When you feel the need to discipline your kitten because they’re not listening, it’s important to understand that your kitten isn’t being “bad” for the sake of being bad. They’re simply trying to fulfill a basic need or desire.
Kittens need to be cut a little slack as they learn and explore their new world.
>> You may be interested in: Why Does My Kitten Bite Me (unprovoked & randomly)
Even children need to be taught a lesson over and over before they fully understand. And until a child reaches a certain age, they’re going to act out, break things, do things they’re not supposed to, etc.
Expect the same from your kitten.
However, there is a right way and a wrong way to discipline a kitten.
>> Discipline a cat the wrong way and you’ll get more of the same behaviour; it may even escalate.
>> Discipline a cat the right way and you’ll strengthen your bond with them and have a well-behaved cat.
But it requires patience.
How to discipline your kitten
To properly discipline your kitten you must use positive reinforcement and provide solutions that can replace the negative actions.
Disciplining a cat is sort of like planting more flowers in a garden to choke out the weeds. You can pull weeds all you want, but they’ll find a way to grow back. If instead, you fill the space with beautiful flowers, the weeds will have less room to grow. You’ll still have to pull the odd weed here and there, but there will be fewer of them, and they won’t be as noticeable among all the flowers.
Disciplining a cat is much different than disciplining a child. You can’t send your cat to their room and expect them to learn a lesson. They learn through positive reinforcement so punishing your cat for jumping up on the counter will get you nowhere.
If your cat is misbehaving, follow these 6 essential steps.
STEP 1 – Understand your kitten’s needs
Although your kitten is an animal, their needs and wants are similar to ours.
- A place to eliminate (litter box)
- Treatment for illnesses
And they desire to have:
- Connection / Love / Affection
- Praise and acknowledgment
- Entertainment (playtime, birdwatching out a window, etc.)
- A clean place to eliminate
You’re likely already addressing all of your kitten needs and want on some level. However, cats are finicky and things may not be up to their standards.
Your kitten is confined within your home and can’t wander around to find different water and food sources, shelters, litter boxes, etc. So think about how you can best meet their needs and wants within your home.
A happy cat is a well-behaved cat and their happiness relies on you.
STEP 2 – Connect your kitten’s behaviour to a cause
Your kitten may be exhibiting undesirable behaviour because they’re either unhappy with a situation, or they’re simply acting upon their natural instincts.
Your kitten may be unhappy because:
- they’re dealing with a health issue
- the litter box situation isn’t ideal
- they’re bored
- they want more attention from you
- they dislike their food or water
- someone or something is making them feel threatened or stressed
Your kitten may be acting upon natural instincts to:
- Find food or water
- Sharpen their claws
- Find safety
You need to figure out which situation is encouraging your kitten to exhibit the behaviour you’re trying to correct.
Try to match your cat’s behaviour to their needs/wants.
Jumping up on the counter or table may be because they’re:
- looking for food
- escaping a dog or child
- trying to look out a window
- wanting to explore new (higher-up) spaces
Eliminating outside the litter box may be because:
- they don’t like the litter (scent, consistency, etc.)
- their litter box isn’t clean
- another pet won’t let them use the litter box
- they don’t like the location of the litter box and feel unsafe when using it
Knocking objects over or chewing on them may be because they want your attention to:
- give them affection
- give them playtime
- give them food or clean water
Scratching furniture or carpets is because they have a natural instinct to sharpen their claws to:
- be able to protect themselves
- be able to climb trees and escape predators
- leave their scent and mark their territory
Keep in mind, with cats, it can be hard to match a behaviour to a reason.
Your kitten may be peeing on your bed because they’re dealing with an illness or because they feel stressed by a new piece of furniture or a new roommate in the house. Small things can be stressful for a cat and seem insignificant to us.
Consider if anything has changed and work with your cat to find the cause of their behaviour.
For example, if they keep jumping up on the counter, try playing with them to see if that piques their interest. Or, try cleaning their water bowl and giving them fresh filtered water. Or, try giving them a different type of food. They may be hungry but dislike the food you’re serving them. So although their food dish is full, don’t assume they’re not hungry.
