How to discipline a cat?

People ask, “how to discipline a cat?” I have to start off this discussion with a philosophical question. Doesn’t the word “discipline” refer exclusively to humans? I feel that it does. The dictionary definition refers to humans with no reference to animals. Wikipedia refers to animals and humans. I’m inclined to go with the dictionary definition because disciplining implies punishment and punishment is a no-no with respect to domestic cats.

I know visitors want clear answers, no questions asked. They want to resolve the ‘problem’. I would gently ask for their indulgence in considering an alternative way to proceed. Please consider alternatives to disciplining.

I prefer the word “training” to disciplining. Certainly, training is part of disciplining but as mentioned disciplining implies punishment and there is no role for punishment when training a cat. Training should be all about rewards and positive reinforcement. And therefore I will discard the word discipline in this discussion.

There’s an interesting concept put forward by Dr Bruce Fogle in his book Complete Cat Care in which he differentiates between punishment and “divine intervention”. He agrees that punishment is inappropriate when training your cat but he says that if you punish your cat without your cat knowing that it is you who is doing the punishment then from the cat’s standpoint it becomes divine intervention. It is simply a bad experience for the cat.

I am not sure that this works but here is an example. A cat jumps on a bed and passes through an infrared beam from a tiny burglar alarm which sets off a siren. The cat dislikes the sound and escapes from the bedroom. You could argue that this is a form of punishment but from the cat’s standpoint it is simply a bad experience with no connection between it and the owner. Another example is a cat about to scratch a sofa and he gets a shot of water in his face from a water pistol but he has no idea where the water came from.

I don’t like it but I see the philosophical argument. The reason why I mention these issues is because it is punishment without association with the owner and as mentioned above punishment is linked to disciplining so here is a possibility to discipline your cat without punishing him. That is if you believe in – and I don’t – disciplining your cat.

A person disciplines their cat in order to stop “bad behaviour“. This is behaviour that is bad from the person’s standpoint. From the cat’s standpoint it is not bad behaviour, it is normal and instinctive behaviour. We are meant to live with our cats in harmony. We are meant to accept our cat’s behaviour. Accepting and respecting are the foundation stones for a good relationship between human and cat. I have this laissez-faire attitude towards cat behaviour. It is best to work around it and live with it than try and discipline it out. I feel that most people will disagree with me but my attitude has never been a problem with me and I keep a very tidy and clean house!

There are ways around things and we should be able to outsmart our cat rather than disciplining him. An obvious example is if your cat scratches furniture and you might feel like disciplining him by shouting at him or squirting water at him. A much better alternative is to place around your house half a dozen cardboard scratching boards impregnated with catnip. He will scratch the boards with gusto and very rarely will he choose the alternative: your armchair.

There can’t be many things which can be classified as bad cat behaviour. If there are lots of things which you don’t like about your cat’s behaviour then you might question whether it is a good idea to own a cat. Once again it is about attitude. If you like all of a cat’s behaviour then there is no call upon you to discipline your cat which eliminates the whole concept of discipline and punishment.

For me this is a far better way to proceed. I can think of only two things that might be described as bad cat behaviour: jumping up onto the kitchen counter and scratching sofas. I’ve dealt with the latter. As for the former I don’t see a problem but if it bugs you put double sided sticky tape on the surface which she won’t like and she might (should?) instantly jump off. Perhaps the most suitable alternative is to ensure that your cat has lots of high vantage points and vertical spaces in which to move and enjoy. This would minimize his desire to jump up to a kitchen counter. And if he does, carry him off with a kiss and a cuddle.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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4 Responses

  1. Cat's Meow says:

    My brother had problems with his cats refusing to avoid the kitchen counters. After all alternatives failed, he put double-sided tape around the areas where the cats would land on the counter. The cats did not like having the tape stuck to their paws and now stay off the counters. You can also use loops of tape.

    With my cats, I tell them to get down and remove them to the floor. My Male learned when he was young and, as far as I know, never jumps up there. The female is a different story. ? She sneaks up there and makes a beautiful statue. I tell her to get down, wait a moment and then put her on the floor. She has gotten better.

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