Imagine this scenario: Isaac is making dinner for his family when he sees his cat, Lucy, jump up on the kitchen counter. He yells, “Lucy no! Get down!” and reaches for a spray bottle. He sends a stream of water that hits her side. Lucy leaps off the counter and scurries into her covered bed in the living room.
Isaac got what he wanted: Lucy left the counter. But what really happened here?
The spray bottle is a form of punishment. Getting squirted with water was an unpleasant experience that made Lucy stop countersurfing. Punishment is often our go-to response to stop unwanted behaviors – from animals or other people – because it can appear to work really well in the moment. When Lucy jumped off the counter, Isaac saw the spray bottle worked and he will likely use it again.
Scolding a cat for pooping outside the litter box, swatting a cat away from scratching the couch, or bopping their nose when play gets too rough are all common punishments used with our companions.
On the surface, they may look like good solutions. But there are fallouts of punishment that can negatively affect the behavior of and relationship with our cats.
Punishment usually doesn’t work in the long run.
The spray bottle can stop a behavior in the moment, but do you think Lucy will try countersurfing again? You bet. Animals often do not connect the punishment with a behavior. Cats in particular simply become fearful when threatened and they don’t learn why they got punished.
What Lucy might learn is that she only gets sprayed when Isaac is in the kitchen. If Isaac is out of the house, she can be Queen of the Counter.
She may also continue countersurfing if she got what she wanted. If she was bored and wanted to interact with her favorite human, the counter is the perfect place to get his attention. He turned and talked to her! While we may think of shouting as a punishment, it could be the attention the cat was craving.
Punishment can lead to generalized fear, anxiety, or aggression.
Lucy may become fearful of anything in the context of getting sprayed. She may develop a fear of the kitchen in general, the rock music that happened to be playing on the radio, or standing on hard surfaces.
If Lucy doesn’t understand why she got sprayed, she could become withdrawn from her family and stay hidden under beds and in closets. This is a way to protect herself from unpredictable scary consequences: if I don’t move, I’m safe.
Fear can also lead to aggression. Imagine Isaac felt bad for spraying Lucy, so he tries to comfort her by pulling her out of the bed. Lucy hisses and bats Isaac’s hand away. In her fearful state, Lucy is protecting herself from perceived potential threats.
Punishment can degrade our relationships.
What if Lucy learns that bad things happen when Isaac is around? Her fear may be generalized to the person that doled out the punishment. She flees when Isaac enters the room or bites when he tries to pet her.
Relationships with our pets – or other humans in our lives – are a sum of the positive and negative experiences we have together. Each negative interaction slowly (or not-so-slowly, depending on the severity) chips away at the trust they have with us. Too many bad experiences and they can start avoiding or fearing us.
You might know someone that is terribly unpleasant to be around and you have creative evasive maneuvers planned to avoid interacting with them. The same avoidance can happen with our cats.
Instead of punishment, set your cat up for success.
If punishment isn’t effective, what other tools can we use?
Fulfill your cat’s needs.
Every behavior happens for a reason. If you don’t like a behavior, think about how the cat can achieve the same outcome in an acceptable way.
If Lucy jumped on the counter because she wanted to be near Isaac and get attention, Isaac could plan a 10 minute play session with Lucy before starting dinner. He might move a cat tree or chair next to the counter so she can rest nearby in an appropriate spot while Isaac works.
If she was countersurfing for food tidbits, Isaac might feed her beforehand so she doesn’t feel hungry while the human food is out. He should be careful to wipe down the counter after every meal so Lucy doesn’t have any tempting crumbs to seek out.
Teach what you want them to do instead.
What should Lucy do instead of exploring the counter? If Isaac wants her to stay on the floor, he should make the floor really exciting – more exciting than the counter could ever be. He could place her food in a puzzle feeder to keep her busy or fill a ball with catnip for her to bat around.
Or maybe Isaac wants her to rest on a cat tree. Using positive reinforcement to reward this behavior, he would give Lucy treats or brief chin scratches when she sits on her perch throughout dinner preparations. Soon she’ll learn, if I stay here I’ll get good things!
Punishment may seem like a tempting solution to behavior problems, but the consequences can be unpredictable and sometimes severe. Instead, we want to have a conversation with our pets and tell them what they are doing right. This will lead to better relationships, fewer unwanted behaviors, and happier homes.
If you need help ditching the squirt bottle, reach out to a certified cat behavior consultant at Pawsitive Vibes Cat Behavior and Training.