How to Punish a Cat (Do’s & Don’ts)

If your cat is behaving badly—if it’s biting you, or peeing around the house—it’s frustrating, not least because bad cat behaviors are difficult to stop. So how do you punish a cat, and get it to stop doing things you don’t want it to do?

How do I get my cat to stop doing something? Avoid punishing your cat, as cats can’t understand punishments like we can. Instead, try encouraging good behaviors or redirecting bad ones. Cats that scratch furniture, for example, do so to keep their claws short; buy your cat a cat scratcher to redirect this natural behavior. Redirect aggression by playing with your cat with toys, and show your cat you aren’t a threat by not reacting if it bites or scratches you. Use treats to encourage good behaviors in place of bad ones.

The guide below will first look at what’s so wrong with disciplining a cat, and various ways to stop cats displaying bad behaviors. We’ll then look at particular problem behaviors: how to stop cats scratching furniture, for example. We’ll also look at a list of punishments to avoid.

How to Discipline Your Cat

Cats don’t learn from being disciplined.

Disciplining your cat is a bad idea.

To be clear, there are things you can do to encourage good behavior. There are also things you can do to curtail bad behavior. But punishing your cat as if to try and teach it right from wrong will never work.

That’s because of a huge flaw in your cat’s understanding. Your cat doesn’t understand cause and effect like you do. It doesn’t understand that if it scratches up the furniture, and you subsequently punish it, that the punishment is in response to the scratching. All it understands is that you’re doing something which makes it feel bad, or even hurts it. So, it does learn something—but that something is to dislike you rather than to stop its bad behavior. It will then scratch you, hiss at you and bug you more than ever.

How to Stop Bad Behavior in Cats: ENCOURAGE Good Behavior!

It’s much easier to encourage good behavior than discourage bad behavior.

The difference here is between positive and negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is where a person or a pet will change their behavior in response to a negative stimulus. They will change to make the negative thing, whatever it might be, go away. Positive reinforcement is where a person or a pet will change their behavior in response to a positive stimulus like petting and affection, or a treat. They will do what you want because they know that they get something out of it.

In behavioral science, these terms have caused much confusion. The terms positive and negative were used because they refer to a stimulus either being applied (positive) or taken away (negative), rather than positive reinorcement being good and negative reinforcement being bad. But this is the common understanding of the terms in modern society.

Either way, encouraging your cat to change its behavior by giving it treats is far and away the best way to teach it something. This method can be used to mold almost any bad behavior. For example:

  • You can teach your cat to scratch a scratching post rather than the furniture by giving it a treat each time it does.
  • You can teach a cat to be affectionate rather than hissing at you by giving it treats when it interacts with you positively.
  • You can teach a cat to use its tray by offering it treats when it does so.

If there is any way to encourage a good behavior in place of a bad one, you should try this as your first course of action.

How to Encourage Good Behavior in Cats

There is a formalized way to teach cats good behaviors. It’s called clicker training. It builds on the idea above and runs with it.

You only need a few things if you want to clicker train your cat. One is a clicker. This is a small handheld button, the size and shape of a key fob. When you press the button down it makes a clicking noise. You also need a ‘reinforcer’, which is something your cat wants. This could be your cat’s favorite treat. Or, you can use affection as a reinforcer. The third thing you need is patience!

The point of the clicker is to draw your cat’s attention. Cats have trouble with the concept of cause and effect. This means that your cat won’t necessarily understand that its behavior was the trigger for the reinforcer. That’s why you’re supposed to click the clicker as soon as your cat displays the behavior you want, and immediately offer the reinforcer; the cat comes to associate the sound of the click with the treat.

Clicker training really is as simple as that. Pick a behavior you want your cat to display, encourage it to display it, click the clicker and offer the reinforcer.

How to Train a Cat With Clicker Training

If you want your cat to stop doing something, train a different behavior instead. For example, encourage your cat to use the litter box instead of peeing around the house, and use the clicker/treat system when it does.

Let’s take a look at the most common examples of bad cat behavior, and what you can do to stop them!

How Do I Stop My Cat Destroying Everything?

cat claw problems

Scratching is a natural behavior for a cat to display. It’s not something you can stop your cat from doing.

The reason why house cats have to scratch things is to keep their claws short. When cats live in the wild, they walk over all kinds of rough surfaces, and climb trees with rough bark. When a wild cat feels the need to shorten its claws, it claws at a tree in the same way as your house cat claws at furniture. This grinds its claws down ever so slightly. Housecats, especially cats that solely live indoors, only have the options of tearing up furniture or living with painful ingrown claws.

