Tag Archives: positive reinforcement

Why You Should Never Punish a Cat

I’ve seen so many people talk about punishing their cats, and I am shocked every time. Even yelling at a cat is detrimental—they will think you are insane, and they will lose some trust in you—they don’t understand it, it means nothing to them, so you’re making your cat feel less safe without doing anything to change the behavior.

Every time you yell at or punish a cat, you are putting your relationship with the cat in jeopardy. They do not perceive their own activities as “bad” or destructive. That’s a human concept. When you punish your cat, your cat will associate the punishment with YOU—not with his/her own behavior. Often this leads to him/her avoiding you or being more confrontational. The people the kitties originally loved and trusted are now perceived as scary and hurtful. They are not friends anymore, they are now antagonists.

Punishing a cat does not tell the cat what to do. It does not aid in correcting the problem. And most often, the side effects will be extremely negative, both for you and the cat. Punishing and yelling at a cat often leads to an increase in “bad” behaviors because they feel threatened (you were a trusted ally, and now you have turned on the cat, and it may start to see you as an adversary).

Cats will also often avoid places where they were punished. This can be catastrophic, especially if the issue is related to the litter box. They won’t want to go anywhere near the litter box after being punished there.

And studies show that people who yell at others (people and pets) start getting a sense of satisfaction, and thus reward for this behavior. It can quickly become a very bad habit, and one that the person escalates as time goes on. No one wants to hang out with a person who gets high off their own rage. It can only lead to trouble.

Cats don’t do things for no reason. There is always a reason. Sometimes it’s a natural behavior for the cat, and thus you must offer alternatives. If the cat is climbing on the counter, and that’s a no-no, simply pick up the cat (gently) and move it to a cat tree, or another place it can climb. Then praise the kitty like it was his/her idea all along. Always praise and treat when they use those alternatives.

Cats like to have a good vantage point to watch what’s going on. This is especially true in the kitchen. If the counters are off limits, put a cat tree in the kitchen (counter height is fine) so that they can observe at a safe distance.

Make sure you’re playing with your cat enough: 2 sessions of at least 15 minutes of play for adults over 3, 3-4 15-minute sessions a day for 18 months to 3 years, at least 5 sessions of 10-15 minutes of play for 6 months to 18 months. For kittens who are just starting to play up to 6 months, they really need to be playing or being mentally stimulated any time they aren’t sleeping or eating. They have this very short window where they must learn to hunt through play. They are evolution’s finest predator, and this means that play is absolutely essential to kittens and young cats in particular. Cats should never lose their drive to play. If they do, it could be a sign of illness, depression, or they might just need a new toy to get them excited again.

Redirect, guide, offer alternatives, and use positive reinforcement to show your cat that s/he is doing a great job. Praise, praise, treats, affection, play, praise. You will both be happier in the long run, as well as healthier because you avoided all that stress caused by yelling and punishment.

Q&A: How Do I Get My Kitten to Like Petting?

Q: My kitten is 4 months old. She bites me every time I try to pet her. How do I get her to like petting?

A: This is absolutely normal. Kittens do 3 things: eat, sleep, and play. They cannot control any of those things. They need food and sleep to survive kittenhood. Play includes the use of claws and mouths because 1) they need those to hunt and 2) other cats have fur and thick skin that can withstand it. That’s why you don’t use your hand as a toy when playing with a kitten. They must learn to hunt very quickly because, for many cats, soon they will be on their own, and if they don’t learn to hunt, they will die.

So, from an evolutionary perspective, she’s learning to hunt by play. Most kittens this age are learning their independence as well. Depending on the kitten, it is possible to get them to be cuddly, but this is usually when they are too tired to play. And even if you can’t cuddle with your kitty right now, if you bond with her through play, she will repay you later.

My little guy is now 19 months. He’s super empathetic, very smart, and he will cuddle with me when he knows I’m not feeling well (which is often, since I have MS and chronic pain that is unrelated to the MS). He and I have such a close bond that he pets me when he wants to soothe me. It’s adorable! But at 4 months, he only cuddled while sleeping.

Stiles
Stiles in my lap, petting me before snuggles.

So let me tell you how we developed this close bond.

  1. Play is THE key. Play with her several times a day until she starts panting. This fills her need and it gets out all that baby energy. With a kitten this young, I recommend at least 3 play sessions a day. My baby needed 5.If you use a string (elastic string is the most fun, with feathers or other toys at the end) toy and use it to make them do a lot of running and climbing to get it, this wears them out fast. If she’ll chase a toy that you throw, that’s a good way to do it as well. My little guy started playing fetch when he was about 5 months.
  2. Praise, praise, treats. Make sure you praise her when she does things that she’s supposed to, when she gets the toy during play (you should allow her to get the toy frequently, this triggers the reward center in her brain, and that is also key because she will later relate that reward to being with you even without play.) Try to get her to eat a treat or two out of your hand. This is also creating a good association with you, and building that bond.
  3. Eat after play. With play done, and a full belly, she’ll be sleeeepy.
  4. Gently handle her several times a day. Pick her up to carry her to her food (even if it isn’t necessary), to a different room to play with her, etc. They’re wiggly, but if they know you will put them down quickly when they protest, they will start being more comfortable with it.
  5. If you have a plush blanket, put it on your lap, and encourage her to sleep on your lap. Don’t force her. But if she’s wiped out, she’s more likely to snuggle into your warm, inviting lap.
  6. You can pet her head, rub her cheekbones, rub under the chin, but don’t do it too much. You’ll interrupt her sleep, which will make your lap less inviting. Right now you’re just creating the bond.
  7. Never raise your voice to her.  Cats don’t understand the concept of punishment. If she’s somewhere she shouldn’t be, just move her (gently) to someplace where she can be. If she’s climbing shelves that are off limits, you need to provide a cat tree or something else for her to climb on. Always give alternatives. Praise her when she uses the alternatives.

If you keep this up, then once that kitten play stage starts to calm down in a few months, she’ll trust you, she’ll associate you with all things good in her world, and she will be sleeping in your lap and asking for petting in no time.