If your kitten’s bad behaviour seems unexplainable, contact your veterinarian. They may be dealing with a health issue that requires medical attention.
Our kitten seemed completely healthy; full of energy, eating normally, playing lots, etc. But we kept finding him peeing around the house. We then spotted a small amount of blood in his urine and took him to the vet.
(We eventually realized he had been getting into some house plants. As soon as we removed them his health issue cleared up.)
STEP 3 – Find a solution / opposite action
Cats learn best through positive reinforcement.
It will be very difficult to teach your kitten not to do something.
The better method is to spend more time encouraging them to engage in an opposite and more pleasing action.
Behaviour: Jumping up on the counter or table
- Reason: looking for food
- Solution: feed more frequently with small meals, switch their food, never leave food on counters, create food routines so they know when they’ll be fed.
- Reason: trying to escape from a dog or child
- Solution: give your kitten a high spot you approve of (e.g. a cat tree with a perch the dog can’t reach) or a quiet spot they can be away from other pets and children.
- Reason: trying to look out a window
- Solution: add a perch by another window.
- Reason: wanting to explore new (higher-up) spaces
- Solution: give your cat high spaces they can explore around the house or near the counter or table.
Behaviour: Eliminating outside the litter box
- Reason: they don’t like the litter (scent, consistency, etc.)
- Solution: try different litters and switch to unscented (cats are sensitive to fragrances).
- Reason: their litter box isn’t clean
- Solution: add another litter box, scoop the litter box two times per day (minimum), dump out all litter, clean the litter box, and fill with clean litter at least once a month.
- Reason: another pet won’t let them use the litter box
- Solution: move the litter box to a room that’s only accessible to your cat (e.g. small opening a dog can’t get through), add more litter boxes and place in different locations.
- Reason: they don’t like the location of the litter box and feel unsafe when using it
- Solution: add more litter boxes to your home in different locations to find which one suits them best. Don’t suddenly move their litter box or it may upset them; add more (check out: Best Place to Put a Litter Box (So Your Cat Uses It) & I Moved the Litter Box & Now My Cat Won’t Use It (How to Fix)
>> There are many reasons a cat will eliminate outside the litter box. Check out 6 (Most Common) Reasons a Cat is Peeing Outside the Litter Box as well as Why is My Cat Pooping on the Floor? (7 Reasons & Quick Fixes)
Behaviour: Knocking objects over or chewing on them:
- Reason: they want affection
- Solution: give them more attention throughout the day and dedicated time when all of your attention will be on them (no phones, or TVs).
- Reason: they want playtime
- Solution: consider getting another kitten they can play with, introduce a new toy each month, get them interactive and motion-activated toys, give them dedicated playtime in the morning and at night.
- Reason: they want food or clean water
- Solution: create a routine so they know when to expect fresh food and water (here’s the best water for cats). Try feeding them more small meals throughout the day, try switching to a low-carb high-protein diet (preferably wet food) so they feel full longer.
Behaviour: Scratching furniture or carpets
- Reason: to sharpen their claws and mark their territory
- Solution: give them multiple scratching posts (try adding one where they like to scratch), get them a cat tree they can climb.
As mentioned, you may need to try multiple solutions before you find one that works.
If you think your kitten is jumping up on the counter because they’re hungry, but offering them food or a different type of food isn’t helping, see if playing with them more reduces how often they get up on the counter.
Be patient and keep trying new things. It will likely take weeks, sometimes months, to correct a cat’s behaviour.
STEP 4 – Teach your kitten the opposite action
This step will require patience as repetition is key.
Your kitten or cat is not going to understand and correct their behaviour the first time you show them you want them on their cat tree instead of the kitchen counter.
Remember, punishment doesn’t work with cats.
No matter how frustrated you are with your kitten’s behaviour or how many times you have to repeat the process, don’t direct your anger or frustration toward them.
You must indicate their action is bad, calmly stop your kitten’s bad behaviour, and immediately direct them to the solution while incorporating positive reinforcement.
