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Managing Cat Behavior— Humane Discipline

Vocal   •   Can of Coins   •   Water Flick

Eddie Cat MisbehavingHere's the short and simple:
Punishing a cat DOES NOT WORK! Hitting, kicking and spanking are all harmful and should NEVER be done to a cat. DO NOT chase a cat with a broom or other implement! These will simply inspire fear and resentment. MANAGEMENT works and sometimes, in management, you need to exercise discipline and control. Remember, YOU must be the alpha cat!

Let's face it, there are times when we have to correct Kitty. Cats do it to each other all the time. But as humans, we want to find the most effective and painless way to do this. It's part of our compassion, our "higher aspirations". There are ways to discipline a cat that are simple, effective and humane.

Discipline— Vocal

Cats are vocal creatures. They will express feelings using vocalizations. The meow, growl and hiss. Growling and hissing are warnings to others that the cat is angry and getting ready for a confrontation. For cats, this is the preferred method to actual combat. So they are highly effective techniques. You'll need to be kind to yourself and swallow some human pride to use these vocal tricks. You may feel foolish or "less than human" with these, but they can work where more human approaches fail! Remember, you are dealing with Kitty in terms Kitty understands, so you have to behave like an "alpha" cat.

  • Growling: Humans can growl as easily as a cat. A growl is a universal vocalization. It says "Watch out! I am angry!" If you see your cat doing something that is inappropriate behavior (such as scratching furniture or digging) you can instantly let the cat know humanely with a determined growl. Just look intently at the cat and emit a low, guttural growl while frowning and curling back your lips. In most cases, the cat will back off— somewhat surprised! GROWL ONLY when the cat is misbehaving, otherwise, the cat will be confused and become anxious around you. You must be consistent and appropriate to the situation.
  • Hissing: This is the next step above growling. Humans can hiss, just curl back your lips exposing your teeth and and forcibly pass air from your mouth. While this seems very animalistic— that is the point. A cat knows well what a hiss means and will immediately back off. This also works because as humans, we don't normally hiss. Kitty is used to our human behavior. The sudden switch to the cat-like behavior will get Kitty's attention! HISS ONLY when the cat is misbehaving, otherwise, the cat will be confused and become anxious around you. You must be consistent and appropriate to the situation.
  • Commanding: There is a difference between yelling and commanding. These are both human vocalizations and less apparent to a cat, especially in homes where there is a lot of yelling going on anyway. Yelling is like shouting, saying something in a loud, sometimes hysterical voice. Cats are highly sensitive to nuances in tone, and they can tell that a yell is slightly hysterical. COMMANDING is a deliberate, focused vocalization meant to get attention and immediate response. It is accomplished through projection (you project your voice from lower down in the abdomen) and a LOWERING of vocal tone. Commands are usually most effective when a single word: STOP, NO, OFF and so on. That's all the cat needs to hear.
  • Clapping: There are times when a vocal command will be ignored by the cat. Let's face it, we talk all the time, they get used to it, and even a command will not get attention. You can augment the command with a hand clap. However, keep in mind that ANY hand clapping will be associated with discipline after you start using the technique. If you and or your family like to watch TV and clap in response to some event (a good joke, a sports win), the cat may get confused and the clapping approach may be ineffective.
  • Standing: You are bigger than your cat. You've probably figured that out. Use your size to your advantage to "intimidate" a cat who is ignoring corrective commands. If the cat is doing something wrong and you are sitting down, try using the techniques above with a sudden stand up motion. This will get the cat's attention. DO NOT chase the cat. Cat's get chased all the time, and will simply wait and return later when they think it is safe.

There are times when you need stronger measures to discipline your cat. Here are two highly effective and often Vet recommended techniques.

Discipline— Can Of Coins

If there is a lot of vocal noise in your home (noisy children, TV constantly blaring, etc.) vocalizations will not mean much to your cat because she is used to the din. So a NEW sound must be introduced— one specifically designed and intended to tell the cat when she has stepped "out of bounds". The Can of Coins is a simple and easy method. You make it yourself:

  • Take a cleaned empty, dry drink can (soda, fruit juice, etc.) and fill it with a few pennies or small stones. You can seal the top with strong tape or leave it open (just don't turn it upside down if you leave it open!). This makes a rattle with a particular sound frequency. Different can materials (steel, tin, aluminum) have different sound frequencies.

When Kitty is doing something that is unwanted, get the can IMMEDIATELY and shake it hard while commanding "NO!" or "STOP!". The vocal command reinforces the sound. Kitty will stop and run off. Over time, kitty will associate the sound with the discipline and eventually the can itself with the discipline. So in many cases, just showing the can to the cat will stop the behavior.

You can combine this discipline with one of the vocal disciplines for added effectiveness. But don't go overboard. Show some self control and manage your own anger!

Other noise makers that can work are: A large bell (i.e. a cow bell), a "clicker", a rattle, a drum.

DO NOT shake the can next to the cat's ear! Cats have very sensitive hearing. Shake it loudly but at a distance, and stand while doing it (this shows dominance). You may want to make several such cans and place them around the house for easy reach.

Discipline— The Water Flick

For many years people have used spray bottles and water guns to "spray" a misbehaving cat. This can be effective, but there are some problems. You can easily lose or break the implement, and the cat will associate the unpleasantness with the object, not you. The spray or water stream can go awry and hit and stain objects in your house. If you use a water gun the stream can hit the cat's eyes or ears and cause permanent damage. Cats don't like to get wet. Some will go swimming, but most avoid water and they especially do not like water sprinkled on them. A simple and safe method is the water flick. To do it, you need a water source (bowl of water, etc.) and your hand:

  • When the cat is misbehaving, dip your fingers in the water (or get them wet somehow) and flick your fingers at the cat's flank, back or rump (NEVER the face and eyes, ears!). When you flick, do so in a way that your hand shape changes from a closed type of fist to an open one with fingers outstretched and keep your hand open for a few seconds after the flick. Be sure and stare at the cat when you do this.

The cat will usually stop immediately and run off. Because the cat has such a wide range of vision, it will see your open hand and angry face. The open hand means something. It is a visual signal, similar to a cat's open exposed claw posture. This means "Watch out!" to the cat. It is an aggressive sign.

Eventually, the cat will associate the hand sign as a signal, and you may no longer need any water at all!

You can combine this discipline with one of the vocal disciplines for added effectiveness. But don't go overboard. Show some self control and manage your own anger!


Disciplining a cat during times of behavior also requires some follow through. After you apply the discipline, you must ignore the cat and go about your business. DO NOT rush after the cat and apologize! That will only confuse the cat. Also, do not carry a grudge and continue the discipline after the cat has stopped. Cats can't associate this type of behavior meaningfully. Discipline must be immediate, applied WHILE the bad behavior is in progress, and stopped immediately when the behavior stops.

Kitty will come back and be somewhat more subdued. She has learned who is boss and will actually respect you more for it. When Kitty does return, treat her as if nothing has happened, be kind and loving as normal. The past is done and gone, for both you and kitty— until the next time. But there will be fewer and fewer next times because you have taught Kitty her limits, and she is smart enough to know it!

About the Article Author:

Tim Thompson, author of this article, has been living with cats for many years. As a student of behavioral statistics, he has learned the importance of observation to understanding behaviors in humans and animals. He has served as a member of the Board of a local rescue shelter and worked with their foster care givers for 8 years. On the home front, he is the human companion of Gertrude and Eddie, two tiger tabbies who are constantly teaching Tim new things about living with cats.



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