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January 18, 2021

Do Not Punish Cats

03.22.2015 Do not punish cats when they do unwanted behaviors. When cats act out they’re not being bad. They’re responding to an event or circumstances in their environment. Because punishing cats can make them more stressed and feel insecure, it can escalate problems and cause others. Punishment also ruins relationships. Kitties associate the punishment with the punisher—it breaks the bonds between them and their people.

Instead of punishment, identify and then address the causes of the behaviors. Behavior does not happen in a vacuum. Once the reasons are pinpointed they can be addressed—cats taken to vets, litter box situations improved, neighborhood cats managed, etc.
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Don’t punish cats. Instead, identify and address the causes of the behavior.

Don’t punish cats. Instead, identify and address the causes of the behavior. by Shutterstock.

A Word or Two against Punishing Cats

Rubbing a cat’s nose in his excrement will not stop the cat from eliminating outside the litter box. Tapping a cat on his nose will not stop him from biting. These are examples of a couple of punishments that people sometimes resort to in their efforts to stop cats from engaging in a frustrating behavior. These types of solutions do not solve behavior problems—but they can escalate the behaviors and/or cause new ones.

Cats are not bad when they do behaviors that people do not like. They are resorting to unwanted behaviors because of stressers in their environment, a medical problem or a situation. It is normal for cats who are stressed to resort to instinctual behaviors. They are not bad cats—but they are stressed cats. The cat who is eliminating outside the litter box has a reason for not using the litter box. Rubbing his nose in the urine will not stop the behavior but it will cause him to be more stressed and insecure in his environment. Also, cats typically associate the punishment with the punisher. Often the punisher is one or more of their favorite people, people the cats are bonded to, who provide them with food, love and shelter.  Punishment, especially inhumane punishment can cause cats stress, severing the bonds between cats and their favorite people. It can become a cycle—the more the cat is punished, the more insecure and stressed he feels—escalating the behavior and causing others.

There is an alternative!
Instead of punishment, figure out the triggers for the behavior and then address those triggers. Because painful medical issues can also cause changes in behaviors, cats should first be examined by their veterinarians. Only after the cat is given a clean bill of health approach the problem as behavioral in nature.

Photo by PJ Hoffmann-

Sometimes it’s easy to identify the triggers—other times it’s more challenging to find the reasons behind the behaviors. There always is a reason though. Cats don’t wake up one morning and decide it would be fun to not use their litter boxes or to bite the people they live with. Put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and play detective, conduct an investigation to find the triggers. If you can’t identify the triggers, find help from a credentialed cat behaviorist or certified cat behavior consultant. He or she can help you identify the triggers and develop a plan for changing the behavior that does not include punishment.

Today’s blog was inspired from recent consultations with a few clients who, in their frustration and efforts to stop unwanted behaviors resorted to punishment. Needless to say—their methods did not work. In one case, the cat took up residence under the bed where she felt safe.

The Negatives of Positive Punishment

Recently, I had a consultation with a client whose cat decided to not urinate consistently in her litter box. As soon as the client filled out my history form and after I saw the litter box situation, I knew immediately why her cat wasn’t using the box. An easy fix… But this blog entry isn’t about the triggers and the solutions, this is about punishment and why cats should not be punished…

Unfortunately my client, in her frustration, was punishing the cat for not using the box. She both rubbed the cat’s nose in the urine and swatted her on the rear for her accidents. After awhile, the client noticed that the cat’s behavior escalated and the cat no longer enjoyed sitting on her lap. She finally was alarmed when her kitty started avoiding her most of the time, with the exception of meal times. (This case has a happy ending, client is no longer punishing her cat and the cat is now consistently using the box)

Besides being inhumane and cruel, punishing a cat will not stop a cat from doing an unwanted behavior. Cats do not associate the punishment with the unappreciated activity. Instead, cats will commonly associate the punishment with the punisher. I find this sad and tragic. The person that the cat has loved and trusted is now perceived by the cat as scary and hurtful. Understandably, this usually results in the cat becoming fearful of her person. Essentially, the cat/human bond is broken. Other common responses are; the behavior escalates, other unappreciated behaviors develop.

Cats usually have a legitimate reason for not using the litter box or doing other behaviors we don’t approve of. It’s up to us to figure out what these reasons are. We need to find what is triggering the behavior, then eliminate or modify the triggers. Usually environmental changes (ie, add more litter boxes, scoop, etc.) are needed along with behavior modification of both the cat and the human companion.

So, please, don’t punish a cat when she acts out. Punishment doesn’t work. It’s inhumane and it breaks the cat/human bond. Instead use positive methods. They are more effective, they build bonds and can last forever.