The Dos And Don’ts Of Cat Behavior Modification

Frustrated by your cat’s behavior? Does she scratch that expensive leather sofa? Does he bite the hand that pets? Do you think you want to correct the behavior but aren’t sure how? You’ve come to the right place!

The Dos

Is This Really a Behavior Problem?

More often than not, the behavior is perfectly normal for a cat. Scratching objects in our home is natural behavior for any cat. By the same token, biting the hand that reaches out to her during playtime is just what any kitten would do. However, peeing outside the litter box is not something that should be happening.

Not sure if your cat’s behavioral issue is normal feline behavior, a developmental stage or an actual problem? Visit our cat behavior articles section and learn more on the topic, or visit our cat behavior forum and ask.

Work with Your Veterinarian

If your cat appears to have a behavior problem, consider medical issues. Read more about Physical Problems That Turn into Behavior Problems.

Your vet should rule out any physical problems before you can move on to address behavioral ones. While many vets are not experts on feline behavior, they can often refer you to a behaviorist and also help with stress-reducing medications, either as a temporary measure during behavior modification or a permanent solution. Read more about Anti-Anxiety Medication for Cats.

Provide Solutions

You can’t teach your cat to behave in a certain way unless you address the root cause of the behavior. In the case of litter box issues, for example, you should use our guide to How To Stop Your Cat From Scratching The Furniture.

Remember, solutions and alternatives always come before correcting the behavior.

Use Positive Reinforcement Techniques

Depending on the type of behavior you’re dealing with, positive reinforcement using praise and treats may work. Specific techniques are described in our various cat behavior guides and articles.

Stay Calm and Positive

Whatever your cat is doing, don’t lose your temper. Cats do not do things “for spite” or out of vengeance. They are simply incapable of such complex motivations. Your cat is doing what she’s doing either because she is physically ill or because one of her basic needs isn’t met. That’s it. So don’t get angry and don’t take this personally.

The Don’ts

Don’t ever hit or otherwise physically hurt your cat

This is pet abuse, plain and simple. It achieves nothing except distrust and potential stress-related problems.

Don’t punish your cat

Cats don’t understand the concept of punishment. Withholding food, confining a cat to a room, or any other method of punishment is a recipe for stress and stress-induced problems. It is possible to use confinement to a room as a way to allow the cat to calm down in a stimuli-free environment, but it should never be used as punishment.

Don’t shout at your cat

Shouting can make a nervous cat even more nervous and more prone to behavior problems.

Don’t use spray bottles or air pressure cans

These are likely to startle and scare nervous cats and cause more problems. Moreover, they make the cat associate you – the owner – with something scary and unpleasant.

Don’t Declaw

Declawing is not a solution to either furniture clawing or aggressive behavior. It is an extremely painful procedure which could potentially cause more behavior problems down the road. Read more about declawing here –
Why Cats Should NOT Be Declawed
Declawing – More than Just a Manicure
Declawing and Alternatives

Don’t give up!

If your cat displays unwanted behavior, there are always positive and effective ways to deal with that. Our community members are here to offer advice and support, so post and let us know about your problem in the cat behavior forums!

Comments? Leave them using the form below. Questions? Please use the cat forums for those!

