How to Discipline a Cat - Cat Info Detective

How to Discipline a Cat

Skye Blake-updated, white background

Greetings fellow detectives! Skye Blake here, reporting on an important subject people misunderstand… how to discipline a cat!

paw prints coming in from a distance

Let’s discover what discipline is and how it applies to us fabulous felines (as well as other animals)…

The information here is for general knowledge… always see your vet with questions about your cat’s individual needs. 

Who Is Skye Blake?

Skye Blake-updated, white background

Skye Blake, Cat Info Detective, is a curious cat researcher (not a vet or behaviorist) who sniffs out expert, reliable sources about cats, studies their information, then passes it on to you! 

Sometimes there’s not enough evidence for easy answers, so Skye gives you all sides, explains the situation as thoroughly and clearly as possible, and links you to experts on each page.

Sources are at the bottom of each page so you can do more snooping.

What Is Discipline?

cartoon drawing of judge

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “discipline” has several different meanings.

The most relevant are…

scrabble letters spelling teach
  • “control gained by enforcing obedience or order”
  • “orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior”
  • “punishment”
discipline, punishment, training

People often think discipline is only negative punishment, but it also has positive meanings.

Discipline is training that brings peace and order to a person, animal, community, or society.

Good discipline helps keep people from doing destructive things that hurt both themselves and others.

Applying Discipline to Cats

cat raising paw for treat - training

So how do you apply this to animals… especially us fabulous felines?

Well, what people consider “bad” feline behavior makes perfect sense to us cats.

The real problem is that people don’t speak “cat”, so they haven’t given their cat play and feeding routines that meet their needs and drain energy.

cat sniffing a finger - training treats

One example of this is when cats are kept indoors and not provided healthy ways to follow their hunting instincts.

That unexpressed energy builds into frustration and the cat attempts to find prey to stalk and kill… human hands, feet and ankles do just fine, thank you very much!

What NOT To Do

silver tabby kitten on a bed

Fixing the problem starts with knowing what NOT to do.

Properly disciplining your cat means you avoid punishment in any form.

Punishment is totally different from training and positive reinforcement.

angry, frustrated woman

In fact, punishment will make the situation worse and can easily destroy any trusting relationship between you and your cat.

Your cat will be afraid of you, avoid you, and possibly mark or leave pee puddles out of fear.

Here are some things not to do…

spray, enzyme urine cleaner, discipline a cat, punishment
  • Throwing something at your cat
  • Spraying with water
  • Yelling
frustrated man
  • Stomping your feet or clapping hands
  • Rubbing your cat’s nose in the mess
  • Hitting or swatting
Silver tabby kitten looking scared - on sofa by pillow
  • Grabbing your cat while he’s spraying and running to a litter box
  • Putting him in a time out

Confining the cat to one room (the “time out”) is often used because you’re frustrated and just want to get rid of the cat… not good!

The time to do it constructively is when a cat needs to calm down and decompress in a quiet, low light room by himself.

bathroom - furniture litter box enclosure

It also may be necessary to separate a cat for everyone’s safety while you’re determining the causes of the problem, especially if you have multiple cats.

Then you can control the process of helping your cat feel safe in her ownership of territory and reintroduce her to other cats, dogs, and people.

Just shutting one cat away in prison for the rest of its life is not recommended by behavior experts.

What You CAN Do

cat being petted at animal shelter, rescue

There are things you can do immediately to change how you approach your cat.

Disciplining yourself is the first step in disciplining your cat.

Here are some great ideas…

dark tabby cat lounging on small sofa-sleeping
  • Stay calm when he makes a mess… just clean it up quietly
  • Talk softly and pet gently
  • Play with him daily
cat standing up to play with dangling toys
  • Create a regular, consistent routine for feeding, playing, etc.
  • Catify” your home – give him safe places up high to call his own

Negative Consequences

fat grey cat lounging next to cup of coffee

If you have a situation where a negative consequence is needed to stop certain behaviors, you can use humane methods to teach your cat.

For example, if you don’t want your cat on the kitchen counters first try putting a chair or cat tree nearby, using treats to teach her this is a good place to sit (positive association).

If this doesn’t stop the behavior completely, put on the counter some animal-safe motion-sensing air, water, or ultrasonic sound canisters that activate when the cat comes close to them.

graphic icon of horn, sound

The cat doesn’t like the sudden puff of air, squirt of water or high-pitched sound and will decide it doesn’t want to be there after a couple tries (negative association).

This can be an effective discipline because your cat will think the counter is doing this, not you… an important distinction (and an important difference between motion sensing spray and using a spray bottle).

You can also use the mats that have nubbies on them so when the cat jumps up on the counter, they’re uncomfortable but won’t injure the cat.

white cat preparing to jump

Products and brands mentioned on this page are for your information and convenience only. I make no money from them.

Sprays and motion sensing devices are available at home supply stores and online suppliers like Amazon and Chewy.

SSSCAT® by PetSafe® is one that’s recommended by cat behaviorists… just be sure whatever you use is safe for cats.

