The Weiler Psi

Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics

Lessons from Cats about Punishment


I’ve been around cats most of my life.  My Mom had cats and when I got married  my wife had cats and over the years we taken in quite a few, housing as many as 10 at a time.  We also have taken in a lot of rescue kitties of all ages.  We’ve rehabilitated some and found new homes for them, provided hospice care for others and had to put a few down due to age, injury or disease.  Cats, in other words, are a big part of my life.  (That’s why all the lolcat pictures.  We’re always taking pictures of them as well.  The one that shows up in most of my lolcat pictures is Germanicus, a one year old pure bred Turkish Van and general hell raiser.)

If you’re familiar with cats, you already know that they are solitary creatures and that one of their primary personality features is that, unlike dogs, they have no hierarchy and therefore no need to please.  What makes this important is that despite this, cats still need to be trained not to bite and claw, not to jump on the table, to come when they’re called (sort of) and other sundry things that involve not destroying property or otherwise making a nuisance of themselves.

If you try to train a cat by using punishment, you will end up with a very nasty and/or unsociable animal.  Cats don’t know how to be submissive and they will respond to punishment in one of two ways:  Either they will flee or they will fight.  What they won’t do is learn the lesson you wanted to teach to them.  Continue to punish a cat and it will either leave permanently if it can, hide all day and only come out for food in the dead of night or worse, it will hang around, but attack anyone who comes near it.

The key to training a cat is to make sure that behavior adjustments aren’t triggering fear responses.  If they are annoyed, pissed off or frustrated that’s ok, but they must not be afraid.  When one of the cats we were rehabilitating started tormenting one of our other cats, I didn’t swat him when I caught him in the act, I just grabbed a shirt, blanket, pillow or whatever I could grab and put it in his face and started slowly pushing him backwards with it.  This sort of thing is really annoying to cats and sends a clear message, but it doesn’t scare them.  Consequently, they’re more likely to learn from it.

Because cats do not fear this technique, it doesn’t lead to behavior problems.  They are far more likely to obey a simple voice command in the future because they are not afraid of me.

Once a cat is in fear, that is all they focus on and all of their responses will be fear based.  In addition to being a horrible teaching tool for cats, punishment does something else to the little furry critters.  It sucks the joy out of them.  Happy cats are fun.  They snuggle, they play, they get along with other animals and they run around and have a good time and many of them make cute little noises.  You can see it in their body language and in their eyes as they walk by casually rubbing up against you or coming out to greet you when you get home.

This is the lesson that cats teach us about being punished.  Without a need for attention and with no need to please, they react to punishment in a very straightforward way and this gives us a window into the actual effectiveness of punishment.  You see, just because dogs have a need to please does not mean that they are handling punishment any better; it’s just that it is masked somewhat by their loyalty and submissiveness.

The difference between training and punishment is whether the conditioning evokes a fear based response.  Shouting for example, does no physical harm, but it is almost guaranteed to evoke a fear response all the same and is therefore punishment.

One thing I noticed is that preventing a fear response is crucial to fast and effective training and since punishment evokes fear, it is a bad method.  And if this is the case in dealing with cats, it’s probably the case in dealing with other animals and with humans as well.  If the goal is training, then punishment is not the answer.

Punishment leads to the land of unintended consequences.  Cats and dogs get anti-social, children turn to self destructive behavior and when it is played out on a domestic or international stage it can and does backfire in devastating ways, such as the rise of Hitler after the punishing treaty of Versailles or in the form of the never ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Our method of dealing with drug abuse for example, is  based on  punishment and no other domestic program in the history of the United States has been such a dismal and on going failure.  From the beginning of prohibition to the present day, all it has done has funded organized crime which, having no legal recourse to settle disputes resorts to violence; Drug users and low level dealers go to prison (while the wealthy and powerful dealers go free) and having other opportunities denied to them are far more likely to resort to crime later in life.  At no point in our history has this diminished either the flow of drugs or the demand.  So while the intended goal of punishment for drug use has been to reduce the overall use of certain drugs we have not only not met this goal but have also spawned an increase in criminal activity.  This has not changed in 100 years.