18 comments on “The Dos And Don’ts Of Cat Behavior Modification

jtbo December 2, 2014
I did read sometime ago about a study which stated how cats seemed not to learn from bad experiences, but only from good experiences, it was a study where cat had to escape from a box and it was studied does cat learn how to escape by timing how long it took for cat to escape the box, way to escape was also changed as well as feedback from failed attempts and I think there was no difference of no feedback and negative feedback. It was mentioned that because cat has limited long term memory storage, it is not worth to keep unsuccessful experiences as such are not helping in getting food and they use their memory to get food, they don't need memory for self preservation, thus bad experiences tend not to stick to them, like yelling etc. Also there was mention that cat's short term memory is around 16 hours while human has it around 10-15 seconds, so after 16 hours cat is forgetting everything that is not worth to keep, like loud scary noises and such. I can't remember how many things cat could keep on short term memory, for human that was 4-9 with 7 being some kind of average, 4 being more common for older people. I guess that study shows quite well why negative feedback just does not work so well compared to positive feedback. But remember we are only humans
michifts mommy January 9, 2015
My cat is going through what I think is or could be separation anxiety he calls out and cries/whines a lot when I'm not home and sometimes even when I am home, he has even got 2 of them down to where you would think for sure he is saying mama and I love you and others have also commented on it as well, but after checking things like food, water and box he sometimes still just carries on
loopycann June 9, 2015
I don't agree with cats nott having memory of unpleasant experiences.I've had cats a long time and I've used the water bottle deterrent.Im gonna get hate mail I'm pretty sure but to me a water bottle has the ability to avoid disaster for my baby.I only use in very dire circumstances.IE,once I had a cat that would dart between the legs out of hiding to reach the outside.She learned 2 years ago that when she's close to front door opening that a sprinkle of dreaded water will be there,thus she stays away from the front door.There are times when the water bottle is used and when it is not.If the behavior puts her in danger then it's used.I also don't see how using it brings blame to the user.If done away from the user(such as across the room)sparingly(once)with calm,quiet aim,she doesn't have ANY CLUE the origin or suffer anything more than an unpleasant light sprinkle.Everyone isn't worthy of this type of discipline because some people are aggressive whenever they have control,be it animal, child ,or spouse.
badems human September 13, 2016
So, I don't punish, hit (This I agree), no spray bottles and no shouting. But how will I teach the things that she's not supposed to do, like life threatening things? My kitten picks up things off of the floor and eats them. The other day I caught her trying to pick up a staple. I don't know where she found it. Because I vacuum the floors, every, single, day! Thank god I caught her and interrupted her from picking it up. Every time I see her trying, I try to approach slowly and then distract her. But I can't see her every move. I need to somehow able to teach her this is NOT acceptable. Yesterday she found a small piece f a grocery bag and ate it. I tried to open her mouth and get it out, but then I scared myself that I will hurt her. So, I couldn't manage to take it out of her mouth and she swallowed it in that split second. I really need help with this, if you have any suggestions! Vacuuming everyday apparently is not enough! 
Anne September 13, 2016
@Badems Human that's a great question. Why not post about it in the cat behavior forums where other members can help you find ways of keeping dangerous items away from your kitten? We also have an article on the topic here - How To Stop Problem Chewing In Cats
JMJimmy October 26, 2016
I couldn't disagree with this more.  Selective punishment for actual misbehaviour is a very valuable tool.  Let me be clear, I am NOT talking about jumping up somewhere you don't want them, a past behaviour, peeing outside of the box, or anything but the most dangerous behaviours.  The sole instance we use 'punishment' is when one of the cats hunts another.  Not a cat fight, not a dominance issue, but where one cat is actively stalking another with the intent to cause harm.  We yell once.  If that doesn't stop the behaviour, we attempt to dominate by placing our hands behind our backs, no vocalization, and simply stare the cat down.  On rare occasions even that is not enough.  In those cases scruffing is required.  A simple, calm, scruff the back of the neck and slowly guide the cat to the ground.   There can be nothing aggressive in the action or you're just picking a fight with your cat which it will win. Once the cat is on the ground, immediately release.  If done correctly the cat will remain there for up to 5 seconds before getting up, shaking it off, and moving on.    We've used this tool to great effect in preventing our normally very passive Scotty from harming Juniour.  Junior is inexplicably fearful of Scotty and will ambush him.  99% of the time, Scotty avoids conflict and moves on, but every so often Junior will attack and then begin acting like prey and will corner himself.  Scotty would begin hunting him in these cases and it would become a very bad situation, usually ending in Junior defecating on himself.  We attempted every positive technique we could but nothing could stop Junior's fear (he'll eat 2 inches from Scotty every night just fine but still has these 'fear episodes').  The only thing we could do was deter Scotty from the hunting behaviour.  I've scruffed him 4 times in total, now days all we have to do is yell once and possibly approach and he'll come running and lay down near us because he now knows he's not supposed to be hunting him.  This is the result: 
  (Junior is the tabby on the left, Scotty is the fold)  We've gone from nearly daily problems to once every couple weeks and the severity has lessened to the point where Junior hasn't defecated on himself in months.  We can actually observe Scotty about to get into that mindset, pause to think it through, shake his head, and walk away.
Anne October 26, 2016
I'm glad this worked for you but with another cat it could have ended differently. With most cats, what you did would cause more stress than help.