Using “YES” Instead of “NO”

cat-sleeping-in-cat-tree

All of the following ideas are based on using positive methods of discipline and training for cats instead of punishments.

We kitties always ask the question “What’s in it for me?”

Use that instinct to give your cat something she can do instead of something she can’t.

tabby kitten sleeping on a cat tree shelf

This goes a long way toward learning to speak “cat” and getting behavior you want.

Understanding the instincts of your cat and her “world view” will also help you understand why these discipline methods work.

Discover more at “The Territorial Cat“.

Reassociation

helping hand up

What’s “reassociation”?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “association” has a few different meanings, but where cats are concerned it means “something linked in memory or imagination with a thing or person” or “the process of forming mental connections or bonds between sensations, ideas, or memories”.2Association Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster

black kitten playing with toy

“Reassociation” is the process of changing what a cat connects with a specific smell, memory, place, or thing.

This process is actually a way of disciplining your cat by retraining him to see things differently.

In the case just discussed dealing with counter surfing, you’re helping your cat change what he thinks about the counter from something he wants to something he doesn’t want.

dark tabby cat lounging in dining chair

The most important part of this is giving him something to want to be on instead (a nearby cat tree or chair).

Think of it from the cat’s point of view…

He wants to be near you while you’re working in the kitchen, near the food, or just wants to be up off the ground.

Giving him something else besides the countertop satisfies both his need and your desire to keep dirty paws off areas where food is prepared.

Using Reassociation with Pee Problems

cat peeking out from blanket

You can use reassociation to change your cat’s view of old pee spots from “I have to pee here” to “I don’t want to pee here because I eat or play here”.

Whatever the causes of your cat’s territorial insecurity and distress, you can work on reassociation at the same time you’re dealing with reintroducing and training everyone involved (human, feline, and canine).

Cats usually don’t handle sudden change well, so whatever changes you make, do them in small steps so your cat can adjust at his own pace.

person-giving-high-five-to-grey-cat

As you can see, the real answers lie with you.

You have to be in charge of the situation and personally involved in order to help everyone have peace again.

Don’t skip the step of determining the cause of his anxiety… otherwise you’ll be doing this all over again.

white patch cat licking lips while eating

Some people suggest temporarily putting a litter box where the cat has left pee gifts.

In some cases, this might be helpful, especially if a cat can’t get to other boxes easily or has a physical problem.

However, some cat behaviorists prefer not doing that because your cat needs to learn that this spot isn’t for peeing, it’s for eating or playtime.

Discover more at “How to Train a Cat“.

From Pee Spot to Happy Spot

dark tabby cat on cat tree looking down

While you’re working on reassociating and have multiple pee spots that you’ve cleaned, cover them with plastic until your cat is successful with one spot.

Then move on to another… shower curtains or mattress covers are great for large areas like sofas or beds.

Food
cat eating kibble from food bowl

Here’s a little secret… we kitties won’t eat where we pee or poop!

Putting food where your cat used to pee (after cleaning it completely, of course), your cat will start associating that spot with something good and won’t want to pee there.

If there’s more than one spot, divide her usual amount of food and put in bowls on each spot. You don’t want to add calories!

longhaired grey, white cat eating kibble by glass of water, food

You may need to put the food near the spot and gradually move onto it if your cat won’t eat there at first, which could take a few days.

Once you have it on the original spot, give her some food there for the next month.

This will help solidify the idea that she doesn’t want to pee here anymore.

You can also gradually change that spot from food to play if you don’t want to keep it as a food area.

white, patch cat looking up warily from bowl of food

Another important discipline is to stop free feeding your cat… she’s not meant to graze all day.

Feeding should be a part of the daily rhythm, especially right after a play session, which fits into every cat’s hardwired hunt, catch, kill, groom, and sleep cycle.

Discover more ideas at “How to Feed a Cat“.

Play
black kitten playing with toy

Playing with your cat is one of the fun aspects of discipline.

We felines usually don’t like to play in an area where we’ve peed, but it has to be CAT play… using the hunting instincts that make us great predators!

Don’t just throw down a toy or dangle it over her head and call that playing.

cat playing with purple stick

Actively play together using a wand toy, whatever type she likes best, until she’s tired.

Pretend the toy is a bird or mouse and move it around the way a bird flies or mouse scurries on the floor.

Use the “boil and simmer” method that Jackson Galaxy describes to get her tired and satisfied.

Burmese cat playing with feather toy

Play until she’s panting, rest, then repeat until her energy is drained.

Once hunting time is done, it’s time to eat, then groom and sleep.

Cats who can’t do their cat routine… hunt, catch, kill, eat, groom, and sleep every day, have built-up energy and anxiety that can cause problems.

Black kitten playing with toy

This is why it’s often recommended to play a few times a day and do it just before your bedtime, so your cat won’t be waking you at 4:00 a.m.

Pretty smart, eh!

