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How To Discipline A Cat: 8 Ways To Deter Bad Behavior

Cats are adorable, but they sure can be naughty. How do you discipline a cat? What is the best way to reprimand your kitty? We cover these questions and more.

Danielle DeGroot

Last Updated: January 18, 2024 | 10 min read

A woman pointing finger at a cat sitting on ledge.

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We love to think of our cats as perfectly behaved cuddle buddies, and while this is frequently true, the reality is that cats can be quite naughty. After all, they’re very curious creatures. Disciplining pets is challenging, and even the most experienced owners like me still need help with reprimanding our cats when they act out.

If you allow your cat to get away with bad behavior, it can quickly become the norm and almost impossible to stop. Negative behavior in felines can range from mildly annoying to incredibly destructive. Though they are small and adorable, cats can cause quite a bit of trouble, ruining furniture and clothing and causing damage to your home. Additionally, they can take out their angst on you, human family members, and other pets if they feel extra ornery.

Proper discipline for a cat must be positive and reward-based to encourage good behavior. The best way to discipline a cat is to distract them, redirect them, and promote a more preferred action. Let’s get further into the details of how to reprimand a cat and what you can do to stop unruly kitty behavior.

How To Stop Bad Behavior In Cats

Understanding how to stop misbehavior in cats is no easy task. One of the most important ways you can stop unwanted behaviors is to understand why your kitty is acting this way in the first place. Boredom, health issues, loneliness, or stress can trigger bad behavior. In order to truly stop misbehaviors, it’s crucial to understand how your cat is feeling and the triggers for his destructive behavior. Once you understand what’s causing it, you can choose the appropriate method to reprimand your purr baby.

Why Do Cats Misbehave?

A cat lying covered in shredded toilet paper.
Cats misbehave for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes, the actions we see as naughty may simply be part of their natural instincts. Scratching, for example, is something that owners hate but is something that is necessary and natural for our kitty friends. Punishing a cat for natural, instinctual behaviors may not be very effective. Trying to retrain your pet or preventively train them not to act a certain way is better.

Other times, misbehavior from cats can be purposeful or triggered by something in their environment. Frequently, misbehavior may be caused by your kitty being stressed out, overstimulated, afraid, sick, or in pain. My cats tend to misbehave when they’ve been left home alone all day or feel like they’re not getting enough attention. Understanding why your purr baby misbehaves is often the key to stopping it.

10 Common Ways Cats Misbehave

A cat biting the fist of a person.
Cats misbehave in several different ways.

Some of these behaviors are common. Others may be more specific to an individual kitty. For example, my cat, Zaphod, is 11 years old and likes to make messes. One thing he does, in particular, is to run into the linen closet every time I open it and pull the contents of the bottom three shelves down.

He also likes to get into the bathroom and flush the toilet repeatedly. Toilet flushing may not be a usual misbehavior among all cats, but for Zaphod, it is. So, while there are some common misbehaviors in cats, sometimes the action is entirely unique to the specific kitty. Below, I list a few common ways our purr babies can act out.

  1. Biting
  2. Scratching
  3. Jumping on things (counters, furniture, people)
  4. Peeing or pooping outside the litter box
  5. Stealing your belongings
  6. Destroying items
  7. Chewing up wires
  8. Fighting with other pets
  9. Attacking people and animals
  10. Aggression

Don’t be afraid to ask your veterinarian for help. If the misbehavior is sudden, extremely aggressive, or constant, having your pet undergo an examination is a good idea. Running a check-up can help your vet determine if an underlying medical issue may be causing the misbehavior. Sometimes, an unnoticed wound, parasite, infection, hormone imbalance, or dietary issue may be the root cause.

8 Ways To Discipline A Cat

A cat sitting on a sofa covered in tears with foam pieces.
When disciplining a cat, it is essential to understand that every feline is different, and what works for one may not always work for another.

You may need to employ different methods of discipline depending on the circumstances.

One important thing to remember is that you must discipline your pet promptly for their misbehavior. Delayed punishment will not be effective. The discipline or reprimand must happen right away in order for your cat to connect that action with a negative consequence. Several hours later, they will not connect a punishment for something that has already passed.

