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Why Punishing Your Cat Doesn’t Work

March 27, 2013

Lately, CG’s been a bit of a stinker.

He’s picked up an annoying habit of pawing at our closet’s sliding mirror doors, which results in an irritating clatter noise. He’ll usually do this while we’re in bed before we go to sleep, or if he thinks we’re sleeping in a little too late on a Saturday.

Photo coutesy Syd Daoust.

The other day it was so annoying that my husband and I were both extremely frustrated with him – until a thought popped into my mind: How would we respond if we knew this was our last day with CG?

It instantly softened my heart and reminded me a few things. Namely, it’s important to understand a cat’s actions from his perspective, rather than judging his actions from my perspective.

It also reminded me that there’s no point in punishing a cat. Training, yes. Punishing, no.

What do I mean by all of this?

Cats don’t see their behaviors as “good” or “bad.” We see them that way, but they don’t. There aren’t “bad” cats, and when they do “bad” things it doesn’t mean that they’re mad at us. That interpretation of their motives is from our perspective and isn’t correct.

In fact, living with a cat will result in a number of various behaviors. Some you may enjoy, like snuggling. Others you may abhor, like your cat scratching at your favorite chair. But the truth is there are reasons for everything your cat does, and it’s up to us to find out what those reasons are, and help our cats learn more appropriate behaviors.

Consequently, when we punish our cats, they won’t understand it. They won’t connect the punishment to the “bad” behavior. As a result, all they see and feel is their human being randomly cruel to them. They connect the punishment to the one who’s doing the punishment, rather than to the behavior.

This can obviously result in a number of negative issues. Plus, punishments don’t help because they don’t teach a cat what he should do instead. The main takeaway? When it comes to cats, punishments do more harm than good.

For example, punishments can:

Hurt your relationship.

Imagine you’re your cat. You love your human. You lay on her lap. Your human is good to you. But then suddenly your human is always shouting at you, spraying you with water, maybe even hitting you. How would you respond? You’d distance yourself. You’d stop going to that person for love – maybe even avoid them during mealtime. You may even act out in other ways (on purpose or by accident), leading to more anger. You don’t know when your human will be happy, or when he’ll be mad. Your trust in this person deteriorates.

Cause stress.

Photo courtesy Lebatihem

Punishments – or rather being cruel to your cat – can really stress her out. It can make her feel vulnerable, anxious, and insecure. Like with people, a sense of safety is essential if you want to feel loved and valued, not to mention flourish and grow.

Lead to more issues.

Punishing certainly won’t resolve the original issue – and in fact, it may make it worse. Plus, it can lead to your cat developing other unwanted behaviors, too. Some may be intentional, like pooping on your bed, others may be unintentional, like having accidents around your home. Rest assured that your cat doesn’t want to do any of these negative behaviors, she’s simply reacting to the stress in her life.

On a related note, this may also mean that your cat will avoid the areas where she has been punished. If you swatted at your cat in the kitchen, she may avoid going to her food and water dishes.

At this point, you may be thinking “I know, I know, I shouldn’t punish my cat. But he’s doing ___, and it’s really annoying!” Don’t worry, I totally get that. Keep your eyes open for a post on how to reinforce good behaviors – and discourage unwanted ones.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Lemonmelonn permalink
    March 27, 2013 7:50 am

    I totally agree with you. If you hit a cat, they’ll attack you, and if you spray them with water, it’ll just make them upset and confuse them about why you’re being mean to them and ultimately cause more behavior problems. I’m looking forward to your posts on positive reinforcement.

  2. Lauren Torggler permalink
    March 28, 2013 11:05 am

    Looking forward to the post on discouraging unwanted behaviors! Most of the stuff Mimosa does it just plain annoying and I live with it, but lately she’s started a few naughtier habits which I really want to break – particularly climbing into and digging through the trash cans (well the small ones she can reach). She loves being groomed, but now she seems to have separation anxiety from the hair we’ve brushed off. At first it was funny when she climbed into the trash can to retrieve the big hair ball, but now we can’t keep her out of the trash cans in general! Driving me and my husband insane.

    • March 28, 2013 12:23 pm

      It’s so funny that you say that – CG *just* tipped over a small recycling bin I have in my office! Hopefully I’ll have some good solutions/options for us!

  3. Angel permalink
    July 22, 2014 9:36 am

    All of my cats were disciplined with a light swatting and loud yelling. 4 cats, and 2 more from the past I no longer have. None of them lost their trust or reacted negatively to it. My cats still come to me lovingly and without fear. Now the light swatting isn’t necessary because they respond to the yelling alone. I feel like people exaggerate a cat’s true nature. They much like dogs in that they can be very forgiving–at least my cats are. You’d have to hit them pretty hard for them to become angry and distrust you.

  4. Kristen permalink
    January 28, 2016 3:52 pm

    I disagree. Our cat gets nervous around our dinner time. She will start scratching the couch over and over. We decided to give her a few timeouts in the bathroom. We dont yell, we just told her in a strict “no” then placed her in there for about 10 minutes. To our surprise she has stopped this bad behavior. I think animals do understand more than we give them credit for.