Laser pointers became popular to use for a while, but behaviorists don’t recommend them because the cat never catches a kill, which can become frustrating for them.

tabby kitten playing with a ball

This can lead to redirected aggression onto other cats, humans, dogs, and anyone or anything else in the area.

You’re also running the risk of them pee marking again to self-soothe and relieve anxiety.

Here’s how to play the right way…

“The Natural Way To Play with your Cat: Prey = Play”, Jackson Galaxy, July 11, 2020

Clicker Training

cat sniffing a finger - training treats

Clicker training is powerful tool for disciplining cats, and it’s fun!

It’s useful for mental stimulation and creates positive associations with areas where your cat has marked in the past.

Whenever your cat goes to an area where he once marked, sniffs, then leaves, click and give that reward!

cat sitting on a person's feet

That will reinforce the behavior you want.

You can also work on getting her to come when called and get into the carrier, to name a few ideas.

Discover more at “Clicker Training for Cats” and “How to Train a Cat“.

Encourage Face & Body Rubbing

Longhaired tabby cat rolling on floor

All cats mark territory by rubbing their scent on things (and people), making them feel secure that they own it.

You can’t smell it… but they can!

They rub their heads, cheeks, and roll around with their whole bodies, as well as knead and scratch.

2 White/orange, ginger cats rubbing heads

When you bring in something or someone new, gently rub your cat with a towel and then rub it on the new item or person’s legs or arms (if they agree).

Your cat will smell her own scent and feel safer, more comfortable with this foreign “thing”.

Catnip
catnip, catmint

Sprinkling some catnip in the clean area where she used to mark will give her incentive to roll around and even drool a little, which will put her scent there without peeing.

Put enough to give her plenty to roll in… about 2-3 times her size.

Doing this a couple times a week encourages this type of marking instead of peeing.

Ginger cat smelling catnip plants

It’s suggested not to do more than that because the catnip will lose effectiveness.

Not all cats respond to catnip so experiment and see what your cat does with it.

Self-Groomers
white cat rubbing side on doorway

Another option your cat might like is putting corner self-groomers on walls in her favorite rooms, especially near where she used to pee.

She’ll enjoy rubbing her cheeks and body on it, leaving her scent there as a signpost.

Spray Calming Pheromones

pheromone spray

Pheromones help calm some cats and are helpful for associating the spot with facial rubbing instead of peeing.

They’re available in sprays and as plug-ins at online suppliers like Chewy and Amazon.

Using a product like Feliway® twice a day for a month, then once a day for another month is often effective, as long as you’ve completely cleaned the area and dealt with the underlying cause of your cat’s anxiety.

Brands and products mentioned on this page are for your information and convenience only. I make no money from them.

Environmental Enrichment

living room - chairs, shelves

A great way to help prevent bullying and make all your cats feel secure while sharing territory is to “catify” your house (or at least the main areas where they live).

“Catification” is Jackson Galaxy’s term for environmental enrichment… making your home cat friendly using a few interesting concepts that work with your cat’s instincts to own territory.

Discover more at “Environmental Enrichment for Cats“.

Reintroduction

2 cats nose to nose, facing each other

Reintroducing cats is simply the process of separating them so they can’t see each other and introducing them slowly through the sense of smell as if they’ve never met before.

Patience is the key to it all! Your cats will tell you when they’re ready to take each step.

The biggest mistake people make is rushing the introduction and not doing it on the cats’ time… you must have self-discipline with this process!

Here are some helpful videos about introducing cats the right way…

“How to Introduce 2 Cats in 5 Proven Steps”, Cats, May 30, 2020
“How to Introduce Cats” by Jackson Galaxy, October 19, 2019

Conclusion

man holding maine coon cat

Now you know that disciplining your cat is a matter of training and making her feel safe in her world.

If you have more than one cat, you can do the same things with all of them.

In fact, doing things like adding cat beds by windows, putting up shelves, or setting up litter boxes properly, will benefit all your cats.

Discover more at “How to Train a Cat“.


Sources

Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.

Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.

Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.

Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own.

However, sometimes they refer to primary sources.

When I use secondary sources, most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.

List of Sources

“Association” Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster

“Discipline” Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster

“Decoding Your Cat”, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, Editors: Meghan E. Herron, DVM, DACVB, Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, DACVB, Carlo Siracusa, DVM, PhD, DACVB, DECAWBM, pp. 165-189

“The Trainable Cat” by John Bradshaw and Dr. Sarah Ellis, Basic Books, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2016, Chapters 1 & 3

“The Cat Whisperer”, by Mieshelle Nagelschneider, Bantam Books, The Random House Publishing Group, New York NY, 2013, www.bantamdell.com

“Think Like a Cat, How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat – Not a Sour Puss”, by Pam Johnson-Bennett, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, Penguin Books, Penguin Group (USA) Inc, New York, NY, 2000, 2011

“Total Cat Mojo”, by Jackson Galaxy with Mikel Delgado, PhD, Tarcher Perigree, Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2017

Updated April 12, 2024

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