Do cats understand “No”?
Domestic cats don’t understand “No”. However, they will understand that you are making a certain sound in a stern voice. You’re using a stern voice because you want your cat to stop doing something which displeases you. You may even shout or raise your voice. You want to drill the message home into your cat that what they are doing is unacceptable. I get it. But saying “No” loudly to a cat probably does not work as desired. Saying “No” quietly as part of modifying behavior is probably acceptable.
Personally I do say “No” to my cat but it is said quietly and in conjunction with mild training. For example, he knows that sometimes he can’t come on my lap when I am in bed but that he can go on my legs. He approaches me to come on my lap. I say “No” and tap my legs. He responds to that directive and goes on my legs. He has gotten used to the tapping of my legs and knows immediately that he has to accept the lesser position until I am ready. He knows when I am ready because I take the computer off my lap. He then joins me. It is different to the blunt instrument of a stern “No” without prior training of some sort. Gentle training is better. However, I do see the complexities of this topic.
Your cat won’t understand what a stern “No” without more means. They will simply understand that you have become hostile and angry and it may frighten them. They may run away or cower or be bemused. They will associate what they’ve done with you becoming hostile which effectively comes down to a form of punishment. It may not look like it to you but I think that is what it comes down to. Most of us now realise that punishment is a form of cat training which is unacceptable because domestic cats don’t understand the concept of human punishment.
Damage the relationship
Saying “No” may deter your cat from doing something which you don’t like but it may not. What it will do is quite possibly weaken the relationship between you and your cat depending upon how often you use the technique. This is diametrically opposed to your stated aims.
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Sound – crude message
On a purely technical basis, domestic cats don’t understand the word in any case because it is a word in the English language and domestic cats do not understand English language. They will simply understand or sense the sound of the word which is something quite different. It is a crude message. The cat will attach your aggression with something they did and I’m not sure that that is a good message to deliver to them. Far better to use positive reinforcement which you may well have read about.
Divine intervention – Act of God
There is a third path that you can take. It is called “divine intervention”. You can prevent cats doing things by associating certain activities with a negative outcome without them realising that you created the negative outcome. It is essential that you divorce uncomfortableness from you, their owner. I have written about this before. It is not punishment. For example, your cat jumps onto the kitchen counter. You don’t like it. You put some tin foil on the counter. Your cat jumps up, immediately encounters something which they have never seen before and which makes a noise and they jump off startled. The strangeness of the object puts them off. It’s an act of God. Something intervened which they don’t understand and which will deter them. This sort of treatment should be delivered very gently and sensitively. I personally do not recommend it because I accept what my cat does and I don’t want him to be even mildly distressed because he has behaved naturally. However, if you’re particularly hung up about your cat doing something then try and engineer an act of God but never punish them.