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You love your cat. You really do. But your furry friend certainly has an independent streak and can be quite feisty at times. You need to know how to discipline a cat, but you may not know where to start. Effectively disciplining a cat may take some trial and error. Just like all humans are different, so are all animals. While one may respond positively to a certain style of correcting bad cat behavior, others may reject your attempts and their behaviors may only get worse. Plus, there are some methods that you should absolutely not try while disciplining a cat.
The truth is that it's hard to know how to discipline a cat if you've never done it before, or if your previous cats seemed to learn the lay of the land all on their own. To get started on the right foot, it's important to know the do's and don'ts of how to discipline a cat in your home. Once your kitten — or older cat — understands what behavior is appropriate, there will be less need for correcting bad behaviors. After all, cats are very smart.
The Don'ts of Disciplining Your Cat
Don't compare your cat to your dog: If you've already trained a dog, you may think that disciplining a cat is similar to how you handled your dog. Stop right there. Cats and dogs are very different animals, and they don't learn in the same way. Where your dog may engage in the training process by paying attention to your commands, your cat won't heed your requests to sit and stay. Knowing that you have to approach your cat differently is the first step to success for both of you.
Don't physically discipline your cat: Training a pet can be very frustrating when you're learning together, but it goes without saying that you should never hurt a cat while disciplining her. Cats are already intolerant of human forms of punishment, but physically dominating a cat will break your bond with her. Never hold down, shake or hit your cat. Physically harming your cat can actually make the situation worse and cause her to lash out or become withdrawn. Also, cats have a hard time associating the physical punishment with the bad behavior, so you're not actually training her to stop doing it. If training your animal becomes too difficult for you, call in reinforcements like family members or even a professional trainer. It's not defeat — it's assistance!
Don't yell to make a point: You already don't speak the same language as your cat, so don't be fooled into thinking she'll understand you better when you raise your voice. Of course, your cat may understand that the change in your volume means something is different, but yelling may scare your cat or call too much attention to negative behaviors. Yelling may cause your cat to feel stressed and anxious, which can cause additional misbehavior.
Don't rub your cat's nose in an accident: The only thing you're going to accomplish by rubbing your cat's nose in her accident is upsetting her. You won't suddenly know her motivations for not using the litter box and she won't promise to never do it again. Rubbing your cat's nose in an accident brings more attention to the scene of the crime and may even reinforce to your cat that it's okay for her to go to the bathroom wherever she wants. The best course of action is to simply clean the area thoroughly and continue to work on litter box training.
Don't allow play that isn't okay: You might think your sweet little kitten doesn't know better when she's swatting or biting your fingers during play time. However, you know that biting and scratching isn't something you want an older cat to do in your home. With any new animal in your home, it's up to you to set early behavioral expectations. If your cat starts scratching or biting during playtime —even innocently — stop play immediately so your kitten understands what is and is not allowed. This is specifically true for play with children. If you engage in play where you allow her to nibble on your finger, she might think it is okay to do so with children. This could cause the kids to become fearful of your cat, an adverse effect you do not want to happen.
Don't use a spray bottle: There is an old myth about using a spray bottle to redirect a cat's bad behavior, but the truth is she likely doesn't associate being sprayed with the bad behavior. She is likely to stop doing what she is doing by running away from being sprayed, rather understanding the discipline is linked to her behavior. This method can also cause your cat to become withdrawn at even the sight of a squirt bottle, and that is not something that you want to do.
The Do's of How to Discipline a Cat
Do reinforce good behaviors: Cats don't learn from punishment, but by praising them and sharing healthy treats you can teach them to recognize when they're doing something right. Make sure to reward your cat during the act of positive behavior so she can make the connection between her behavior and the positive reinforcement.
Do stop immediately during "bad" behaviors: Disciplining your cat doesn't always have to be active. In fact, removing your attention from your cat may be one of the most effective methods for getting your point across and stopping negative behaviors such as biting, chewing and pouncing. Redirecting her attention to something else is a great way of reinforcing good behaviors and stopping bad behaviors. For instance, if your cat decides to start scratching on your couch, redirect her back to her scratching post.
Do consider your cat's health: Is your cat using the bathroom in some place other than her litter box? While kittens may take some time to learn the proper place to relieve themselves, older cats should know where to go. If your cat suddenly begins urinating or defecating in other areas of your home, make an appointment with her veterinarian. This change in behavior can be symptomatic of a change in health, and your vet will be able to let you know if your cat's health is up to par. You certainly would never want to punish your cat for something that she cannot help. Work with your vet to get to the underlying cause of accidents in the home. If it is health related they can provide you with options to help get your cat healthy — if it is behavioral, they can provide you some additional tips on correcting the behavior based on the interactions they've had with your cat in the past.
Do make changes to the environment:If you're trying to get your cat to stop clawing your leather couch or jumping on your tables, there are environmental changes you can make to get her to stop. For example, a cookie sheet placed on the edge of the table will crash to the ground when your cat hits it as she jumps. A soft, silky blanket placed on your leather couch will make your cat slide down if she tries to climb onto the cushions. Never make changes that could potentially harm her, but there are plenty of cat-safe methods on the internet to help you find ways to change your cat's behavior.
The most important tip to remember in learning how to discipline a cat is to spend time, engage with her, and praise her good behaviors. While your cat may be independent, she still does want a loving relationship with you.
Erin Ollila believes in the power of words and how a message can inform—and even transform—its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, blog posts, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media. She graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. Reach out to her on Twitter @ReinventingErin or learn more about her at http://erinollila.com.