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Ways to Discipline Your Cat: 9 Proven & Effective Methods

Written by: Kristin Hitchcock

Last Updated on February 8, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team

cat sits on a sofa and sniffs owner finger

Ways to Discipline Your Cat: 9 Proven & Effective Methods

Every cat is going to misbehave at some point. Often, it’ll be because the cat doesn’t understand what is expected of them. For example, a cat likely won’t know that they shouldn’t scratch on your couch until they do and are reprimanded for it.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most effective ways of changing your cat’s behavior and preventing unwanted behaviors, like marking or scratching. Often, disciplining your cat alone isn’t enough to change their behavior. You have to show them what they’re supposed to do on top of what they aren’t supposed to do.

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Should You Punish Cats?

In most cases, there is little reason to punish your cat. Cats don’t always understand why they are being punished. Instead, they will often think that you’re just aggressive. This is especially true because most things cats are commonly punished for are entirely natural. It would be like someone punishing you for eating.

Depending on the type of punishment used, it can also result in fear, anxiety, and owner avoidance. Your cat may feel at risk and become aggressive, even long after the punishment episode has passed.

Often, the punishment doesn’t directly deal with the underlying reason for the behavior either, so it probably won’t stop your cat from doing it. For instance, if your cat is scratching your rug, it may be because your cat doesn’t have enough appropriate areas to scratch.  In this case, punishment is not going to prevent the problem. Instead, it will likely just make your cat fearful.

sad cat in cage

Image Creidt: Mimzy, Pixabay

Prevention Is Better Than Discipline

In nearly all cases, prevention is better than punishment. If you can set up the environment so that your cat can’t misbehave, it’s better than resorting to punishment. Just like children, cats can only be expected to behave when their needs are met. This means having enough litter boxes and scratching posts around your home so your cat has plenty of opportunities to fulfill its needs.

Generally, if you can figure out why your cat is misbehaving, you can prevent the problem from occurring in the first place. This can mean something such as ensuring your kitten is getting enough exercise so that they don’t feel the need to run around the house in the wee hours of the morning.

Similarly, if your cat is improperly marking, there are several reasons that may be behind this unwanted behavior. Your cat could have a UTI, one of the most common causes of sudden improper marking. Or, your cat could be stressed due to a schedule change or a new pet in the house.

Either way, the behavior will likely not change in these situations as long as the underlying behavior has not changed.

When is Discipline Helpful?

At the same time, there are some situations where discipline may be helpful. For example, if you have added extra litterboxes, but your feline is still going in inappropriate places, you may need to discourage your feline from going in the wrong places.

However, discipline is only helpful when used alongside other behavior-changing methods. Furthermore, some types of discipline are hardly ever useful. Physical reprimands are an excellent example. Hitting a cat can lead to aggression and fear, which are not appreciated in any circumstances.

It can also make your cat develop hand-shyness and become fearful of you. They may hide more often and lash out when someone attempts to lure them out. The reprimands may not stop the cat from performing the behavior either. Instead, the cat may sneak out and do it whenever you aren’t around. Generally speaking, this sort of discipline is not helpful.

Using the right kind of discipline at the right moment is essential. Otherwise, you likely won’t achieve much, or worse, your cat could become fearful, leading to more bad behavior.

kitten hiding
Image Credit: Madelynn Woods, Unsplash

Why Discipline from Owners Won’t Work

When we speak of discipline, you probably think about something you do. However, this is not always the most helpful sort of discipline. Instead of stopping the behavior altogether, the cat will likely stop it when you are there. They may sneak out and still do it when you aren’t there. In other words, the cat sees you as the problem, not necessarily the behavior.

Instead, it is best to use remote discipline. This sort of discipline involves something happening without you needing to be there. Smelly sprays and noise traps work in this manner. Since you aren’t there doing the discipline, the cat doesn’t associate it with you alone. The cat associates it with the behavior or the area, which effectively stops the behavior.

Of course, the cat must also have somewhere suitable to do the new behavior. For instance, if the cat is scratching in places they shouldn’t be scratching, there should be a scratching post that they can use to scratch. Otherwise, they will start scratching in a different location.

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The 9 Methods to Discipline Your Cat

Now that we looked at which discipline methods work let’s look at some actual work methods. Some of these work better than others. A few may only work in specific situations. Either way, this is a list of methods you can draw from as you need to.

1. Noise Device

There are commercial noise devices that will scare cats when they enter an area or when you press a button. This requires some forethought and set-up. After all, you’ll need to put the machine in a place where it can either be activated by your cat or where you can see your cat without being seen.

These devices have different noise levels and aren’t incredibly common,  so you’ll likely need to order online. Some are activated by vibrations, which makes them only truly suitable to prevent scratching. Some are motion-detected, but that only works when you want your cat to stay out of an area. It doesn’t work well when you want to punish a specific behavior.

2. Citronella Spray Collars

These spray collars are attached directly to your cat. They are usually remotely activated. For this reason, you’ll need to see your cat when they do whatever behavior you’re trying to stop. This can be difficult in some situations, but it can help if you have cameras.

However, this is one of the gentler options. It is merely a collar that sprays citronella, which is a scent that cats don’t like at all. You can also put the collar in an area instead of on your cat and activate it whenever your cat does the action, just like you would if the collar was on your cat.

3. Booby Trap

If you have an outlet plug-in that you can activate remotely, you can easily set up a booby trap for your cat. For instance, you can plug a blow-drier into one of these remotely-activated outlets and then activate it whenever your cat does the inappropriate behavior.

There are many ways you can do this. Balance some cans on the chair they like to scratch on to fall over whenever the scratching begins. There are different ways to lay booby traps depending on the set-up at your home, what you have available to you, and the exact behavior you’re trying to discourage. Use your imagination to come up with safe booby traps.