For example, let’s say your kitten keeps jumping up on the counter.
>> Teach them it’s a “bad” behaviour by using a word or phrase (e.g. “no” or “stop that”) in a deeper, louder, and more stern voice or clapping loudly. You don’t need to scare your cat or yell.
>> If they don’t jump off the counter on their own, gently pick them up and place them directly on the ground, giving them as little attention as possible (no holding them, talking to them, etc.).
>> Encourage the “good” behaviour.
- If they’re getting on the counter for food, take them to their food dish, set them down, and then praise them when they start eating.
- If they’re getting on the counter for your attention, take them to their play spot and praise them when they start to play.
- If they’re looking for a better view, place them on top of the cat tree or perch and immediately praise them and pet them when they’re there.
It can seem like you’re rewarding their bad behaviour, which is why it’s important to indicate an action is bad with a stern voice or loud noise.
And every time they exhibit the good behavior over the bad behavior, praise them. When they use their scratching post or play with their toys, tell them “Good job! You’re such a good boy/girl”. Even if they’re simply sitting on the kitchen floor; they’re not on the counter so tell them they’re doing a good job in a happy, excited tone.
The more you praise your cat in a loving voice, the better they’ll understand what your stern voice means.
STEP 5 – Stay ahead of your kitten’s behaviour
It can be tricky correcting your kitten’s behaviour because it’s not a one-step solution.
For example, if your kitten has been getting up on the counter to find food, you’re going to have to stay on top of keeping food off the counter and dirty dishes out of the sink. Then it takes time for your kitten to disassociate the counter with food.
And you also don’t want your kitten thinking you feeding them is a reward for them getting on the counter. So you must build a new routine so your kitten knows when mealtimes are and doesn’t resort to using the counter to get your attention.
Both of our kittens (Charlie and Arthur) like to jump up on the counter, but Charlie jumps up there much more than Arthur. We’ve discovered he does this when he’s bored and wants our attention.
The more I stay ahead of his boredom by giving him lots of playtime, the less he jumps on the counter.
A routine can help with this.
For example, your morning routine may be:
- Scoop the litter box when you first wake up
- Play with your kitten in the living room after breakfast or during coffee
- Feed your kitten after playtime
- Clean their water bowl and set fresh water out while they’re eating
In the morning, they’ll know to expect a clean litter box, playtime after you get up from the breakfast table, and food and fresh water after playtime.
This routine also helps you get in the habit of keeping their food dish, water bowl, and litter box clean.
Try and keep things as consistent as possible, right down to where you play with them.
If you teach your kitten through routine that playtime happens by their cat tree, they will start to connect their cat tree with playtime. And ideally, they’ll go to their cat tree when they want playtime.
Think about all of your kitten’s wants and needs and how you can address them each day:
- Food – high-protein and low-carb food (preferably wet), small meals throughout the day at the same time.
- Water – clean their water bowl each day and give them clean water (preferably filtered, here’s why).
- Shelter – give them a cozy, warm place to sleep and feel safe.
- A clean place to eliminate – scoop their litter box daily and change the litter frequently.
- Treatment for illnesses – regular vet visits.
- Safety – give them quiet spots to hide from other family pets and/or children. Create a calm, loving environment for them.
- Connection / Love / Affection – spend one-on-one time with your kitten; petting them, holding them, cuddling with them. Talk to them in a loving tone.
- Praise and acknowledgment – give them lots of encouragement when they do something good (like scratch the scratching post, play, or sit on their cat tree) and use an excited tone.
- Entertainment – give them plenty of playtime (let them show you when they’re done with playing; they need more than 10 minutes a day) and introduce new toys regularly so they don’t get bored.
The more you stay on top of these requirements, the happier and more well-behaved your cat will be.
STEP 6 – Keep getting to know your cat
Each cat is different and the more you get to know them, the better you’ll be able to work with them to solve issues.
We recently adopted two brother kittens and they could not be more different.
Arthur is food motivated, easy-going, and a bit of a scaredy-cat. So he’s easy to train with food, and a clap of the hands will have him immediately jumping down from the counter. Arthur plays for a couple of hours but sleeps most of the day.
