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.