  5. Jason permalink
    May 2, 2016 4:39 pm

    This is total BS, my cat knows what is bad behavior. My cat knows it is not allowed in my room but chooses to do so anyways because he likes to sit on my open window. I know this because when he is in my room and hears me move in the living room, he will try and sneak out and go hide under my children’s bed because he KNOWS he did wrong. Same thing when he tries to get on the kitchen table because there is something on the table he wants to eat. It is a risk vs reward situation and the reward of what’s on the table is worth the risk of him getting squirted with water. You have to change the equation so the risk is not worth the reward. My change was an airsoft gun. Him getting shot in the butt was not worth the few bites of food he wanted. He still loves me, he still come to me for affection and he still snuggles with me, but you know what he doesn’t do? Go in my room or get on the kitchen table

    • January 12, 2017 7:55 am

      This made me chuckle, I’m about to get an airsoft gun for my own little brat. She’s developing a taste for jumping on tables to knock glasses of water over.

    • karen ann beesley permalink
      January 21, 2018 8:18 pm

      i love it. ROTFLMAO. i am gonna get me one of these. i just got a rescue blue rusousian kitten about 5 mo old about 2 months ago. diarrhea came with. much better with slippery elm. and she is very intelligent. i am gonna get me an airsoft!!! tho water did cure her from the plants. maybe i will wait on the airgun. thank you so much for the chuckle. i agree, this is BS

    • ASPCA permalink
      September 17, 2018 7:27 pm

      How close are you with that air soft gun? Is it spring loaded, compressed air, or electric? How’s is your distance to aim ratio ( I am 75% at 2 meters)? Do you uses plastic or metal pellets and what size? Asking for a friend…

  6. Peter permalink
    February 4, 2018 4:50 pm

    ^^^ KARA…. how about no

  7. jen permalink
    April 23, 2018 12:09 pm

    I don’t think this article is BS, I think it’s true… I think PEOPLE are IDIOTS tho!

  8. D in VA permalink
    May 14, 2018 4:45 pm

    stupid nonsense… punishment is for a human having done a known illegal act. A cat has no morals,but an unpleasant vibration or noise or a ‘bonker’ (rolled up small towel) thrown conveys to the cat that doing that action results in an unpleasant event. It’s that simple and is not a punishment. It is pairing an unwanted act (to you) with an unwanted result (to the cat).

  9. Marronetta permalink
    July 9, 2018 2:46 pm

    I wish I had read your article long before I punished my cat for screaming. He has been avoiding me since then and does not come for love and affection to me anymore. He totally ignores me and tries to stay a way as much as possible from me. I wish I could do something to turn the clock back. I am so sorry for the way I have treated him and deeply regret the consequences it has had.

  10. Charles permalink
    December 14, 2018 6:57 pm

    Is this based on science? It’s almost impossible for me to believe that an animal witg a brian can’t register good from bad behavior. If this is true it would contradict the training aspect would it not. If they can not tell good from bad it would make sense it’d be pointless and a waste of time to train them. Just food for thought.

  11. Marilyn permalink
    January 7, 2019 11:02 am

    My cat bites me when unhappy, what do I do?

  12. April 8, 2019 2:50 pm

    This theroy is why cars are getting worse don’t bet
    At them bit I’ve seem a pop n a ain’t work way better n faster. Yes they fear up become where they may run go get them n pet them makes sure. Like a dog u let them know why don’t be gone all day come home n the trash can is turned over n trash everywhere. N wake the sleeping cat up no. He won’t get it probably but while everyone is kissing the cats asses half of then don’t know what kitty kitty means do u want a pet or a animal thst does what it wants. When. It wants nu see it when it feels like feed the strays then. Csuse csts are way smarter than dogs how long does it take you to get a dog to learn to poop. U puts wild 6 week old outside cat in a fresh litter box one time n most of them start coming back asap. . now I said totally clean so no smell to let them no. All cats no ain’t or no immediately. From jump. So y’all keep listening to these folks if u want a lazy come over here if u want to pet me mf I might not take off cat of u want. But I’ve seen n know for a fact. Female cats take more time to not be a bitch if u pop them than boys. But we know that’s normal in a species. . but if u do both pop. Not hit not beat n when they stsrt acting scared n run get them then hold them n pet them. It’s animal ur the top of food chain take charge of your pets. If they have so many feelings. Then that means they myst be smart. Remember these animals are gods in alot of cultures.

  13. Mimi permalink
    October 12, 2019 6:07 am

    I have sleep apnea and sleep with a bipap I also suffer from numerous chronic ailments and require my legs to be elevated and at least 6hrs sleep..Ninja my cat has gotten to be so naughty! If I don’t get up to feed him when he wants me to he goes to the dining rm and knocks things off the table.I have moved things and he still finds something to crash! I am at my wits end here..He has gone to the veterinarian and has arithtus and pancreatitis so he’s in pain..She gave me medicine for him and since than and this diagnosis this new behaviour pattern..He used to be on prozac which I weaned him off perhaps he should go back on..my health is at risk at well..I love him dearly..I must find some way to resolve this amicably..

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