JMJimmy October 26, 2016
If you're doing it correctly, the only stress is the cat letting go of the anxiety that caused the behaviour in the first place.  I understand the caution though, many people wouldn't be able to stay calm or may shake/harm the cat despite good intentions.  I treat it as an act of compassion not anger.  While I disagree with using a clip like this, as you can't control the pressure and if the cat doesn't deactivate you've got a serious problem... it does illustrate that when you take the emotion out of it and it's strictly bio-mechanical it is something cats can respond to without harm.
Anne October 27, 2016
Most experts think the clip as cruel, for the reasons you mentioned. I still think your suggested technique has more risks than benefits, especially since - like you said - it's very difficult for people to implement without the anger. In most cases, the result will be an even more stressed cat than before, who learns to shy away from his/her owners. Anyway, it's an interesting debate, so why not start a thread about it in the cat behavior forum? More of our active members are likely to see it there.
cindy j January 4, 2017
What is wrong with using a c water bottle for behavior correction. Like keeping cat off coffee table. I would never squirt my cat in the face. Never. Foot or hind area only. Kitten seems to not care. I am not successful with this anyway. Any suggestions??
JMJimmy January 4, 2017
Cindy: it's not a behaviour correction it's a fear response for many cats.  You are choosing to instill fear in your cats (if they are afraid) but the behaviour will continue as soon as you are gone.  They associate the fear with you/the bottle/the sound not the behaviour.  What is generally recommended these days is something like motion activated compressed air.  The reason is that the association is made with the place not the person.  That is the behaviour you're trying to correct, you don't want the cat in that place, by making the place a bad place to be they simply won't want to be there.  Other people suggest things like sticky tape or aluminum foil - the former is bad because the glue transfers then they lick it off, the latter is hit and miss and requires you to cover everything in aluminum foil. :)
cindy j January 4, 2017
I don't see my cat as afraid of the wayer bottle by any means. Bottom line in all this is she wants attention. I already new that was the case. She gets equal attention as my 2 other cats as well. The other siggestions are not helful. I will work it out. Truly it's not that big of a deal.
cindy j January 4, 2017
Thank you.[emoji]128522[/emoji]
JMJimmy January 4, 2017
It may not be "that big of a deal" with your cat, I have seen the permanent trauma spraying with a water bottle caused in my sister's cat.  That was 25+ years ago, people spraying her to keep her off the counters.  She spent the next 15+ years of her life afraid of everyone but my sister (who never sprayed her), and was sent bolting away any time there was the sound of water.  From the shower to the kitchen faucet to pouring a drink.  The poor thing had a horrible life because we didn't understand what we were doing to her (and it never did keep her off the counters).    If she wants attention and you're not willing to give it at the time, try ignoring her until she goes away or redirect her with a toy.  Cats are creatures of habit so if TV time (or whatever) is cat free time, if you really stick to it (zero reaction to what they're doing) they'll learn they won't get attention during that time.  It'll take a couple weeks of no talking/laughing/staring/petting/pushing away/etc during those times to train them but it can be done.
cindy j January 4, 2017
I said I do not use the water technique any longer as it does not work. I get how other cats may take it. It's not a big deal for us, no fear. My cats have no fear only love. This is not my first rodeo. My cats are extremely well cared for and well adjusted. . If the only bad thing the kitten does is get on the coffee table at the end of the day it's no big deal. But thank you for the ignore advice and or move her to a toy.
nunnc84 December 2, 2018
Lately my older cat is beginning to growl and hiss at me when I pick her up, cut her nails, etc... She has bit me before, not breaking the skin. I got her 8 mo ago. Recently I adopted a rescue cat. The behavior has gotten worse. The new cat and her don’t get along. I don’t know if she is in pain. The vet said she is getting mean as she gets older. What can I do?
RadioactiveCat February 25, 2019
Hello! I got a kitten at two months old November 29, 2018. Since then he has endured three house moves and now we have been settled for three months and he is acting very weird. As a baby at 2 mo he was very cuddly and since moving he has become more distant? He still tries to nurse on my other cat who is 3, he runs and is skittish and there’s no reason for so. He’s been loved, cuddled, fed, watered and played with. He loves to play with laser lights and eat canned food. When he wants to, he will snuggle up next to me on his own but when he is picked up he freaks out. It takes me at least 10-15 mins of holding him still for him to relax. My older cat who he nurses on is now weaning him (she doesn’t produce milk since she is fixed) so maybe this has a play on it? I’m not sure, let me know your thoughts!
Furballsmom August 18, 2019
RadioactiveCat said:
Hello! I got a kitten at two months old November 29, 2018. Since then he has endured three house moves and now we have been settled for three months and he is acting very weird. As a baby at 2 mo he was very cuddly and since moving he has become more distant? He still tries to nurse on my other cat who is 3, he runs and is skittish and there’s no reason for so. He’s been loved, cuddled, fed, watered and played with. He loves to play with laser lights and eat canned food. When he wants to, he will snuggle up next to me on his own but when he is picked up he freaks out. It takes me at least 10-15 mins of holding him still for him to relax. My older cat who he nurses on is now weaning him (she doesn’t produce milk since she is fixed) so maybe this has a play on it? I’m not sure, let me know your thoughts!
Hi @RadioactiveCat! As is mentioned at the end of the article , you will want to post your question(s) in the forum Cat Behavior The forums are where members will see your posts and will provide you with suggestions, support and advice. If you aren't familiar with forums, there are articles here that can help :) Site Help | TheCatSite

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