How can I win an argument with my cat?
December 5, 2009 10:29 AM   Subscribe

When I try to make my cat do something she doesn't want to do, she bites or scratches me. What can I do about it? So far it looks like my choices are a) let her have her way; b) get scratched; or c) bribe her. She generally knows the people are in charge, but when that setup just won't do, she uses violence to get what she wants.

Our six-year-old, female cat is usually well-behaved and pleasant to be around. She is sometimes nervous or skittish, inclined to jump at a sudden loud noise, but for the most part will always choose to be near people, play, or cuddle. She doesn't scratch or bite while playing, she doesn't scratch the furniture or carpets, and she obviously knows the rules (when she starts to do something wrong, like if she gets too wild while playing, she immediately draws back, runs away, and takes cover under a piece of furniture).

When the cat does do something wrong -- jumping on the counter, playing too aggressively, etc. -- we usually discipline her with some combination of hissing loudly, stomping after her wherever she goes to hide from us, and telling her sternly "NO!"

The main problem we have with her is that she knows she can win an argument by being physically violent. This happens very infrequently, but I think it is a big problem when your pet attacks people, however seldom it may happen. The typical scenario is that she'll go somewhere she's not allowed -- like the bedroom closet -- and where we can't really reach her to get her out. Last night, my husband wanted to remove her from the bedroom (where she is typically allowed, so I see how this could be confusing for her). She did not want to leave the bedroom, and when he went to pick her up, she bit him hard enough to break the skin.

So, what should we do? It seems like a choice between letting her win or getting cat-attacked. Often I'll just leave her in the closet, if that's where she wants to be, because I don't want to get scratched or bit. But that is obviously not a good way to train her! Coaxing her out of the room with food seems like rewarding bad behavior.

When she does bite or scratch, how should we respond? A water bottle isn't practical because it would take too long to go get it and come back to spray her. We can't really "scruff her" while she's agitated because she could just attack again if we get that close to her. I am wary of any physical discipline because I don't think it works with cats, and I'm afraid I could be too hard on her when I'm angry.

So, I'm not really asking WHY our cat displays these behaviors, but more what we can do about it. We can read her pretty well, and she always gives warning signs before she strikes, so if she's just over-stimulated or generally freaked out, we avoid touching her and she doesn't lash out. But when we're having a stand-off, trying to get her to do something that she doesn't want to do, how can I win the argument?
posted by TrixieRamble to Pets & Animals (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry, the squirt gun is your best bet. If getting one would take too long, just buy more than one and keep one in each room.

As well as some degree of just taking your lumps. I've gotten plenty of bites, scratches, and what-not from my own cat, but -- at the end of the day, he's 10 pounds, and I'm....considerably more than that, and that makes me the dominant species, which means that even if I get bit or scratched, I can ultimately dominate him (Issuing the disclaimer that I'm currently having some problems keeping him still long enough to give him an IV, so take my advice with a grain of salt; but the point still stands). You may need to just accept some scratches as par for the course.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:35 AM on December 5, 2009

For the closet example, could you maybe shoo her out with a broom? I used to use a broom to sweep one of my cats out from under the bed (because I simply couldn't reach him!) and now he runs away every time I get the darn thing out.
posted by gueneverey at 10:41 AM on December 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think it depends on the personality of your cat. Ours doesn't respond to the squirt bottle at all. We physically remove her from what she's doing, and say, "No."
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:52 AM on December 5, 2009

pop can with pennies.
posted by silkygreenbelly at 10:54 AM on December 5, 2009

Cat discipline is like pouring water uphill.

To get my cat to listen, I pick her up (or just pull) by the scruff of the neck, and tap her nose with my fingers (bad thing! don't do that!) or rub her forehead with mine (good thing!). This is just imitating mama-cat behavior, and it seems to work, more or less: pulling on the scruff of her neck makes her go limp and be attentive for a few seconds. Reflex, clearly.

Of course, if she knows she's doing a bad thing, there's no way in hell she lets me get close enough to pick her up in the first place. So in that case, yeah: water pistol or a plant-sprayer thing works good.
posted by rokusan at 10:55 AM on December 5, 2009 [4 favorites]

You can buy several small squirt bottles ($1.50 each) and put one in an obvious place in each room. Then you'll have one handy when your kitty's misbehaving.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 11:05 AM on December 5, 2009

Oven mitts. Seriously.