This therefore is a need that you have to address. You can do that by providing your cat with a scratching post and using clicker training to encourage it to use it. A scratching post is a piece of cat furniture that your cat can claw at as much as it likes. Cats are drawn to upright structures covered in rough material when searching for something to claw at, so scratchers are naturally appealing. But you can also encourage the behavior by giving your cat treats when it uses its new scratcher. Since your cat will be keeping its claws short, it then won’t need to scratch your furniture.

All you have to do is wait. Set the scratching post down near the furniture your cat likes to scratch. When your cat scratches the post, click the clicker and offer the reinforcer. Do this enough times and your cat will learn to stop scratching things other than the post.

How to Stop a Cat Peeing Outside the Litter Box

Begin by giving your cat a treat each time it does successfully use its litter tray. This alone may be enough to convince it to keep doing so.

If it’s not, though, then there may be something prompting the behavior. Cats are one of many animal species that mark their territory with pee, and your cat may be peeing around the home because it feels insecure. It may be that it feels threatened by another cat in the household, or perhaps you’ve moved somewhere new. Whatever the reason, this is often the underlying reason why cats pee around the home.

You can make your cat feel more secure by giving it a corner of the home to call its own. A cat bed would be a good start. Cats produce pheromones in various glands throughout their bodies, including in their faces and in their backs. These pheromones gradually rub off on anything they sleep on, like a cat bed. Other tools you can use for the same purpose include:

  • Cat scratchers. Your cat will rub against its scratcher and leave pheromones on it.
  • Cat toys. Your cat has pheromone glands in its face, so your cat’s toys will smell like it too.

You should also consider putting these pheromones on your cat’s litter tray. This will make your cat more familiar with its tray, which will also help.

How Do You Stop Cats Jumping on Things?

There are a few ways to approach this problem that don’t involve punishments. One is clicker training, although this is more difficult than in the examples above. You can reverse the situation by giving your cat a treat when it jumps down from the place it’s not supposed to be; you can then transition to giving it treats when it’s sat underneath the area without having jumped up at all.

It’s possible that your cat will take this the wrong way, though, and jump up in the hope of getting treats. If that happens, consider keeping the cat out of the room entirely. Or, put a thin layer of aluminum foil down on the surface; cats hate standing on it when they aren’t expecting to, and will jump down immediately. They’ll also remember not to jump up there in the future.

Other problem behaviors can be fixed in the same way. Clicker training can stop cats from fighting, encourage cats to play in a friendly manner and much more. For more information, read our full guide to clicker training instead.

What to Do If Your Cat Won’t Stop Misbehaving

Your cat may persist with these behaviors even if you try to train it. If that’s the case, try the tips below.

Take Your Cat to The Vet

Cats don’t solely display bad behaviors because they’re bad cats. There are all sorts of reasons outside your cat’s control that either directly cause, or contribute to, bad behaviors. These reasons relate to your cat’s health. For example:

  • Sick or injured cats may be in pain, which makes them react more defensively towards you or other cats.
  • Cats’ claws grow continually like our fingernails. They need to be kept short, and cats do this by scratching things (like your furniture).
  • Urinary or digestive problems can stop your cat from using the litter tray correctly.

The vet can identify your cat’s health problem and tell you how to fix it. With your cat’s health improved, you may notice an improvement in whatever bad behavior you were seeing.

Put Your Cat into Time Out

What can help is to put your cat somewhere that it can’t cause any more trouble.

What this won’t do is allow your cat time to ‘reflect on its bad behavior’. As stated above, cats don’t understand cause and effect as well as we do. What it will do is allow your cat to calm down, and, perhaps, for you to calm down too!

The place you put your cat in time out depends on the behavior you’re trying to stop. If your cat keeps scratching your wooden furniture, move it to a room where there isn’t any for a while (like the bathroom). If your cat is fighting with another cat, or is scratching and biting you, then moving it to any other room on its own will entirely stop its bad behavior.

React Correctly to Aggression

cat meowing a lot

If your cat is aggressive towards you, changing your own behavior can make it stop. There are several ways in which this can help. The ideal thing for you to do when your cat attacks you is to ignore it, to not retaliate, and even to avoid yelping in pain (if possible).

By ignoring your cat, you are showing it that you don’t view it as a threat, and telling it that you aren’t planning on hurting it. This means that your cat will feel that it doesn’t have to defend itself from you, which is a large part of why cats are aggressive towards people. Remain as neutral as possible, and avoid goading your cat into being aggressive in any way.

When you hit your cat back or shout at it, your cat thinks that you’re fighting with it. In a sense, you are. When cats fight, they don’t back down just because the other makes a noise or hits back; if anything, they fight back harder. This promotes a cycle of you hitting your cat, your cat hitting you back, and so on. So retaliating is always a bad idea.