1. Vocal Reprimand

A vocal reprimand is the first and most common method of discipline for cats. Often, simply raising your voice and using a specific word, such as “stop,” may be enough to deter misbehavior. I use verbal reprimands for my cats all the time. One misbehaves more than the other, and a verbal reprimand is effective about 50% of the time. I usually accompany this verbal reprimand with a clap. The combination of these two seems to be more effective.

When using a verbal reprimand, be sure to use a loud, firm voice, but do not yell. Pick a word such as “Stop,” “Halt,” “No,” or “Bad,” for example, and use that word consistently. Using the same word every time will help your cat associate that word with you wanting them to stop what they are doing.

2. Clapping

Clapping your hands to make a loud, unexpected noise is another way to deter unruly behavior in your cat. The clap startles them, and often stops what they are doing. My cats are brother and sister and bicker and fight regularly like any siblings. Clapping is one way I use to deter their fighting when I start to see signs that they are picking on each other.

3. Noise

Moat felines do not like loud noises, but sometimes clapping is not loud enough. In this case, you can try another noise-making method. Loud whistles, bells, gongs, and horns are all effective ways to use noise to stop negative feline behavior.

Another method I employ that uses noise is a jar of coins. The noise the coins make when I shake the jar is quite loud and will deter my cats. You can use a glass or plastic jar and coins or a can. The effect is the same: a loud, rather unpleasant noise that your kitty will associate with bad behavior.

4. Using A Deterrent

A deterrent can sometimes help redirect unruly behavior. Deterrence options include air sprays paired with motion-activated sensors to go off when your pet crosses an invisible barrier. Other deterrents can include noisemakers. For example, if you have a kitty who loves to eat your house plants, surround them with items that will cause a noise when knocked over, such as metal soda cans or bells.

Other deterrents include sprays with scents like citrus or bitter apple that kitties do not enjoy or using something that tastes bad. Always stick with a product made specifically for feline use or marked safe for use with pets. Many different sprays smell bad, and those that taste bad help deter kitties from chewing on items like furniture, clothing, or household plants. Sticky paper is another deterrent that can be useful to stop scratching on furniture, walls, and carpets.

5. Distraction

A distraction is another way to stop bad behavior from your feline friend. When you notice the unwanted actions, for example, scratching on the couch, verbally reprimand them, and then provide a distraction. This distraction can be a toy or engaging them in another activity. A laser pointer is a method that works very well for me to distract my cats.

As soon as I turn it on, the laser pointer becomes the center of their focus no matter what they are doing. Because this is a playtime activity, they are eager to jump into it and will usually leave behind whatever they are doing.

6. Time-Out

The classic time-out, or removing your kitty from the situation when they are misbehaving, is a highly effective method of discipline. However, it is not one you want to rely on every time they misbehave. Frequent time-outs can quickly become chaotic, and your kitty may protest constantly being separated from everyone else.

I personally use a timeout when my cats are behaving very out of pocket, and I cannot get them under control. My male kitty Zaphod often picks on his sister Twilight, which can result in quite vocal and sometimes aggressive arguing. In this instance, I will separate them and remove them from different areas to have a time-out.

Find an appropriate time-out spot, like the bathroom, where your cat can freely move and access a litter box and water. They should spend a peaceful 20 to 30 minutes to calm down and redirect.

7. Reward Good Behavior

Rewarding good behavior, especially when your kitty stops and redirects unwanted behavior, is particularly important. Often, kitties misbehave to get your attention, so give them the positive attention they seek before naughtiness starts. Positive reinforcement goes a lot farther than negative reprimands. When your fur baby learns that appropriate behavior earns them rewards like playtime, toys, treats, and cuddles, they usually prefer that to a time out or scolding.

8. Provide Plenty Of Interactive Playtime

While providing playtime isn’t exactly discipline, it is an effective way to deter unruly behavior before it happens. Bored kitties become destructive. Providing your purr baby with plenty of interactive toys and opportunities for exercise, like pet treadmills, tunnels, and one-on-one play sessions every day, will make her feel loved and engage her mind.

Even though felines sleep for much of the day, their minds are highly active when they are awake. Often, they want our companionship and attention, and if we do not give it to them, they will act out.