Then, once you've gotten the cat out of where you don't want her and she has bitten or scratched you, dump her unceremoniously to the floor and ignore her. Do not even look at or acknowledge her for a couple of minutes. The idea is that even when you scold a cat for behaving badly, it receives attention. Negative attention, but attention nonetheless which reinforces the bad behaviour. By consistently removing the cat from where it is not supposed to be and then not paying it any heed, it realizes that its aggressive behaviour has no effect on you. Since bitting or scratching doesn't work, she will figure, "What's the point of doing this if I'm not getting any kind of attention?"

However, be sure to remember to consistenly reward and reinforce good behaviour, no matter how small, with praising and cuddles, i.e. positive attention. Cats are smart, she'll soon learn that she much prefers a pat to being ignored and will initiate the kind of behaviour that gets her that cuddle.

This takes patience and a bit of time, and I know it can be difficult to ignore a cat after it has hissed and bitten, but it definitely works! I was able to correct a lifetime of aggressive behaviour in a 13 year old cat this way.
posted by MelanieL at 11:08 AM on December 5, 2009 [5 favorites]

I'm with roku, empress, and room. With a cat, sometimes you just have to sink to their level. They're much smarter than dogs and aren't pack animals, so they don't really respond to dominant behavior. This means your only options are, pretty much, carry a water bottle with you everywhere/keep one in every room, or physically remove them. Option 2 works all the time, but it does mean you'll be getting scratched/bitten. I have four cats, two of which are biters. When they bite me, they know they're in trouble. Scruffing a cat is hard because they're so damn bendy, and it takes practice to do it without getting hit. If she's lying down, she's conveniently trapped all four paws underneath her. The way I would do it is to approach her casually, so she doesn't think you're going to attempt to remove her. When you're close enough, quickly (read: lightning-fast) put one hand down on her shoulders, squishing her into the bed enough that she can't get those front feet/disembowlers out before you get her into a good scruff. You will probably continue to get scratched until you really get it down. It's just something I've learned to live with.

Regarding being to hard on her, this really isn't an issue with cats. At least not with any I've met/owned. They're resilient creatures and can deal with it assuming you're not, you know, constantly abusing her.
posted by InsanePenguin at 11:18 AM on December 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love rokusan's advice, because it involves things that are part of normal cat development and behavior, and what a mama cat would do to communicate to her kitten. I don't think scaring an already-kinda-skittish cat with weird noises or chasing it is necessarily helpful because their only evolutionarily conditioned response to those things might be to be afraid for their lives and run away (making no connection whatsoever with the fact that they shouldn't do X or Y again), but doing something that's innately understandable by the cat makes so much sense, doesn't it? We've read lots of books about cat behavior (especially mom-kitten behavior) to get ideas similar to what rokusan mentioned.
posted by so_gracefully at 11:25 AM on December 5, 2009

In some cases, it's "put the discomfort back on the cat".. for instance... cats are not allowed in the bedroom, we have one Siamese that will sneak in every chance it gets. I could try to drag it out from under the bed, get pissed at the cat, get scratched, and lose anyway.. What I do do is close the door and leave the little bugger in there by herself, away from the fun, food, and petting, until she's bored to death and begging to come out..... yeah, she'll just do it again, I haven't changed the behavior, but I've avoided the battle...
posted by HuronBob at 11:37 AM on December 5, 2009

and...might I add, the phrase "When I try to make my cat do something...." really doesn't equate with cat beingness. I put it right in there with "When I try to spit into the wind.." or, "When I try to explain to my wife.....", and things like that....

Attempting the impossible is always a painful and frustrating experience...
posted by HuronBob at 11:39 AM on December 5, 2009

When the cat is somewhere she's allowed to be, biting isn't really blackmail—it's defending her proper place which she owns (in her mind, at least; I've tried to explain the concept of jobs and rent to my cat but it doesn't stick). Using treats to get her to another room is perfectly fine here.

When she's somewhere she shouldn't be, don't sometimes let her be there and sometimes chase her out and sometimes give her treats, just go in and remove her and go back to what you were doing. Treat it as just a bit of business only peripherally related to your cat.

When the cat is somewhere you can't reach, a good thing to do is to shake or jostle whatever is near her (clothes, pile of shoes, dresser, whatever). She'll get the idea the hiding spot is unstable. Chasing off is better than picking up.
posted by fleacircus at 11:49 AM on December 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

One of our cats gets very aggressive when we try to discipline him. You should see my left arm right now. He antagonizes our other cat to no end, and we've tried to solve it by putting him in a time-out room with a stern "NO!". We've gotten mixed results so far, but one result is that he now associates us yelling "NO!" with going in the room.

