Discouraging Unwanted Behaviors in Cats
Written by Small Door's medical experts
While training is traditionally associated with dogs, it’s equally important to work on instilling good behaviors in a new cat, and discouraging unwanted ones, such as inappropriate scratching, biting, inappropriate climbing, aggression, territorial behaviors and urine marking. With practice and patience, your cat can learn to behave appropriately and positively, ensuring they remain well-mannered as they grow older.
What’s the best way to train a cat?
Positive reinforcement is the most effective method of training, and is key to ingraining positive behaviors in your cat. Positive reinforcement focuses on rewarding your pet for good behavior, rather than punishing bad behavior.
Giving rewards, whether in the form of treats, verbal praise, pets and scratches, when your cat behaves well in specific ways encourages them to repeat these actions or behaviors. Good behavior becomes inextricably linked with a reward. Use rewards in all aspects of your cat’s life: when they play nicely, when they meet new people or places, and when they use toys and enrichment.
In addition, problems like aggression and territorial behavior often arise in cats whose habituation, socialization, and stimulation has been neglected. Learn more about these four key pillars in our article on creating positive cat behaviors.
Discouraging unwanted behaviors in cats
No matter what the behavior, remember that you should NEVER physically punish your cat in response. Physical punishment can cause anxiety and aggression issues, and is ineffective at instilling desired behaviors.
A loud clap, spray from a water bottle, or verbal command such as a firm “No!” is a more acceptable expression of disapproval.
How to stop cats scratching inappropriate objects
Cats have a natural instinct to scratch, so you shouldn’t try to stop this behavior entirely; rather redirect it to an appropriate place.
Try placing a scratching post or cat tree close to the object. You can also use double-sided tape on the object to prevent scratching, or consider limiting your cat’s access to it.
If you have a multi-cat household, you should also ensure each cat has their own scratching post, to avoid territorial issues.
How to prevent cats from biting
Cats can give you little ‘love bites’ for several reasons. Sometimes it is just their way of showing their affection in an exuberant way, but it can also be due to overstimulation, and their way of warning you that they dislike how the interaction is proceeding.
Many cats actually do not like intense or long physical interactions or certain parts of their body being touched (i.e. down their back) so keeping these interactions short and sweet can help avoid the overstimulation that can lead to these nips.
Occasionally, cats can also give you little nips to get your attention if they would like to play or engage in an interaction. Pay attention to your cat and watch for subtle clues to predict their behavior rather than curb it. You are, after all, in their space and this should be respected.
Dilated pupils and twitching of the ears and/or tail can be early indicators your cat is becoming agitated and gives you a good warning that it is time to walk away.
If these little nips are not something your cat previously did but are starting to occur when you are petting certain areas, it is time for a visit to the vet. A thorough physical examination can help your vet determine if there is possibly an underlying medical cause (such as pain) that may be bothering your cat.
How to stop cats ‘hunting’ your feet
Cats may display predatory behavior where they are ‘hunting’ your feet in an attempt to entertain themselves.
It is important to avoid overtly correcting this undesirable behavior (i.e. physically trying to stop the cat attacking the feet), as it could trigger further aggressive behavior. Instead, cats respond much better to substitution.
Try to anticipate the event and right before your cat exhibits this behavior, throw a favorite toy or treat across the room, in the hope that they will chase this instead.
You can often tell a cat is getting ready to pounce as they will crouch low to the ground, stare at an object and sometimes wiggle back and forth subtly on their hindlegs, preparing to launch forward.
A good way to diffuse territorial issues is to add more vertical space to each of your cat’s territories, such as with cat trees, cat shelves and window perches.
How to prevent cats from displaying aggression or territorial behaviors towards other pets
Cats are naturally territorial creatures and territorial aggression may develop if they feel an intruder has invaded their territory and they are competing for resources.
Territorial behavior may include hissing, loud meowing, stalking, chasing, swatting or preventing the other cat from gaining access to places.
Try providing multiple separate resources for your cats – including feeding locations, litter boxes, scratching posts, beds and toys. You could try feeding your cats at different times, and scheduling individual playtime with each of them separately every day.
You can also increase the space of your cats’ territory by adding more vertical space, with cat trees, cat shelves and window perches (provided they are safe and there’s no chance the cat could fall out).
How to prevent your cat climbing on kitchen counters
Your cat may be climbing onto the counters in order to get a good vantage point from which to watch you and others in the household.
Try providing an alternative (higher!) perch for them in the kitchen, with a cat tree, secured bookshelf or even a climbing wall. Place your cat’s food or treats up on the new perch to encourage them to explore it.
If your cat continues jumping onto the counter, pick them up and place them on the new perch each time until the new behavior is instilled.
How to solve litter box problems and urine marking
There are a number of reasons cats may be doing their business outside of the litter tray, but thankfully there are several things you can try to discourage this.
Check out our article on litter box training for full details.
Proactive, positive reinforcement is the best defense
As a pet owner, you can also be proactive in preventing problems. Cat proof your home, use rewards to reinforce positive behaviors, and get to know your cat’s natural or normal patterns and behaviors within your home so you can better predict and avoid possible unwanted behaviors before they become habits.
As always, we’re here to help Small Door members with any behavioral problems or concerns you have. We offer behavioral consultations to help you work through issues with your pets.