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How to discipline a cat when it's being naughty

How to discipline a cat
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As any pet parent knows, cats don't respond to training very well, so the answer to how to discipline a cat is a topic of hot debate. Our fun feisty felines aren't like dogs, they won't pay attention to you in the same way to allow you to train or punish them. That doesn't mean they can't be trained, but they won't respond to commands in the same way a loyal dog will. Cats are smart and have both a short and long-term memory to help them remember what you would like them to do, but annoyingly this also allows them to remember what they can get away with! 

Because of their nature, disciplining cats can be counterproductive. They rarely understand punishments, and harsh discipline can often do more harm than good. A softly-softly approach is one they will most respond to. This is because your kitty's brain is not good at linking a punishment with what they are being punished for. They just think you are being mean and will start to avoid you while carrying on with the behavior you wanted them to stop. Or wait for you to be out of the room and then do it!

That doesn't mean it's a lost cause though. There are ways to discourage bad behavior, or more truthfully, encourage good habits. To help you in your quest to get your fur baby to behave how you would like them to we've answered the most common questions on the different ways to discipline your cat below.

What should I do before I discipline my cat?

Most cat behavior problems are due to their living conditions not being, well, up to scratch! Ask yourself if there are enough cat distractions and comforts around? Do they have access to cat toys, cat trees and scratching posts? Are you spending enough time playing with and bonding with your fur baby? Is their litter tray being changed regularly enough? Cats can be very finickity about that and then choose to show their displeasure in ways that can mean a lot more cleaning for you. Any of these issues will cause your cat distress, and that will mean that cat discipline will go out of the window.

If the answer to all of these questions is yes and your cat is still misbehaving, then your furry friend may be trying to tell you something is wrong – whether that's illness or anxiety. If you think this may be the case, it's time to whisk them off to the vet to see if they can diagnose what the problem is and help you deal with it. And if there is still nothing wrong, there is no harm in admitting defeat and calling in a professional cat trainer who are experts in figuring out why your cat is behaving in the way it does.

What is the best way to discipline a cat?

The best way to discipline a cat is to encourage good behavior rather than discourage bad. For example, if they start to use a scratching post rather than the sofa to exercise their claws, reward them. Give them a treat, a toy, some praise, or a bit of loving attention. Do the same when they use the litter box, or play with their toys rather than the curtains or extension lead. This will help them understand what you like and what you don't. If possible, use the same treat for a particular kind of good behavior, the cat will then come to understand that this is linked with what they are doing and will be motivated to do it more.

Another way to reinforce your dislike of bad behavior is simply to move away from them. If they start biting your fingers during a stroking session, stop playing with them and move away. This will help them understand you don't like this action and will discourage them from doing it. 

You should also look at deterrents. If they persist in clawing or spraying a place you don't want them to, there are numerous scents you can use to spray them with so the cat stays away. These include citronella, oil of eucalyptus and red pepper flakes, as well as commercially available cat deterrent sprays. These have the advantage that they remain in place 24/7 so you won't need to monitor your cat in these areas.

You can also use materials like aluminum foil or double-sided tape to cover places you want them to learn to stay away from. Cats don't like the texture of these materials and so will start to ignore them. You can then reinforce this behavior by giving them treats when they are near the object but not scratching at it. 

Should I discipline my cat in a physical way?

How to discipline a cat: domestic shorthair tabby cat

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The short answer is no. Physical punishments like cuffing, throwing, spanking or holding them down are more likely to do more damage than good. Any violent actions are more likely to make your cat anxious, break the bond you have built between you and will make them more aggressive to you in the future in retaliation. This is because your cat will see you as the problem, not what they have done to cause you to do this. They won't necessarily associate your 'attack' with the crime, and the most common cause of kitty aggression is fear. You don't want to be the cause of that fear.

Similarly, although picking them up by the scruff of the neck used to be a recommended practice, this should also be avoided. Yes, as kittens they go limp when their mother picks them up in this way, but this isn't a way that the mother disciplines the cat. You grabbing them in a way they don't expect is again just likely to cause fear and aggression and bad behavior is likely to increase. 

This also applies to shouting at them. Yes, the loud noise will make them stop what they are doing and run away, but this isn't because they realize they've been caught doing something they shouldn't, it's because there is a big scary human making loud noises at them!

Should you discipline a cat with a spray bottle?

The jury is out on this one. Although there is a lot of evidence that a sudden spray of water is a strong deterrent in making them leave a place or stop an action, it seems you have to be careful in the way it is done. Again, if they can see it is you spraying them, then your furry friend is likely to associate you with the spray rather than the naughty thing they just did. If you can find a way to spray the cat without them realizing it's coming from you, then this may help in making them desist in that behavior, but we still recommend a more passive approach.

How to discipline a cat for biting

Cat's need to know that biting people, even in a playful way, is not a good thing from an early age. Kittens will naturally gnaw or bite on tickling fingers, but every time it happens it's best to let out a small yelp to let them know you don't like it and to cease play and move away from them. 

Although a kitten gnawing on your fingers may be cute, it's less cute when they are an adult cat and still haven't learned that this can hurt. Our vet's guide on how to play with a cat should give you a few good pointers on how to keep them entertained while reinforcing good behavior.

How to discipline a cat for attacking

How to discipline a cat: Scottish Fold biting a woman's hand

(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you cat starts attacking your legs as you go by they are likely trying to tell you they are feeling ignored. Don't make loud noises or shove them away as this will encourage more violence. Let out a quiet yelp and move away from them for five minutes, and then spend some time petting and playing with your cat so they know they are loved. Ensure they have cat toys to play with, and encourage their use by playing with them with your cat. 

If your cat is attacking a new member of their household it is likely they aren't happy with a stranger being in the house. Get the person to spend some time playing with the kitty to help them get used to them. If they are hiding away from that person, take a piece of the new person's clothing and then put it close to their food bowl or wear it while holding them. This will let them get used to the scent of that person in a situation they like.

How to discipline a cat for scratching the furniture

Although it's tempting to shout at or throw something at a naughty cat who's exercising their claws on your furniture, again this may be detrimental to your relationship with your kitty. Instead ensure they are provided with something they can scratch – like a scratching post, and reward them when they use it. You can deter cats from scratching certain area using scents or coverings, which will help solve the problem in a more passive way.

How to discipline a cat for accidents outside of their litter tray

It's usually relatively easy to litter train a kitten and if they are already litter trained, cat's will usually only start going to the toilet somewhere else if something is wrong. It may be as simple as something like the litter tray is unclean and they are avoiding it because of that. They may also have become more anxious due to a change in circumstances or due to feeling under the weather. If there is a sudden change in their behavior when they used to be good at using the tray, it's likely that they are telling you something is wrong, and a visit to the vets is likely in order.

How to discipline a kitten

Kittens can be especially fearful of punishments and scolding, and you don't want them to fear you at a time where you want to create a successful bond between you. Playing with kittens is a great way to get them used to human company, being held and to build a strong relationship between you. Try to avoid rough housing with them though, as this will teach them that using claws and teeth is an acceptable form of play. If they do attack you, let out a short 'ow!' and move away. This will help them understand that you don't like that behavior.

Treats and petting will help kittens understand that attacking toys is good, and attacking hands is bad. Toys and a few of the best kitten treats can also be used to help reinforce the idea that good behavior like using a litter tray or scratching a post will be rewarded.

Jamie Middleton

Jamie Middleton is a freelance editor and writer - or at least he is when he is permitted to by his cat Pirate, who enjoys the warmth of laptops too much to allow being creative to get in the way.