Is Punishment Appropriate for Cats? What are Better Training Methods for Felines?

When kitty is behaving ‘badly’, in order to quickly ‘correct’ this unacceptable conduct, far too often owners will resort to punishing their cat. One of the most popular methods used is the ‘tried and true’ squirt bottle. And even though cats don’t respond well to punishment and negative ‘reinforcement’ there still remain many so-called feline behavior experts who continue to recommend its use.

Anxious looking cat
Photo Credit: Flickr User niklas
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

While these recommendations are totally off the chart and erroneous to folks who truly understand feline nature, while researching the topic I ran across an article on disciplining cats on wikiHow. The author suggests that

…even though there are those who discourage physical punishment, under certain circumstances such as biting or scratching, using (a) squirt bottle to spray your kitty, or (b) a brightly-colored t-shirt to swat your kitty when he’s doing something bad will teach him to associate the dreaded item with bad behavior. Some owners should be wary of the squirt bottle because it may truly scare the cats, while others may not find it to be effective. Though it’s not so common, some kitties love water!?

While the author promotes the use of a squirt bottle, he cautions owners about scaring the cat. As far as this writer is concerned, apparently ‘scaring’ the cat is part of the author’s goal to teach the cat that the behavior is unacceptable.

On Pet Tips, just the title of the article gets the author’s point across. The advice:

“Whenever your cat acts on a tendency to do something it knows it’s not supposed to: climbing on the furniture, walking on the counters, lounging in the bathtub, sleeping in your bed, crawling up your leg, just squirt a small amount of water at it. By having that immediate and negative reaction to its behavior, your cat will assuredly back off, and cease doing whatever it’s not supposed to be doing.”

That is, of course until the owner is no longer present and the cat continues to “do his own thing.”

What I find so dangerous about the advice given by these so called (most likely self-proclaimed) feline ‘experts’ is that they seem not to have a clue about the true nature of felines. What is so disturbing to me is that people seeking help take this advice as gospel.

What these ‘experts’ really need to be teaching is cats simply do not respond well to punishment. In my opinion any feline behaviorist worth his or her salt always recommends positive reinforcement or redirecting the unwanted behavior when ‘training’ a kitty.

In direct opposition to the erroneous advice to using a spray bottle deterrent; feline behavioral expert, Pam Johnson Bennett writes,

“The truth is though, [spray bottles are] not effective at training a cat to cease engaging in unwanted behaviors. The squirt bottle technique only accomplishes three things: (1) It creates frustration in the cat, (2) It causes the cat to become afraid of you, and (3) The cat learns to wait until you aren’t around before engaging in the behavior.”

Instead of punishing the cat, Pam Johnson-Bennett stresses that it’s crucial for cat owners to understand that cats always have a reason for their behavior. Cats don’t misbehave to upset their owners or get back at them, – their behavior is, as Bennett puts it, aimed to serve a function. While scratching the furniture is unacceptable behavior to most kitty owners, it is an instinctual and normal activity. She strongly suggests that the owner figures out what the cat needs. In this case, perhaps the owner doesn’t have a scratching post (or several) or the texture and size of it is not appealing to the cat.

One of the most important tools in training felines is gaining their trust and to keep building strong bonds with the cat. Making a cat afraid of its owner will only backfire and erode trust. Learning to ‘think like a cat’, as Bennett suggests is the best and only way to provide effective training while building a strong and positive relationship with the cat.

Jackson Galaxy suggests cat owners, (or better yet, guardians) become ‘detectives’ to learn to understand what their cats are telling them, and training should always be done from a positive perspective. Jackson Galaxy’s video The Best and Worst Ways to Train Your Cat, says it all. This is the advice that all kitty guardians should get.

Should we be throwing out the spray bottles and train our cats with compassion and positive reinforcement? What are your opinions? Share them in a comment.


25 thoughts on “Is Punishment Appropriate for Cats? What are Better Training Methods for Felines?”

  1. As much as I hate doing it I do use spray bottles with my cats. I have a very strange situation here. I am owned by 3 sets of sisters aging in ages from 6 years to 12 years. There is a middle group of three. Two of them attack all the other cats when ever they can. Their primary prey is the youngest set of sisters. I have tried everything I can think of and it just doesn’t work. Their attacks are very nasty and I refuse to let them get away with it if I can. I can not move as fast as them and this my only solution. Sorry if I offended anyone.

    • Amy, I understand your situation actually. What you’ve got is cats living together in a multi-cat household some of whom are incompatible, who don’t like each other and don’t get on so although the domestic cat today is quite sociable sometimes cats don’t get along just like people and really, strictly speaking, they should not be living together because if cats don’t get along after say 6 or 9 months than they never will in my opinion.

      I hate to say it but you could possibly think about re-homing as long as you re-home to very good home. To constantly squirt cats with water to break up a fight is as I’m sure you will admit a pretty poor way of dealing with the situation. It’s a desperate act.

  2. I don’t use squirt bottles but I do yell at them sometimes. Especially if they sink their claws into me. They yell if I accidentally hurt one of them (usually stepping on something that wasn’t there when I began the step) and I yell if they accidentally hurt me. In both cases, we then watch to make sure the loud party is not truly injured and purr and make up.

    • I sometimes grumble to myself when my Charlie is being difficult about food. The finicky feline syndrome. Mind you I don’t blame him one bit. Even though it is good cat food it is still cat food.

  3. It seems so obvious, Michael. Why would you use a form of punishment when a reward system is actually much more effective and healthier for every animal species, especially given that we are considered ‘the most intelligent?’ Maybe it takes a bit more thought, but that is certainly a good thing for the brain. 😉

  4. Wonderful article, Jo, and great comments from most readers posting. I have used “timeouts” in a very nice room with everything that a cat could want for our most recently adopted, big, territorial, former “only cat” Mainey man, because when he first joined us, he was VERY territorial and VERY inclined to actually jump another of the big males in the family. I’ve also used the spray bottle when he jumped him and they became one furious furball. I could not get them apart otherwise, and was very concerned that Mainey man would hurt our other male. I stand by those uses, but this was not done as “punishment” — rather, it was done to protect others. And it was never done in anger!

  5. Yes deliberately going out to buy a squirty gun and planning to use it to scare cats into submission makes me shudder. Filling it up to use again and again, poor cats!


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