The problem is that he really doesn't want to go in the room. So he'll either hunker down as low to the floor as possible, making it hard to pick him up, or he'll roll over on to his back so his claws are free to get me. We've been using heavy gloves to do the lifting, but the last time we had to do it he somehow managed to roll himself over in my hands and grab on to my arm with all fours while trying to bite my finger off through the glove. I had to literally shake him off of my arm.

So, you may try shooing him into a time-out room. Our vet showed me a way of picking him up that prevents him from turning around and biting - basically, get him under the throat first and then pick him up by the belly. Unfortunately, that doesn't prevent him from getting his claws everywhere, and I'm a little too worried to press him against my chest to prevent scratching.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:32 PM on December 5, 2009

My roomates cat used to do this in our closets and would bite and scratch her when she tried to get him out. When he tried it on me I picked up the hairdryer and give him a good blast. He learned within a week to get out of the closet or out from under the bed right away if I told him to.

I don't do animals that bite or scratch. at all. Dogs or cats, makes no difference.
posted by fshgrl at 12:40 PM on December 5, 2009

You don't mention the cat's age or whether she's spayed -- if she's between about 9 months and two years old, then she may just be acting out (think terrible teens) to a degree, and this may fade over time. If she's not spayed, spaying her may mellow her considerably.

Beyond that, there are a couple of dominance behaviors that are fairly universally understood by cats -- as mentioned above, the "mother kitty death grip" spot on the scruff of the neck (also where a tom grabs to get a queen to hold still for breeding) - grab it firmly between the thumb and forefinger and pick the cat up; you can support her weight if necessary with your other hand, but the cat's natural reflex is to go limp when grabbed there firmly. I'll usually then get right in the cat's face and tell them no, firmly.

Second, when cats fight (for dominance, not life or death), the usual move is loud hissing, followed by swatting the target firmly on top of the head (usually a number of times rapidly). Don't give kitty a concussion or anything, but when you want them to stop something, hiss and bonk them on the top of the head with a finger ( for biting, you may want to aim more for the top of the muzzle). Then tell them no, firmly.

Both of these will get the idea across, if repeated consistently, and will also strengthen the meaning of saying no firmly. Being a cat, figure she'll pretend not to get it for awhile, but after she figures out you mean it, she'll probably quit trying to force the boundaries so much. At the moment, if she knows she can make you back down, she'll do anything she wants (hey, wouldn't you?).

Beyond that, get a pair of cat nail scissors ($3-$4 most any pet outlet), clip her claws, and keep them clipped. This may take two people at first (one to hold the death grip while supporting her weight, the other to lightly pinch each toe to express the claw, and clip it (don't cut into the quick, just taking off the points is fine at first). Taking a couple of tries to get it done is fine until she learns that it's going to happen, doesn't hurt (if you avoid the quick) and she can't stop it.

This accomplishes a couple of things -- it renders her scratching a useless weapon, it gets her used to not having her way, and it gets her used to being handled to enforce that. Also saves on the furniture and band-aids.
posted by nonliteral at 1:01 PM on December 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Welding gauntlets work wonders in getting hold of a cat. I second, spray bottles. A gentle nail flick on the nose. You should also be constantly KIND and GENTLE. Only get "aggressive" when the cat acts up. I have had many cats and some are jerks, just like people and other animals. A feral cat moved on to our property to have her kittens (we trapped trapped and neutered them all). She was gentle with her kittens unless the kittens did something that she considered wrong. Then they got a smack (no claws). The kittens are about 4 months old and are the best behaved kittens I have ever met. I learned a lot about cat behavior from watching mom-cat and her kittens. Cats have a definite pecking order, you have to make sure your cat knows you are on the top.

You also might want to make sure your cat is not ill or in pain.
posted by fifilaru at 1:05 PM on December 5, 2009

Cats are STRICTLY positive reinforcement animals . . . they can be trained to do amazing things (for example, mine sit, give high five, go to their mat, get off the table, etc. on command) but only if there is something in it for them, preferably something tasty. I really recommend Karen Pryor's books, especially her latest, Reaching the Animal Mind, which also has a related, very informative website.

I am sorry to say your cat seems to think of you as a threat (rather understandably if you think about what has been happening from the cat's point of view.) This is fixable. If your cat starts associating you and doing what you say with good things, you are also going to get a much more loving relationship, because your cat will trust you.

We have four cats . . . this really works.
posted by bearwife at 3:29 PM on December 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Your cat uses physical violence because it knows it will get the reaction it wants. When a roommate moved in with her rescued cat that would bite/break skin at the slightest provocation, I let it bite me. Don't pull back, don't show fear. Keep your hand/arm in it's mouth and push back... let it know that biting won't help it.