And unfortunately, cats aren’t good at distinguishing between the different noises we make. If you make any kind of sudden noise because you’ve been hurt, your cat will think that you’re threatening it, which can prolong the aggression. That means even if you don’t shout, but only yelp in pain and surprise when your cat bites you, your cat still interprets that as aggression. Even though it’s easier said than done, you should try to not react in any way.

Ways to Discipline Your Cat (Methods to AVOID)

Since cats have been popular pets for decades, there are all sorts of punishments people have thought up for them. If you don’t think the ‘carrots’ above will work, then you may be tempted to use the ‘sticks’ instead: here’s why you shouldn’t.

How to Punish a Cat for Hissing, How to Stop Your Cat Scratching You & How to Discipline a Cat for Biting

Punishing a cat for hissing at you is a little silly. Hissing is a natural behavior that cats display when they feel threatened. Rather than using punishment, try to understand what made your cat hiss in the first place, and correct that problem.

Cats don’t hiss at their owners if their owners are kind to them, and don’t pet them when they want to be left alone (unless there is an underlying health issue). The same applies to scratching; it’s a method of self-defense, so if you don’t make your cat feel uncomfortable, it shouldn’t do it.

Even though biting is a lot more serious than the other bad behaviors above, you still shouldn’t consider disciplining your cat.

Instead, try to build up a positive relationship with your pet. Spend time with it that your cat enjoys, and give it treats when you do, so that it learns to continue being pleasant around you. If it does have occasional aggressive episodes, avoid reacting. Stay in the same room as much as possible and show that you aren’t threatened, and nor are you being threatening. Your cat will learn over time that it can trust you, and it should stop biting you.

Scruffing a Cat

Scruffing a cat is where you pick it up by the scruff of the neck. When you do this to a cat, it readily submits to you, and lets you put it wherever you want to put it. That’s because mother cats pick up their kittens by the scruffs of their necks, gently biting them there.

The problem with picking your cat up by the scruff of its neck in this context is that you could hurt it. It’s not clear whether scruffing a cat hurts it no matter when you do it; only mother cats do it to their kittens. It’s never done to an adult cat, and the added weight of the adult cat’s body could put too much pressure on the skin of the neck. There’s also the chance that in your frustration or even anger that you scruff your cat with excess force, which could hurt it more still.

If it does hurt, then you will be teaching your cat to be afraid of you. That’s not a good thing, and it won’t stop it from misbehaving. If anything it’s more likely that your cat will lash out when you hurt it. There is the chance that scruffing doesn’t hurt a cat, but since there are ways to stop a cat misbehaving that definitely don’t hurt it, you should consider using these instead.

Don’t Hit Your Cat

Hitting your cat in any way, whether you hit it gently or not, is a bad idea.

Again, the issue with this approach is that your cat doesn’t understand why you’re hitting it. It doesn’t know that you hitting it is related to whatever bad behavior it displayed. You therefore only teach it to avoid you and dislike you. It doesn’t know that the punishment is to fit the ‘crime’.

This is an especially bad idea if you’re trying to teach your cat not to be aggressive towards you. When you hit your cat, you only make it more likely that it will scratch you back, or bite you, or at least hiss at you. It’s entirely counterproductive, and your cat will become more likely to attack you, or in its eyes, defend itself against you.

Don’t Make a Loud Noise

Making a loud noise can instantly stop a cat from doing what it’s doing. Loud noises startle your cat, and in ceasing its behavior for a moment, it can then stop for good. It may run away, or it may just be startled but then go about its day. The noise can be something like a clap, a shout, slamming your hand on a table, or clanging a pot or pan.

There are a few problems with this approach, though.

  1. You can frighten your cat by doing this. It will distrust you and could even grow to fear you over time.
  2. If you do it frequently, your cat will become desensitized to it. It will stop stopping its bad behaviors when you clap.
  3. If you have other cats, they will feel just as startled or frightened, but for no reason.
  4. It’s inconvenient to anyone else in the house, especially if it’s nighttime.

This approach is therefore good if your cat is displaying a dangerous behavior that you need to stop instantly. If your cat were somehow endangering your child, for example, then you could consider using it. But if the problem behavior is something that your cat does every day, at various times of day, then this isn’t a good long term solution.

Don’t Discipline a Cat with a Spray Bottle

Spraying cats with water bottles is yet another controversial way of controlling bad behavior.

It certainly works; that’s not the issue. You distract your cat from whatever behavior it’s displaying when you spray it. Cats don’t enjoy being soaked with water, so they instantly want to get away from the water you’re spraying, even if that means stopping what they were doing.

What people don’t like about this method is that it’s so unpleasant for the cat. The cat learns not to like you and to fear you, in the same way that it does if you hit it or frighten it excessively. But at the same time, it can work. Again, then, you should consider saving this method for when you absolutely need your cat to stop displaying a behavior e.g. if it’s endangering its health. Otherwise, stick to other ideas.