Another example of this is the abortion debate.  Punishing people for either performing abortions or having them has been demonstrated by history to be a futile exercise.  Abortions are going to happen and it’s best not to criminalize it.  Yet this is not the only way to reduce the number of abortions and if we look at preventing unwanted pregnancies through education and increasing income we find that there isn’t the same conflict there.

While we are vastly different from most animals on an intellectual level, I don’t think we are all that different on an emotional one.  We can learn from cats that punishment is basically an uncreative fear based response and in choosing this as our favored method of behavior modification we greatly reduce our chances of getting the outcome we want.  As long as we are focused on punishment we are almost always overlooking better and more creative solutions to the behavior modification that we seek.

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14 comments on “Lessons from Cats about Punishment

  1. Sheogorath
    December 4, 2014

    I have to admit to punishing my cat all the time, but only in what I think of as ‘cat suitable’ ways. For example, if Max is on the kitchen side, I’ll sometimes put my hand on his flank and firmly but gently press in the desired direction so I’m not pushing him but the message is clear. I’ll often just point to the floor and say “Down” in a firm (not loud) voice. On both of these occasions, I’ll give Max a few seconds, then if he doesn’t jump back up, I tell him he’s a good boy and scratch his head. Another thing I do, when Max scratches things I don’t want him to, is to bring my forefinger down into the air between his nose and the ‘no-scratch surface’, or I point at him and say “No” with a disapproving look on my face, then praise him a few seconds later if the behaviour doesn’t resume. I never punish him for ‘appropriate scratching’ (his scratching post), scent marking with his cheek glands, or playing, and I never hit him or even shout at him. I guess I must be doing something right because Max recently adopted me as an honorary cat, and just this morning was rolling all over me like I’m catnip (sans the drooling).

    • craigweiler
      December 4, 2014

      Yes, we do similar things. The only other thing I can add to this is that if I need the cat to walk away from something, like fighting or even challenging another cat, I’ll grab a towel or shirt, or whatever I have handy and put it right in their face to get them to back up.

      It also keeps me from getting swatted if they’ve really got their dander up.

      • Sheogorath
        December 5, 2014

        Because I have a single cat household, the only problem is with neighbourhood cats coming into Max’s ‘territory’. One time this happened, Max was crouched down and lashing his tail, so I went out into the garden and was able to help him chase the other cat off without coming into physical contact with either of them. It was the following week that he adopted me, probably seeing me as a fellow ‘pride member’ because I joined with him against the invader.

  2. PM
    September 25, 2014

    I also punish my cats. Granted, it’s very rare (last time I punished was probably about a year ago). I’m not anal about what they do. Yes, my cats are those that walk on the table and I’m fine with it. I physically punish when: They get too rough with me, they get into a bad looking scuffle with each other, they are approaching something dangerous. Punishments ARE effective, however, please note this: Cats are incredibly good at detecting what some would call, the “discriminant stimulus”. You, the punisher, are the discriminant stimulus. What this means is that they associate your punishment with their behavior, but ONLY in your presence. In other words, they say to themselves “I really liked doing that thing.. but I shouldn’t do it when he’s around or he’ll smack me.” Also, even though you may be the discriminating stimulus, it doesn’t mean that the behavior is NOT decreased outside of your presence. It probably is, but it’s not completely eliminated. Think of yourself as a kid when you did something you knew you shouldn’t because your parents wouldn’t approve. Odds are, that sense of fear decreased the chances of your involvement in the activity (though it did not eliminate your involvement). Something similar probably happens for the cat. I’m sure the cat has that moment of “I’ll get smacked if I do this… Eh, but he’s not here.” I can’t back this up with research, but I’m wiling to bet money that research does show a decrease in the behavior (though not complete elimination) in absence of discriminating stimulus.

