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Understanding Your Cat's "Bad" Behaviors and How to Stop Them

As a former trainer for canines and their owners, Kinsy has spent countless hours studying animal behavior and human psychology.


Let's Talk Psychology

If you want to modify your cat's behavior, it's important that you understand operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a learning method discovered by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, and the premise is relatively simple. It states that when a behavior is consistently reinforced, it will increase. Also, when a behavior is consistently punished, it will decrease. The best way to reward your cat for good behavior depends on what your cat loves the most. Some cats are very motivated by food/treats, while others would prefer affection or playtime. Some common punishments for cats are loud noises, long-range water guns, compressed air, tin foil, etc. Again, what works best will depend on your cat.

The biggest mistake owners make with these deterrents is letting their cat know it came from them. If your cat scratches on the sofa and you come running toward them shaking a can of coins, they will probably stop what they're doing at that moment. However, when you aren't home, your cat will most likely continue the behavior. So, try to be a bit more inconspicuous with your deterrents. We want the cat to form a negative association with the behavior because of the noise, water, air, etc., but have no idea where it came from. That way, even when you're gone, they won't want to risk doing that behavior anymore.

I use this Motion Activated Pet Proofing Repellent near my kitchen sink where my cats used to sneak sips of water from the dirty dishes. It can be used for numerous other cat behaviors too, like scratching furniture, drinking out of the toilet, or tearing open the cat food bag.

Now with these things in mind, let's move on to some of these common cat behaviors owners struggle with and look at some ways to stop them.

Scratching on Furniture

Without getting too invested in the reasons why cats scratch, just know that it is an instinctive behavior, and trying to shut it down completely will be a never-ending battle on your end. Rather than trying to stop it, we want to instead direct where it occurs. Pay attention to the types of materials your cat is drawn to and try to mimic that in a scratching post. Also, pay attention to whether your cat tends to scratch horizontal surfaces like your couch cushions, or vertical surfaces like your walls or the back of your couch. You'll want to choose a cat scratch that meets your cat's specific preferences. My cats like scratching both vertically and horizontally, so I keep this cat scratcher mat under my bed where they like to hide, as well as a scratching post near the couch. These locations are intentional, as cats tend to scratch in areas where your scent is the strongest.

Once you have found a good post, it is important that you place it near the furniture your cat has been scratching on. This is where operant conditioning comes into play. When your cat uses the post to scratch rather than your furniture, you can reward them with something they love. When your cat chooses your furniture, you'll need to implement a punishment. Remember, whatever punishment you choose, your cat shouldn't know it came from you.


First of all, don't leave any food out on the counter, especially if you're leaving the house. If you do, your cat will get a tasty reinforcement every time he jumps onto the counter. Second, cats need access to a high place in order to have a good vantage point and feel safe in their environment. You can provide this comfort by allowing access to a window sill, some floating shelves, or a cat perch. Once you've provided one or more of these options, you can reward your cat every time they choose this over the counter. When they choose the counter, implement your impersonal deterrent, like an air horn or a sticky mat on the countertop.


Play Biting

Are you beginning to feel like a prey animal in your own home? The good news is you likely have a fun, high-energy, playful kitty on your hands. All cats—but especially personalities like this—need a consistent daily routine. This daily routine should look something like this: eat, sleep, play, eat, sleep. If you have more than one cat, they tend to get plenty of that energy release out on each other. If not, you need to provide them with a few types of toys that you can bring out during a specified playtime.

Anytime your cat looks like they may be loading up to pounce on you, redirect them onto a toy instead. If they do go for your ankles or hands, try not to run or pull away as a prey animal would. Instead, say "No" in a stern voice and firmly push your cat away. You can also wear a whistle around your neck and blow it every time your cat bites or claws you. Then, stop engaging in any play with them for a few minutes. This behavior is the exception to the rule about not letting your cat know where the deterrent came from. Since the behavior involves you, your cat needs to know that you don't like it.


General Tips

  • Remember to stay patient with yourself and your cat during the training process. It may take a week or more before you begin to see any progress.
  • If you aren't seeing any change after a couple of weeks, don't be afraid to switch things up. All in all, you know your cat best.
  • Never stop researching and learning about feline behavior, as the better you understand your cat's behaviors, the more understood they will feel. Eliminating the frustration on your end and your cat's end will create a deeper connection between both of you that will make it all worth it.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.