to get this right.

Let’s use with a common example of cat communication. A cat has developed the unwanted behavior of urinating in places other than the litter box. In this situation, cat owners often try punishments like yelling at the cat, sticking their nose in the urine, or locking them in the room with the litter box. However, none of these punishments address the painful urinary tract infection (or crystals in the bladder) that the cat is communicating with it’s behavior. It is likely the cat will continue urinating everywhere until that medical condition is resolved regardless of the number of times it is punished.

#2 Your cat won’t link the punishment to the problem behavior.

Reasons Punishment Doesn't Work on Cats. Manna on the table.

Manna is always trying to steal my food.

You may remember a time when you were made to sit in the corner and “think about what you did.” These days teachers are taught to make children explain back to them why they are being punished. Why? Even humans don’t know what they did to upset other humans sometimes. The teacher needs to make sure that the punishment is associated with the problem behavior.

When it comes to cats, associating the punishment the unwanted behavior is pretty much impossible. Cats don’t understand your words –  they understand your behaviors. They know that you get angry when they scratch the couch, but they have no idea why. The punishment gets related to you rather than to unwanted behavior. This is especially true if the punishment is not delivered consistently or at the exact time the unwanted behavior is occurring. The punishment may cause the cat not to perform certain behaviors, but only when you are around.

#3 Punishment creates fear and distrust.

This point follows #2 very closely. As stated above, cats don’t know what you are saying when you yell at them. What you are communicating to your cat is that you are aggressive and they should be afraid of you. How would you feel if some giant that spoke some other language was yelling at you for reasons you don’t understand? This fear doesn’t help in creating a trusting bond between you and your cat.

Real Resolutions for Unwanted Behavior

If you want a real change in the unwanted behavior, you must start with figuring out what the behavior communicates. Sometimes it is easy to figure out what your cat is communicating, other times it will take some time to figure out. Here are some helpful hints:

  • Go to the veterinarian. This can help you to rule out medical causes and help you to get some advice from someone who has seen it all.

    Reasons Punishment Doesn't Work on Cats. Cinco scratching the chair.

    A compromise I made with my cats – this chair is their chair.

  • Enrich your cat’s environment. Your cat’s unwanted behaviors may be a result of something they want or need that is missing from your home. Make sure you have acceptable places for your cat to scratch, climb, and hide. Keep a variety of toys on hand to handle boredom.
  • Be open to compromise. You may have to move the cat’s food, water, or litter box to the cat’s preferred location. You may have to have a cat tree somewhere near the kitchen counter so the cat can hang out with you while you cook. Decide on your goal: Do you want the unwanted behavior to stop, or do you want the cat to do exactly as you say?
  • Reward wanted behaviors, ignore unwanted behaviors. Did your cat use the cat tree to scratch? Lavish him/her with affection. Did they use the couch again? Don’t reward them with attention for the behavior.

 How do you handle unwanted behaviors with your cat?