    Now what this means to you, is that you should be sneaky and quick about your punishments so they don’t know what hit them. The “sneaky” aspect helps prevent them from figuring out that you’re related to the punishment. The “quick” aspect is about helping them associate the behavior with fear. I often have an EMPTY cigarette box laying on my desk. As soon as I see a cat doing the wrong thing, I toss it at him (e.g. violent stand offs. Sometimes their play gets out of hand). It doesn’t hurt him necessarily, but it scares the crap out of him (and hopefully he doesn’t understand that I threw it).

    Now a note on physical punishment: What is it? How do you do it correctly? First of all, if you have a history of difficulty controlling your own temper, you should avoid punishing your cats when you’re upset. Whenever you physically punish a cat, you should combine it with a vocalization, so later on, you won’t even have to touch your cat (the lazy man’s discipline!). Eventually you just make your unique annoying sound and the cat will know. A good way to punish without scarring your cat (or any other animal, for that matter), is to start small. Choose an area that is difficult to damage– away from organs. They have big butt muscles, so go for that (and NOT from the top– that’s where their spine is. Do it from the side, with an open hand). Start with a tap and look at your cat. Is he just looking at you as if he’s expecting to be pet? No good. You did not do it aggressively enough. Slowly escalate until you know what your cat responds to, and do just enough to get a fear response (your cat’s eyes will get huge, and he’ll move away from you. If your cat is confident, he won’t RUN. He’ll just get out of your reach and stare at you as if he’s saying “What the hell, man!?”). Of course, please note that you must keep in view your cats overall behavioral repertoire when deciding if punishment is an appropriate option for this time in his life (e.g. no punishments for new cats). A good way to judge if punishment is a good idea for the cat is to look at how fearful / brave he is in general. In fact, there IS a hierarchy for cats. One of my cats is on the bottom, and he is fearful. I never punish him. If your cat is generally fearful, using punishment is a very messed up thing to do to the cat. Imagine that you’re anxious about everything, and then someone just adds anxiety to your life. You feel even worse, driving your health and everything else down (see: self-injurious behavior in animals and humans). For cats that are generally fearful, use redirection instead. Keep in mind, that the cat will likely only absolutely withhold the behavior in your presence, which could be enough. If it’s not enough (e.g. your cat is really curious about that power outlet…), do some sneaky punishments.

    Lastly, I can’t talk about punishment without talking about positive interaction. One works because the other exists. When all is negative (excessive punishment), then avoidance of the punishment is meaningless. The cat has less motivation to avoid your punishments. In other words, if your cat’s experience in your household is largely negative, then the effectiveness of your punishments diminishes (think of it as your cat losing respect for you). In reality, this happens because all animal experiences, including your own, are built relative to other experiences. If all you know is pain, then a little prick doesn’t really phase you much. But, if you have a lot of pleasant experiences, then that one painful experience in contrast to all the positives is more meaningful. The cat/animal has more control over its own experience and can choose behaviors that increase positives and decreases negatives. But remember, it must have a history of positive experiences, so it knows that it’s possible to have mostly positive things happen. This also applies to rearing children.

    For the record, my punishments have not caused any detrimental behavior. They follow me EVERYWHERE, and cuddle constantly (constant behavior since kittenhood), but let me say it again.. The last time I punished one of my cats must have been about a year ago. It’s not a common thing I do.

    P.S. Cats are damn smart. Once I taught my cat to turn off the light with his paw within 30 minutes. However, I then realized that was a bad idea. He kept trying to turn off the light without a command, and I imagined that his paw could get stuck in the switch, or worse, he’d get electrocuted. I stopped rewarding the behavior and he moved on to different activities (psychological jargon for that is: extinction).

    I’m a psychotherapist, and I suspect that part of the “no punishment for cats” movement is related to the “no punishment for kids” movement that’s been happening. I think the no punishment movement is extreme– as extreme as the types of punishments that stirred up this movement. Everything in moderation, people! The same way that you can mess up an animal/child with punishment, you can mess it up with rewards.

