Categories: Training

The difference between cat punishment and negative reinforcement

The difference between punishing a cat and negative reinforcement, both of which should be avoided, is that the former requires the cat to be able to measure his/her behaviour against norms as decided by humans which is something that is beyond them while the later is simply associating a certain behaviour with something painful or distressing.

A far better alternative is positive reinforcement.

A lot of cat owners recommend cat punishment. What they mean is the application of negative reinforcement. An example would be squirting water on their cat or striking them on the tip of their nose after the cat has done something that the owner dislikes.


The cat will associate their behaviour with discomfort and stop doing it. That’s the theory. But the cat will not be punished as in a human punishing another human. When a human is punished it is to teach them that their behaviour has broken the boundaries of decent or moral behaviour as agreed by society. This is made clear to the child and the child is made aware of this in no uncertain terms. It is a form of education. The child understands what is happening. But cats can’t and won’t understand. Therefore for cats punishment does not work.


Associating pain or discomfort with bad behaviour as perceived by the cat’s owner works but the cat will be confused as the behaviour will be natural to the cat and he or she will become wary of his owner. Therefore negative reinforcement undermines the human to cat relationship. This is the opposite to the desired aim of cat owners.

If a cat owner does not mind their relationship with their cat being damaged they can’t be good cat owners.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement has been explained and discussed a million times on the internet so I won’t do it here. You can search for it on this site if you like. Basically it entails training a cat through rewards to engage in behaviour that the owner deems acceptable.


All cat training should be concerned with a cat’s natural behaviour. The best way forward, in my book, is to accept your domestic cat’s behaviour as long as it is not hazardous to the cat. It’ll be natural cat behaviour which is why we have cats in the first place.

There is an old adage that says that a wife should not try and change her husband’s behaviour and vice versa. Acceptance is one of the keys to a long marriage. The same goes for the human to cat relationship.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

View Comments

  • Clicker training.
    I tossed the squirt bottle out long ago and only used it because so many seemingly good cat owners recommended it. I never sprayed the cats just shot squirts over the bow so to speak but it never felt right.
    Hitting or punishing a cat is a road to the cat developing nasty behaviors related to stress.

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