Punishment Doens’t Alter Cat Behavior

CatChannel behavior expert Marilyn Krieger explains why punishment isn't the answer when confronting undesirable behavior.

Q: A friend of mine has a cat named Chloe who for the last four years doesn’t always use her litterbox. My friend thinks that rubbing the cat’s nose in the urine will solve the problem. I think this is inhumane and I don’t think this will solve the problem. My friend and I have been arguing about this for years.
I am hoping you can help convince my friend to stop rubbing Chloe’s nose in her urine. I’ve been reading your columns and articles for a couple of years and I know you take a firm stand against punishment. I also have noticed that you counsel against the use of squirt bottles, shocking mats and other aversives. Why is that? I would like my friend to read your answer.

A: You are correct. Rubbing Chloe’s nose in the urine is inhumane and will not change the behavior, as evidenced by the fact that Chloe has continued to urinate outside the litterbox for the past four years. Rubbing her nose in the urine is more likely to escalate the problem, cause other behavior issues and break the bonds between Chloe and your friend. Instead of rubbing Chloe’s nose in the urine, I recommend first identifying what is causing her not to use her litterbox, then doing a thorough cleaning with an effective enzyme cleaner. Additionally, addressing the reasons for the behavior, practicing good litterbox management combined with positive reinforcement, will help stop the behavior. Since I don’t know the details, I can’t make any specific recommendations, though poor litterbox management is usually one of the most common reasons cats eliminate outside their boxes.
I do take a firm stand against the use of punishment. Punishment, such as rubbing a cat’s nose in her urine, spanking, shocking, etc, is inhumane. Also, cats typically don’t associate the punishment with the unwanted behavior. Cats aren’t being bad when they engage in activities we don’t like. They are responding out of instinct to stimuli in their environment or to a medical problem. Instead of associating the punishment with the behavior, cats commonly will associate the punishment with the punisher, becoming more fearful and sometimes escalating the behavior or developing other fear-based behaviors. Often punishment results in another long-term side effect: breaking the bonds between the cat and her favorite person.

Additionally, I don’t recommend using aversives such as hissing cans and mats that shock cats. On a rare occasion, when a cat’s life could potentially be endangered, I will recommend quickly squirting a cat with water from a squirt bottle. This doesn’t permanently change behaviors, but a squirt of water can stop a cat from jumping on the stove or darting out of the door in the moment. When squirting a cat with water, never squirt her in the face.

Reinforcing good behaviors and redirecting cats to engage in alternative activities is very effective for changing unwanted behaviors. Clicker training is a reward-based method that successfully focuses cats on other activities and simultaneously teaches new, acceptable behaviors. And it’s fun for everyone! These positive reinforcement methods, along with addressing the causes of the unwanted behavior are successful long term solutions. Positive reinforcement techniques can take a little longer to implement, but are well worth the effort. In addition to stopping unwanted behaviors, these reward-based methods strengthen and build bonds between cats and their people. 

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Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Cats