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
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Photo Credit: Flickr User niklas

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.

Useful links
Anxiety - reduce it
FULL Maine Coon guide - lots of pages
Children and cats - important

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.


Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.

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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25 Responses

  1. Amy says:

    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. a says:

    It’s an awesome piece of writing for all the internet viewers; they will obtain advantage from it I am sure.

  3. Elizabeth Ann Scarborough says:

    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.

      • Caroline says:

        Shoot. Why take the time and energy to raise your voice to your cat? Save THAT for some uncaring individual who happens to be human.

  4. Caroline says:

    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. 😉

  5. jmuhj says:

    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!

  6. Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

    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!

  7. Barbara says:

    I hate the thought of punishing cats and I hate to think of people deciding what form of punishment to use, surely just living day to day distracting when necessary, clapping your hands if really pushed to stop an action and realising that cats behave like cats because they are cats and it’s up to us to accept that is enough, no one needs to plan punishment.
    I hate the thought of people having the power to scare, humiliate or hurt cats just because they fail to conform to human ideas of what good behaviour is in a cat, it’s back to the same old thing, accept a cat for what he is or don’t get a cat.

  8. Dee (Florida) says:

    Another food article, R.
    As you say, cats don’t misbehave. They don’t do things with the intent of making us angry.
    With my “nothing is off limits unless it’s dangerous” lifestyle, I rarely have to redirect.

  9. Reno says:

    Great poster Ruth!! Lovely article, Jo. 🙂 I basically let my cats be cats. They use their scratch posts (there are several varieties around the house) and they get on the counters in order to get up in the windows. If they are truly doing something “naughty” like scratching the couch, I have found that simply clapping my hands stops them and I can redirect them to a post.

    • Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

      Wonderful Reno, you must have some very happy cats.
      Clapping your hands is good, we rarely have to intervene with our cats but clapping our hands immediately breaks them up if a play fight gets too serious.
      No need for squirting water ever, when clapping so easily distracts them.
      We’ve had cats for 40 years now and never scruffed or squirted or yelled or any other needless punishment, they are all methods which punish cats simply for being cats.

  10. Catnip Hill Cats says:

    Disclaimer: I am not an expert I am just telling you what works for us to have happy cats.

    Cats are creatures of habit and instinct. If you understand that then you are part way to living happily with them. If they scratch furniture then redirect them to a scratchable item that they can enjoy. They are merely leaving scent, and stretching.

    Yes, we keep the spray bottle here. It is used for emergencies and to get their attention. They are not sprayed. The water is directed at something else to get their attention. The only time they are directly sprayed is if they get into a fight. The fight ends fast.

    Bribing a cat with food only makes cats look for food. Anything we do here is done with cuddles and love and the cats love that kind of positive enrichment. Sometimes they get a new toy. If they know that at the end of a training they will be kissed and hugged and loved that is a big positive. If an emergency happens you will not have time to find treats or go to the refrigerator to get them a snack. Teach them to target and get loving.

    Sound is a good way to get cats to come to you. We use a clicker or rattle their harness. Command words like “walk time” or simply the word “target” and the cats appear. we always have a different reward so they are always curious as to the reward. Mostly it is a scratch behind the ears or a grooming with their favorite brush, or a pick up and cuddle.

    When the kittens were growing up here they learned lessons easily and now that they are adults they are well adjusted cats. I saw scruffing as a bad alternative. When the kittens were growing we used scruffing as a part of their upbringing. If problems escalated the kitten would be scruffed down gently to the floor or other surface and then talked to in a calm manor. It rarely needed to be done and they learned quickly. It is the same technique their mother would have used. It was never harsh or painful. Just a hold down to redirect their little spinning minds. Never scruff and lift them. That is just plain painful.

    Of all the techniques used, love is the best. If you can teach a cat to come when called, and a few other simple commands life with a cat is a beautiful thing.

  11. kylee says:

    Well, Why would you Punish your Pets anyway?? If you respect them and love them and are gentle and kind and dont have high expectation then you shouldn’t need to punish at all.

  12. Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

    Cats do not misbehave, they behave as cats! They shouldn’t be expected to behave as human beings and this is where cat ‘owners’ and cat ‘caretakers’ disagree.
    Caretakers care in every way and accept that cats are cats, so how can they behave as another species? They are not dogs either to come when called and to make their ‘owner’ feel good and powerful, caretakers know that!
    A cat should never ever be punished, squirt bottles should never be recommended by so called experts.
    It only takes a true cat lover to know that the best way to teach a cat ‘acceptable to human’ behaviour is by ignoring the so called bad behaviour and distracting the cat from what he is doing ‘wrong’ and rewarding him when he stops, it’s as simple as that!

    • How many cat owners understand your simple message that cats don’t misbehave they simply behave as they need to behave under the circumstances in which they find themselves. You and I totally understand that but it seems a lot of cat owners don’t and it may be the majority of cat owners who don’t quite understand this important point.

      • Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

        There must be many unhappy cats bewildered as to why they are being punished for being cats and doing what cats do.
        If squirting was as wonderful as the advocates of it would have us think, then they’d be throwing the squirt bottle away not continuously using, it thereby proving it does not work, it just eventually makes the cat nervous of the person doing it.

        • Excellent point Ruth. If squirting water worked it would be used once but it does not work and anyway it is obviously cruel and wrong. Cats who are squirted must simply treat it as a hazard within a hazardous environment making them less settled and more anxious.

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