Naughty Kitten? How to Discipline Your Cat Effectively

If the adorable kitten you brought home is behaving like a little monster—scratching and biting, or ignoring its litter box in favor of your bedroom rug—it's not being malicious. It's trying to tell you something.

Don't lose patience and, most importantly of all, never use any form of physical punishment. Vets and cat behavior experts agree that it doesn't work and may damage your relationship with your pet.

Whether your pet is clambering all over the furniture or biting your toes, this behavior can be tackled—with positive reinforcement and bags of tasty treats. Here, two cat specialists explain how to discipline a kitten.

How to Discipline a Kitten Effectively

You can't change your kitten's behavior until you understand its cause. "When you discipline, it implies the kitten or cat is misbehaving—and that's where many cat owners misunderstand normal cat behavior," cat behavior expert Pam Johnson-Bennett told Newsweek.

"Every behavior has a purpose or it wouldn't be repeated. Animals don't just misbehave. The key to successful training is to figure out what triggers the repeated behavior and what the cat gets from displaying that particular behavior so you can change the conditions."

Dr. Christian Broadhurst, a senior veterinarian at non-profit clinic Clay Humane in Florida, told Newsweek that you must use positive reinforcement. "No spanking, nothing causing them pain or discomfort."

He suggests rewarding your kitten with treats after it has done something you like. When it does something you don't like, you can give it a timeout by putting it away in a kennel or in a different room. It will come back to you with a different attitude.

If you have an older cat in the house, it can also show the kitten how to behave. "Cats are good at disciplining cats because they basically speak the same language," said Broadhurst. Kittens may accept some kind of reprimand from older cats that they will not accept from humans.

Some dogs can also be good trainers for kittens, according to Broadhurst. Even though they don't speak the same language, they speak a similar one and can communicate with each other better than we can. Dogs tend to raise kittens like puppies, he said.

How to Discipline a Kitten That Doesn't Listen

If you feel your kitten isn't listening, it means that you haven't supplied what's needed, according to Johnson-Bennett. "You have to stop looking at behavior as bad, stupid or spiteful. If you view a behavior as something that needs to be punished, it means there has been a communication breakdown.

"Your cat is trying to tell you what is needed and you're misunderstanding."

Take a closer look at the situation, identify the triggers and fix them.

cat scratching tree.
Stock image of a cat using its scratching post. It is in cats' nature to climb and to scratch. If they don't have somewhere to do it, your furniture will likely bear the brunt. Getty Images

How to Handle a Kitten That Is Climbing

Kittens have a natural need and desire to climb—it's part of being a cat, said Johnson-Bennett. They "tend to climb just about everything because they're just learning about their abilities and are working on balance."

Climbing is used for play and exercise, but high-up territory also provides a safe place for your cat to rest and watch over everything. You need to provide suitable climbing options, so your furniture and curtains don't get damaged.

"Start off right by having appropriate climbing objects, such as cat trees and scratching posts, from the day you bring your kitten home. Place cat trees, window perches, shelves and any other climbing objects in the areas where the cat wants to be. Don't hide the cat tree in a remote location because you don't like the look of it. Instead, look at where and what your cat is climbing so you can provide a better option."

This, explains Johnson-Bennett, will "set your kitten or cat up to succeed."

How to Discipline a Kitten That Bites

Cats and kittens bite for a variety of reasons. Adult cats may bite out of fear or because they want attention, while kittens usually bite to discover the world around them or to play.

Even though a bite from your kitten may not hurt, a bite from an adult cat does, so it's better to tame this behavior when they're young. The key, as with most cat behaviors, is what the pet is trying to communicate with a nip.

Johnson-Bennett said: "Was the cat giving body language signals to let you know they didn't want to be touched but those signals were ignored? Or were you using your hands as toys? If the cat bites by going after your ankles when you walk in a room, perhaps they aren't getting enough playtime with appropriate toys."

How to Discipline a Kitten for Not Using Their Litter Box

Kittens don't have the best control of their body and they may not make it to the box in time. They should never be punished for this.

Johnson-Bennett suggests making sure litter boxes are conveniently located and bringing the kitten to the box after eating, playing or sleeping as a gentle reminder.

She also warns owners to keep an eye out for underlying medical issues. "If a cat doesn't use the litter box for any reason, your first step should be a veterinary checkup. Never assume litter box avoidance is behavioral without first ruling out medical causes or it could cause a cat to suffer."

The litter box itself might be the problem. "Make sure it's comfortable for the cat. Maybe the box is too small and the cat feels too cramped, or maybe the box isn't clean enough."

Broadhurst believes the only positive reinforcement kittens really like is treats, so you can give them one when they adopt good behavior in the litter box and elsewhere. "Whatever is a very high value treat for them—that they actually love—you can give them that when they've done their business in the litter box and covered it up.

"It's hard for humans not to want to punish bad behavior, but it's very important not to punish the bad behavior and to reinforce the good behavior."

cat misbehaving
A cat chews on a kitchen paper roll. If your kitten makes a mess at home, it could mean it needs more toys—or attention. Getty Images

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