Q: This is less of a question than an observation I’d like your comments on. When I was married, my cat Sammy stopped using the litterbox. My ex-husband did something terrible, he rubbed Sammy’s nose in the excrement. I noticed after he did that, Sammy became afraid of my ex-husband and stopped using the box completely.
A: Your husband’s action of rubbing your cat Sammy’s nose in the excrement was both ineffective for resolving Sammy’s inappropriate elimination challenge and inhumane. As seen in your cat Sammy’s case, instead of solving the problem, punishing a cat or other animal can escalate unwanted behaviors and/or create other fear and stressed-based behaviors.
Cats who engage in unwanted behaviors are usually stressed or feel insecure because of circumstances in their environment. When stressed, cats will often engage in instinctual/survival behaviors. The cats aren’t being bad, but understandably these behaviors aren’t appreciated by their human companions.
Although punishment can stop a behavior at the moment it is performed, it often has other unfortunate consequences. Punishment typically stresses cats, causing them to be fearful; additionally, punishing cats can break the bonds between cats and the humans around them. Since stress and insecurities typically trigger unwanted behaviors, cats often will develop more behavior problems. And because cats sometimes associate the punishment with the punisher, cats often become fearful of their people. Because most behavior challenges occur when cats are stressed or fearful, punishment can create a vicious cycle.
That being said, punishment and aversives aren’t all bad. They can keep a cat from being harmed in the moment. For instance, squirting a cat with water when he jumps up on the stove can save his life, but it won’t train the cat from not jumping on the stove permanently. Most likely he will be back up on the stove, checking it out, when people aren’t around.
Instead of using punishment to try to permanently change a behavior, modify behavior in a way that will address the triggers, reduce stress and strengthen the bonds between cat and people. The first step to permanently change the behavior is to determine why the cat is misbehaving. For example, cats sometime avoid using litterboxes due to poor litterbox management, not enough litterboxes, poor box locations and other resident animals. Once you determine the triggers for the behavior, address them.
When the challenge is inappropriate elimination, focus corrective actions on the causes, such as cleaning litterboxes often, placing uncovered litterboxes throughout the house or making other changes. In addition to addressing the causes, the cat needs to be reinforced and rewarded when he’s engaging in acceptable behaviors. A few positive reinforcement techniques effectively train cats and stop unwanted behaviors. This approach to changing behaviors eliminates or modifies the reasons for the behavior and trains cats to the correct behavior without causing the cat to feel stressed or fearful. An added benefit is that it helps cats feel safe and more connected with their people.