This Christmas (2009) would you punish your cat for doing this? Please leave a comment - Photo by collinj
If I saw a cat owner punishing their cat to try and stop the cat doing something that they simply didn’t like, who should I decide deserves to be punished? The person or the cat? The thought turns the idea of cat punishment on its head. I would like to talk about that. Quite a lot of people think that it is acceptable, indeed sensible, to punish their cat to alter behaviour. There are quite a number of so called cat experts or animal behaviorists who advocate it. Cat trainers sometimes talk about how to punish your cat.
Lets start with a definition of the word “punishment”.
A penalty imposed for wrongdoing
This is a human definition that we are applying to a cat. Can we do that? No, because the cat doesn’t understand the concept of “punishment” and is not doing anything wrong in the first place (as far as the cat is concerned). The cat is behaving naturally when he or she scratches furniture or jumps onto the kitchen counter etc. and simply doing something that we might not like.
So when you punish a cat it won’t understand. It is not, in fact cat punishment but a crude method of training a cat to behave in an unnatural manner, which we find acceptable. The training is to create associations of something unpleasant with an action that the cat makes, thereby deterring the cat. Examples are squirting water or more unpleasant liquids over the cat, or placing nasty smells (for the cat) around objects, or banging the cat on the nose or locking them in a room, anything that the cat finds unpleasant or perhaps painful. I can remember a cat breeder or two talking on a Yahoo Group about how firmly tapping a cat on the nose while reprimanding it was an effective way to punish your cat. I instinctively feel that this is completely the wrong thing to do.
I would prefer to call cat punishment, “unpleasant cat training”. This is because there are better ways to train a cat such as positive reinforcement. In other words rather than associating a natural behavioural trait with an unpleasant experience (a negative form of training) I would rather that the cat was rewarded for behaviour that humans find acceptable. So, in the case of cat scratching rewarding your cat for scratching a scratching post is preferable.
One can go further by teasing (with a toy or cat tease), distracting (also with play) and gently out thinking a cat to do things that we find more acceptable. Or better still, accept all your cat’s behaviour, even the behaviour that we might find a bit annoying sometimes and work with it and around it. After all, we all know that we must learn to accept the behavioral traits of our human companion so why can’t we give the same respect to our cat companions? We are all animals on this planet.
Returning to the question at the top of the page; the answer is the person (if we are to punish anyone). The person is punishing an animal that is behaving naturally. That is immoral and wrong. And 99% of the time it will be counter productive resulting in a confused, nervous cat that is rightly scared of the owner thereby creating the potential to make the cat defensive and aggressive.
Don’t punish your cat – ever. Please accept your cat for what she or he is. To train out natural behaviour is to try and create a modified cat. If you can’t accept a cat in its entirety please don’t keep a cat. Buy a cuddly toy instead.