The Bad-Kitty Dilemma

What do we do when cats misbehave?

We have two good cats – Sparkle and Boodie – and one cat who is utterly incorrigible: our tortoiseshell Binga. Many people who live with torties won’t be surprised to hear this; tortoiseshell cats are known for having lots of attitude and getting into trouble. Binga fits the tortie stereotype perfectly. She goes after whatever she wants, whether she is supposed to have it or not. She jumps on the dining room table and kitchen counters in spite of our every attempt to discourage her. She is food-motivated and will steal from the other cats’ dishes without a second thought. For many years, her favorite way to get my fiancé up in the morning was to claw the bed’s box springs as loudly as possible (we’re lucky she did not carry that habit over when we got a new bed). How do you discipline a cat who misbehaves so wantonly?

You don’t.

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Cats have no sense of right and wrong. They have needs, and they have wants – and they don’t understand why they shouldn’t go out and get them. Maybe they’re hungry, or they want to stretch their limbs, or they want attention. They’ll do whatever it takes to get that, whether it’s breaking into the treat cabinet, or clawing the sofa, or knocking a knickknack off a shelf. They see no problem with this – it’s merely the means to an end. If they’ve realized you don’t like the behavior, it won’t stop them, or if it does, it’s only when you’re around. If you’re out, all bets are off. When you discipline a cat, they understand it as, “This person unreasonably takes offense,” or worse, “This person is being mean!” In other words, you’re the problem, not them.

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Punishing cats is pointless at the very least and cruel at best. For a while when Binga was younger, my fiancé tried squirting her with a water bottle. The results were predictable. It only stopped her behavior temporarily, or stopped her when he was there to squirt her. He finally ended the squirt bottle wars when Binga was clawing the box springs on morning. He grabbed the water bottle and pointed it at her – and she cringed so pathetically that he put down the bottle and never picked it up again. It wasn’t worth further damaging his relationship with her.

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What works with misbehaving cats is a combination of positive reinforcement and removing temptation. A cat will keep doing something until she finds something more appealing to her. I found a beautiful, vintage look sofa that is covered in microfiber, a fabric that is nowhere near as appealing to scratch as the other, more appropriate scratchers I have throughout the house. If I don’t want Binga on the kitchen counter, I make sure there is nothing up there that she wants (and that includes dirty dishes, which she loves to scrutinize for crumbs). Because it is impossible to keep her away from Sparkle when Sparkle is trying to eat, I make sure they are separated – one or the other is shut away in a room until Sparkle is done eating. But most importantly, I accept Binga for who she is and enjoy her mischievousness instead of condemning it. As someone who grew up loving punk rock, I have to admit I like her rebellious spirit.

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