When your cat adopts a behavior you dislike or you find unpleasant, what can you do to make him stop repeating it?
You have several options. However, it is important to know that punishment does not work with cats. Indeed, a behavior can only be modified effectively if we know the reasons that motivate the animal to act in such a way. We therefore need to assess what emotion induces the behavior. Thus, it is easier to explain the behavior and to react accordingly, namely to ignore the behavior and/or the cat, to re-direct the behavior and/or the cat, to desensitize the animal or else to use counter-conditioning methods in order to encourage him to behave differently. That being said, when we want our cat to eliminate a behavior, we have to offer him the possibility of adopting an alternative behavior that will prove more beneficial for him than the behavior we wish him to avoid.
Why are aggression and punishment ineffective?
These intervention methods do not benefit the cat. On the contrary, punishment considerably increases his anxiety level, often generates fear of the punisher and fosters an apprehension of certain situations. When they are administered too frequently or when they are too harsh, they can even lead your cat to depression.
An anxious animal is an animal who displays behavioral issues. If you increase his anxiety by inadequate punishment, one day or the other, he will respond to a situation to which he is confronted in an unacceptable, maybe even illogical, way. He might not attack his owner because he is afraid of him (but even that is uncertain), but he will attack other individuals (human or animal).
Dogs versus Cats
A dog is a social animal that wishes to please. If punished, he will modify his behavior in order to avoid displeasing. However, he will suffer from a lot of anxiety because of the situation, which in turn will provoke other behavioral issues. Training a dog by way of punishment is extremely damaging for the animal, in that it causes a very high anxiety level.
A cat, for its part, is a hedonist and solitary animal. Punishment is therefore ineffective, because the cat only understand that he cannot trust the environment in which his owner dwells. If the cat is forced to stay there to eat, you may be sure that he will avoid his owner to the best of his capacities. If he is forced to live in such an environment to fulfill his needs (eating and drinking), the anxiety he feels will cause other issues such as inappropriate elimination (because of his anxiety or to mark his territory), redirected aggression, etc. By using punishment to fix a behavior, you will only create more problems.
Encouraging your cat to adopt a substitution behavior
If an animal adopts a behavior, it is because that behavior fulfills a need. Then, what behavior must the cat adopt in order to satisfy his need without it bothering his owner? We cannot forbid him to do something without offering him another option to reach his goals. To do so, he needs to receive something in exchange such as a reward, a modification in his environment, a reorientation of his behavior, etc. Thus, not only will the animal be more inclined to adopt the new behavior (or to modify the inappropriate behavior), but, in addition, he will be happy to do so, which will decrease his anxiety level. Moreover, if each time he needs to change a behavior he gets something positive, he will very quickly seek to understand what he needs to do in the future when you will introduce other modifications, for he will want to get the reward.
A technique used by experts
Cat Educators are not the only ones to embrace this view of feline education. This method is taught in all the conferences and training programs we have attended, and the vast majority of the most notorious behaviorists we have met also put it to practice. Since the efficiency of these notions has been scientifically demonstrated, these techniques go beyond the field of behavior theory. Unfortunately, a great number of behaviorists still use repressive methods based on concepts of domination and inter-species hierarchy, even though those were invalidated by scientific studies.