8 Ways To Discipline A Cat infographic

How Not To Punish A Cat

A cat sitting next to a knocked over plant pot.
Below are a few mistakes to avoid when reprimanding your cat.
  1. You should never yell at or physically discipline your cat. These methods are ineffective and cause your pet to be afraid of you. A fear response is not what you want. While raising your voice is acceptable, yelling, screaming, getting overly aggressive, loud, or physical is a big no-no.
  2. Maintaining patience and understanding that this is a learning process is important.
  3. Do not ignore inappropriate behavior or allow it to continue. Naughty behaviors include little things like a kitten nipping at your toes or fingers or your cat swatting at your face or biting your nose. If the activity feels aggressive or makes you uncomfortable, it is essential to put a stop to it. Allowing it to continue sends the message that this is okay. Even if you do not mind your kitty nibbling your fingers, others, like the veterinarian and your visitors, may not.
  4. You should never compare disciplining your cat to disciplining your dog. Training a dog and training a cat are entirely different processes, as these are two distinctly different animals. These two species can both be trained and learn many things, but they do not learn or understand things in the same way. Dogs are far more receptive to training and responsive to human commands than felines. You can not expect your purr baby to respond to training, punishment, or reprimands like a dog.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below, I cover some of the most often-asked questions about how to reprimand a cat. If I missed yours, just let me know in the comments, and I’ll be happy to answer.

Does spraying my cat with a water bottle help stop bad behavior?

Some people may recommend spraying your kitty with a water bottle to stop the bad behavior. In some cases, this deterrent may be mildly successful. However, despite a widely circulated theory, spraying felines with water doesn’t stop the unwanted actions. Most kitties will not like being sprayed with water and will try to get away rather than associate that consequence with unwanted behaviors.

Spraying your fur baby with water may cause her to become afraid of the water and, by association, you. She will likely stop the behavior and run away because she doesn’t like the water. However, there is not likely to be a connection between the bad behavior and the water. While it may seem to deter them the first few times, spraying your kitty with water doesn’t work in the long run and is just kind of mean.

Is it okay to rub my cat’s nose in an accident outside the litter box?

Never rub a kitty’s nose in a litter box accident. There is a widespread and harmful misconception myth that rubbing a cat’s face or nose in an accident will send the message that this is unacceptable behavior. Rubbing your kitty’s nose in an accident outside the litter box will not instill a sense of shame or remorse for doing so. It will simply confuse your kitty and make her think you are being mean. If you pay more attention to the area where the accident occurred, it may imply to your kitty that going to the restroom there is okay.

It is much better for you to thoroughly clean up the accident area and remove as much of the smell as possible. Reinforce litter box training, and ensure your kitty has a clean, secluded area to do her business. Providing multiple litter boxes is also beneficial and encourages kitties not to urinate or defecate in other areas.

How do I discipline a cat for biting?

As much as we love our purr babies, unfortunately, getting bitten by them can be a frequent problem. It is essential to address biting head-on and put a stop to it before it becomes destructive and harmful. You mustn’t give in to the misbehavior and need to put a stop to it right away. The best way to do this is to remove yourself and access whatever part of you is getting bitten. Using a verbal reprimand, loud noise, and time out are all appropriate when biting is happening.

How should I discipline a cat for attacking?

A kitty playfully nipping at your fingers and toes requires one approach, whereas when your sweet pet suddenly becomes aggressive and attacks you, other people, or other pets, that’s a different story. This situation requires your cat to be immediately separated and contained.

It is best to have your pet examined by the veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical cause, especially if the aggression seems quite sudden. You must work with an animal trainer and veterinarian to ensure your pet does not attack anyone again. Most often, attacks are triggered by fear or illness.

Understanding Feline Behavior

Felines are inquisitive, unpredictable creatures. Some of their behavior is very unusual and can be unique to individual animals. Other behaviors are more common and are often how our cats communicate with us. They use their actions, bodies, and body language to communicate because they cannot converse with us in English or other languages.

A nip on the thumb may mean they want you to follow them. Rubbing on your legs may signify affection or a signal that they are hungry. Learning more about feline behaviors helps us become better owners. While we cannot speak the same language, we can learn to communicate very effectively, which strengthens the bond between us and our sweet furry friends.

Why Trust Love Your Cat?

Danielle is a cat owner with over 30 years of experience. She has spent the last decade working as a professional researcher. Danielle takes pride in keeping up to date with all the latest research and progress in pet care and products. Her goal is to assist pet owners in providing the best care, nutrition, and quality of life for their pets.

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