    • Sonya Muniz
      October 7, 2016

      Very insightful!!!! And also very true…. My kitten is no more than 6 months old right now…. I do punish him when need be… I associated punishment with the raising and tone of my voice… Both…. I can get him to stop a certain behavior without even raising my voice now… I got him at around 4 to 5 weeks old and was always treated lovingly…. And once he began to explore some undesirable behavior I began with a spank on his butt more towards the middle between the back and mid leg with a firm NO….. He didn’t know what I did at first, so he just stood kinda shocked and looked a lil confused LOL… It was kinda funny but I stayed with a straight face not to confuse him farther with laughter…. He soon learned not to do certain thing but only in my presence and if I’m in the next room, he will do as he pleases… He is almost over confident and doesn’t scare easily but does get annoyed with my tone…. He just doesn’t like it…. It works…. And right now, he is on my belly where he just sleeps sprawled across with his paws stretched out!! He has to be in my presence or on top of me…. So in short, he does MOSTLY behaves WHEN I am home…. Ha ha ha…. Just my 2¢ lol

  3. Pingback: Need to share despair about my fighting cats - Page 3 - Cat Forum : Cat Discussion Forums

  4. SMokey
    March 19, 2013

    Thanks for this. My whole life I was taught/thought that you have to give a tap on the nose as soon as the undesired behavior happened. This way the cat/dog would associate the punishment with the crime. This article game me the ah-ha moment to why my cat went from super playful to never leaving my bedroom. It was a shock to me as I only gave a light tap to the top of the nose with a commanding NO. Now I must work to repair the bond and erase his fear.

    Many Thanks

    • craigweiler
      March 19, 2013

      Cats do settle down and improve, but be patient. My experience is that it takes them a long time.

  5. yodawg
    September 21, 2012

    I punish my two cats all the time, and the two are both well behaved, and very friendly, to the point of clingy. I just make sure they know: if they want to start unwanted behavior, I will finish it.

    • craigweiler
      September 22, 2012

      It works, but then they’re not relaxed, happy cats.

      • Sonya Muniz
        October 7, 2016

        Very insightful!!!! And also very true…. My kitten is no more than 6 months old right now…. I do punish him when need be… I associated punishment with the raising and tone of my voice… Both…. I can get him to stop a certain behavior without even raising my voice now… I got him at around 4 to 5 weeks old and was always treated lovingly…. And once he began to explore some undesirable behavior I began with a spank on his butt more towards the middle between the back and mid leg with a firm NO….. He didn’t know what I did at first, so he just stood kinda shocked and looked a lil confused LOL… It was kinda funny but I stayed with a straight face not to confuse him farther with laughter…. He soon learned not to do certain thing but only in my presence and if I’m in the next room, he will do as he pleases… He is almost over confident and doesn’t scare easily but does get annoyed with my tone…. He just doesn’t like it…. It works…. And right now, he is on my belly where he just sleeps sprawled across with his paws stretched out!! He has to be in my presence or on top of me…. So in short, he does MOSTLY behaves WHEN I am home…. Ha ha ha…. Just my 2¢ lol

  6. losew8t5lowly
    June 2, 2012

    What about getting rid of yowling stray cats that are scaring my songbirds away? My local animal shelter CHARGES (a refundable) $45 fee for a live trap (which may or may NOT work) and I’m unemployed?…so i really don’t have money for this…especially when the cats are not fixed and there’s now kittens. Great. I’m thinking punishment sounds just fine. I’d prefer a shovel or BB Gun at 6am when they’re at their most obnoxious.

    • craigweiler
      June 2, 2012

      The howlers are generally females in heat or males doing a face off. If you wish to chase them away, buy a gardenhose nozzle with a good stream ability that shoots far. Or buy a cheap water gun. Either way, shoot the cats with a water stream. Aim for the body. It is harmless to the cats, won’t wake up the neighbors and they will go away and they won’t be in a hurry to come back.

  7. amyshojai
    April 15, 2011

    Wow…interesting post. Not sure I agree with all the kitty insights but does make one think. *s* Cats actually are not solitary (look at barn cat communities0, they do have a heirarchy (every cat thinks s/he’s GOD!), and that’s why they have no need to please, LOL! Glad to find another fellow cat lover.

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