Charlie craves attention and doesn’t have as much interest in food. He’s also much more defiant. When we clap our hands and tell him to “get down” from the counter, he’ll lie down on the counter and roll around. He’s extremely active, could play for hours, and sleeps much less than Arthur.
Charlie requires much more attention and playtime than Arthur does, but the more we talk to him throughout the day to give him attention, praise him for behaviour we want to see more of, and play with him, the less interested he is in the counters, curtains, and other objects we want him to stay away from.
Taking the time to try and understand each kitten has helped us correct unwanted behaviour.
If we simply labeled Charlie as a “bad cat” and got frustrated every time he jumped on the counter, we’d likely be dealing with him on the counter 100 times per day, or worse.
But understanding that he loves attention and playtime has helped us “train” him. When I follow our routine of playtime in the morning, afternoon, and evening, he doesn’t get up on the counter at all.
Why won’t my cat listen to me?
If your cat won’t listen to you it’s likely you haven’t gotten to the root cause of their behaviour. Your cat is getting up on the counter, or scratching furniture, or peeing outside the litter box, for a reason.
If you simply spray your cat with water in an attempt to get them to listen and change their behaviour, you’re only encouraging them to go to greater lengths to get what they want.
Until you address their needs, they’ll keep acting out.
If you feel like you’ve tried everything and your cat is still misbehaving and won’t listen to you, take them to a veterinarian clinic for a checkup.
Cats hide their illnesses really well, so there may be an underlying health issue that’s causing them to act out.
They may even have a behavioural issue that your vet will be able to prescribe medication for.
How do I punish my kitten?
Please do not punish a kitten, it will only make the situation worse. There are times your kitten may require a time out, but it shouldn’t be given out of anger.
If you toss your cat in a bedroom and close the door, you can expect to open the door to a worse situation.
They may decide to use a bed as a litter box, find something to knock over and break, a cord to chew on, etc.
And cats aren’t quick to forget that you’ve treated them poorly. It’s likely their bad behaviour will continue, or even escalate.
Punishing your cat will lead to stress, which has the same impact on a cat’s body as it does on a human’s. That stress will come out in the form of an illness. Which leads to expensive vet visits.
Punishment is not the solution.
You may however, need to create a time-out room for your kitten. This should be a comfortable, safe, and enjoyable space for them.
We recently adopted two kittens and after constantly waking up to holes in my curtains, plants on the floor, and beloved objects destroyed, we realized we needed to put them downstairs at night.
This is not a punishment room; it’s a kitten playroom.
The space has lots of windows for them to look out, a cat tree to scratch and climb, a comfy couch and blankets for them to sleep on, multiple litter boxes, food and water, and lots of toys.
Each time we take them down there for the night, we spend time playing with them and give them a treat.
They, of course, would prefer to stay upstairs, however, they don’t see the space as a punishment. They spend most of their time in it even when the doors are open and they’re allowed to come upstairs.
Kittens will be kittens, so no matter how well you follow the steps to properly discipline them, there will be times they’re rambunctious and perhaps even a little destructive.
If you do need to place your kitten in a time-out room because they’re being destructive while you’re on a Zoom call, make sure to do so in a calm manner.
Give them an indication that they’re not in trouble (such as talking to them calmly, giving them a few pets, or taking a few seconds to play with them).
The room should have a litter box, food and water, and something to keep them busy, such as a toy or climbing tree. Never place your cat in a room without access to a litter box.
Cats aren’t children. They won’t understand why they’re being locked in a room and they’re not going to learn a lesson because of it.
Punishing your cat will only encourage them to act out more.
They’re acting out because you’re not giving them something they need. Continuing to ignore that need will only lead to more bad behaviour until they get what they need.
They’re trying to teach you something; not the other way around.
Do your best to uncover what your kitten is trying to tell you through their actions.
They may need food, water, toys, a clean litter box, or even medical attention. Don’t stop trying to uncover what it is until their bad behaviour stops.
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