I have always been passionately against punishment as a means of training a cat. I thought I’d look up what Jackson Galaxy thinks about cat punishment. He discusses it in his book Total Cat Mojo.
Supporters of punishing a domestic cat would argue that it is a way of altering cat behaviour for the benefit of the ‘owner’. The alternative way of achieving this goal is through positive reinforcement (reward-based cat training in effect). Almost universally, nowadays, positive reinforcement – operant conditioning – is regarded as the most effective way of changing feline behavior.
The Negatives of Cat Punishment
Jackson spells out the negative aspects of punishment. Firstly he says that punishment might work temporarily but it won’t change your cat’s motivation and it doesn’t tell your cat what she needs to do instead.
These are very good points. Despite being punished your cat will still be motivated to do the things that she was punished for because they are natural, innate feline behaviors which an owner finds unacceptable. And she won’t know what to do instead and therefore she may well become confused. Further, you may instil in her, in the words of Jackson Galaxy, “a healthy dose of side effects like fear and aggression (not to mention a complete erosion of the trusting foundation of your relationship)”.
A lot of cat owners do feel the need to discipline their cat. Jackson Galaxy and his cowriter Mikel Delgado PhD remind us that “there is no such thing as disciplining your cat”. This is because they do not understand the concept of discipline. They won’t understand when you squirt water at them or scold them for something which is natural for them to do.
In addition, when punishing a cat you have to do it every time the undesirable feline behaviour occurs and immediately after it happens. It’s impossible to achieve this.
Also, punishment can erode your cat’s confidence. There may be a group of people who feel that they have to show dominance over their cat in order to control their her. It’s trying to apply the idea of alpha cat but this concept involves cat punishment and as Galaxy says it’s not the best way to alter cat behaviour.
Jackson Galaxy calls punishment anti-Mojo. ‘Mojo’ is Galaxy cat language to mean a cat who is able to express all his natural desires and wishes in a way which is accepted by his guardian. Jackson and his cowriter remind us that a dominant-subservient relationship with your cat is not an ideal relationship.
There are various ways people train cats through punishment such as squirt bottles, invisible fencing which delivers a mild electric shock to cats, shock collars, scat mats and even declawing. All are bad processes. I wouldn’t call declawing, strictly speaking, a form of punishment but it is a form of altering behaviour negatively. Declawed cats compensate for losing their claws by biting and sometimes avoid litter substrate. These are just two unintended behavioural outcomes of declawing. There are many other complications. Declawing is much more than punishment.