4. Use Your Voice

You should train your cat on the “leave it” command. While some cats are more trainable than others, all of them can be trained on basic commands at the very least. The “leave it” command, in particular, is useful, as you can say it whenever you don’t want your cat to do something. This can be used for various situations, which is one of the reasons we highly recommend teaching it.

You should give the command whenever you notice your cat doing inappropriate behavior. Preferably, you should direct your cat to the appropriate area. For example, take your cat to the scratching post or litterbox.

5. Re-Direct Your Feline’s Energy

If your cat is getting into cabinets and running around, the issue is likely their need for exercise. Play with your feline or provide them with more toys they can play with alone. You can purchase a variety of toys to keep them entertained.

You may want to consider purchasing a cat tree. With a few toys placed on it, a cat tree can encourage your feline to climb and exercise. Many kittens would rather climb a cat tree than run around on your countertops. Introducing an appropriate place for your feline to do their naughty behavior can quickly eliminate it.

6. Clap Your Hands

Often, all you may need to do is startle your feline to prevent them from doing the behavior again. If you can catch your cat the first time and give a clap, they likely will not do it again. However, this only works the first time. If your cat has already developed a habit, this likely won’t be enough to stop it. Instead, the cat will avoid doing it while you’re in the room.

This is often one of the least useful options since it can only be used the first time. However, this can be useful when you have only recently adopted your kitten before all the habits have begun to form.

Usually, this method doesn’t take more than one or two times. If your cat keeps doing it, you’ll likely need to move beyond this method and try a different one.

7. Reward Your Feline for Good Behavior

If your feline scratches on their scratching posts or uses the litterbox, reward them with affection or a treat. Rewards go a lot further than punishments in most cases. For this reason, we highly recommend using rewards alongside any other methods. Often, the rewards will not be enough on their own.

However, they are instrumental in ensuring that your cat begins to scratch in the appropriate location. You don’t want your feline to switch from scratching your couch to scratching the rug. You want your cat to begin doing their behavior in the appropriate location, which can be done most efficiently through rewards.

maine coon cat having treat
Image Credit: Nils Jacobi, Shutterstock

8. Take Your Feline to the Vet

If your cat’s behavior changes suddenly, taking them to the vet is a good idea. Many health conditions can affect your feline’s behaviors. UTIs are one of the biggest causes of improper urination, for instance. Pain can cause all sorts of odd behaviors.

Often, cats are very good at hiding their sicknesses, so your only clue to their health might be their behavior. Even if they don’t display other signs, there is still a chance that they’re sick. It is best to visit the vet just in case. This is especially true if you’ve tried other solutions that were not successful.

9. Consider Your Cat’s Diet and Medication

Sometimes, strange behaviors can also be caused by your cat’s diet and medication. For instance, dry cat food can lead to constipation due to the lower moisture content. Eventually, this can lead to all sorts of problems, which can also result in destructive behavior. Behavior isn’t always your cat’s choice. Sometimes, it is caused by an underlying problem your feline can’t help.

Furthermore, some medications can also cause strange behaviors. Usually, they are listed as side effects. It is essential to keep these side effects in mind. While side effects usually start reasonably soon after the new medication is started, they can technically appear at any time. Generally, we recommend learning about the side effects of any new medication, which can help you spot specific side effects when they pop up.

Sometimes, there isn’t anything you can do about the side effects except switch your pet’s medication.

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Image Credit: savitskaya iryna, Shutterstock

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How Not to Discipline Your Cat

There are also several ways not to discipline your feline. We’ve looked at some of these methods, like physical punishment. However, there are some other things you want to avoid as well.

1. Don’t Try to Train Your Cat Like a Dog

Dogs and cats are not the same. You can ignore a dog to make them stop unwanted behavior like jumping. However, that is not going to work for cats. The cat doesn’t care if you ignore them. They also do not learn the same. Training a cat is possible; it just differs from training a canine.

dog and cat checked by vet
Image Credit: v-svirido, Shutterstock

2. Don’t Yell

Yelling will often startle your cat. The issue is that they will associate that startled feeling with you, not necessarily the behavior they were performing. Sometimes, the yelling won’t even startle the cat, but your feline won’t understand why your voice is raised. It’s a strategy that likely won’t work.

3. Don’t Rub Your Feline’s Nose in an Accident

This is a common training technique for both cats and dogs. However, it doesn’t communicate anything useful to your cat (or your dog, for that matter). If anything, it will merely upset your feline or may even reinforce that an area is an appropriate place for them to use the litterbox.

Instead, you need to look at the reasons behind your feline’s inappropriate behavior. It may often be because of a health problem, which no level of discipline will fix.

close-up of nose and mouth of a cat
Image Credit: Photographerivanova, Shutterstock

4. Don’t Use a Spray Bottle

Cats don’t like water. So, many people use spray bottles as a method of discipline. However, the odds of your feline associating the spray bottle with the adverse action are low. Instead, they will likely associate the wet feeling they don’t like with the spray bottle or you.

They likely won’t associate it with the bad behavior, which means the bad behavior won’t stop. If anything, they’ll start doing it when you aren’t in the room.

Final Thoughts

Training and disciplining cats isn’t easy, but with patience and love, you can prevent your cat from destroying your furniture, running on your counters, and keeping you up at night. Cats don’t react well to harsh punishments but learn better through positive reinforcement. Misbehaving in the home isn’t unusual for cats, but if you notice a sharp change in your cat’s behavior, contact your veterinarian to ensure it’s not related to a behavioral or medical problem.

Featured Image Credit: Soloveva Kseniia, Shutterstock

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