If the pain is too much for you, wear gloves or have your husband do it. When our roomy's cat bites/breaks skin now (it only happens when we're playing), I hold my hand still, and it stops playing, then 'apologizes' by licking where it bit.

Re: Positive Reinforcement: Your cat has been positively reinforced already, it has learned that it is left alone if it is violent. You need to erase this reinforcement. The important thing is to make certain that you're reinforcing the proper behavior. My parents were "only positive reinforcement" people, and their cat would go places it wasn't supposed to go in order to get treats...
posted by hatsix at 4:17 PM on December 5, 2009

Your cat is not really attacking you; she thinks she's defending herself from your disrespectful manhandling of her person. She's not aggressive, just stubborn.
You should try keeping the bedroom closet door closed.
I spent months fighting to get my cats out of the bedroom every night, including chasing them with the broom, and then I discovered that shaking the little bag of treats in the kitchen will make them come running out. I toss a few treats and proceed to my cat-free bedroom and shut the door to keep it cat-free. Your concerns about reinforcing bad behavior do not translate into cat logic. They believe they already deserve all the treats anyway. It's a lure, not a reward.
My rescued half-grown cat tended to make very free with her teeth and claws and I was always scratched and bleeding and it was awful. She is much better now, but it took a year and a half for her to settle down. One thing that helped was making a lot of upset noises when she scratched or bit me. I would yell "ow ow ow" loudly in a high-pitched voice and act upset (not always just an act!), just like another cat would if things got too rough. And eventually she figured out that I feel pain, and now she is still naughty but tends to swat at me with her claws in rather than out, and hardly ever bites. I think we seem so big to them that sometimes they just don't realize they're hurting us.
posted by egret at 4:49 PM on December 5, 2009

I'm squicked out by the attitude which believes the cat is deliberately thwarting you and it's your job to beat it into submission. Hope you folks don't have cats. Every cat I've ever had would move simply by a non-verbal request, if they weren't sick or tired from all that strenuous napping.

Princess has figured out that she is pampered silly whenever she gets her nails done, so now she wants them trimmed all the time. She lays quite languidly and content while I massage between her toes, nobody has to strap her down. UGH. Please consider never having pets or children or girlfriends ever again.

Pay attention to the facts, animal abusers: The cat is allowed in the closet and then sometimes it is not. It is not the cat who is being inconsistent and therefore bribery would be appropriate, in the form of kitty treats in the other room.

Seconding Egret's comment about making hurting noise when things hurt.
posted by bravelittletoaster at 5:32 PM on December 5, 2009

bravelittletoaster has it and um, the cat's natural reflex is to go limp when grabbed there firmly is not my experience. I work at a vet hospital where we practice less is more (restraint) with cats. A cat that really does not want to be manhandled cannot be thwarted by scruffing alone and they certainly will not go limp. Be careful when manhandling your cats, their bites and scratches can lead to some nasty infections.
posted by little miss s at 8:23 PM on December 5, 2009

I think distraction is often more effective than discipline. I live in a house with a cat that likes to chew on the power cable for my laptop. If I have my laser pointer handy I'll use that, otherwise I'll throw a small object, like a bottle cap, bread clip, or bunched up piece of paper, and the cat will usually go after it. The laser pointer is also good for getting the cat out from under parked cars if he manages to escape the house, so it might do the trick for closets and other tricky spaces.
posted by benign at 8:45 PM on December 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

I am with MelanieL. Withdrawing attention worked very well on an occasionally-aggressive adult male cat of mine, after a very deliberate biting incident.

I had to keep it up for a few days (not even making eye contact with him; he understood quite well that he was persona non grata and stayed well away from me for the duration). Once I was satisfied that he'd served his time, I initiated a detente by sitting next to him on the couch and having some snuggles. That was the very last time he ever acted out aggressively with me, and one of the more profound experiences I've ever had with an animal -- it was very much as if we understood one another.

Different cats have different personalities though, and you may have to try a few different things before you find a tactic that speaks to your cat. I've personally never been a fan of the squirt gun solution, and loud noises (the 'pennies in a can' suggestion) will scare a cat off but I've always found that to be a quick-fix type of a thing, and not a lasting lesson. Best of luck communicating with your kitty.
posted by trunk muffins at 9:27 AM on December 6, 2009

She lays quite languidly and content while I massage between her toes, nobody has to strap her down. UGH. Please consider never having pets or children or girlfriends ever again.

I wouldn't push this comparison too far. Some girlfriends enjoy being strapped down.
posted by rokusan at 12:13 PM on December 6, 2009

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