Hello, readers, and welcome to another column from Lucinda, the literate cat. Today I’m writing on a bit of a controversial subject. I’m addressing the issue of cat punishment.
My first letter comes from a female cat named Tabitha. Here is what she says:
I’m about to give up on trying to understand my two-legged companion. I just don’t know what she wants from me. Often, we are all lovey and peaceful together, but then I do something that makes her really angry. Why does she get so mad at me for something that I, as a cat, believe to be a good thing to do?
For example, by my rule-book it is essential that I keep my claws sharp and in good repair. I might find the perfect thing to sharpen them on, like the carpeted edge of the sofa, and then she starts yelling at me and even swats me.
I forgive her, but it’s not always easy to do so. There are other things. Once my litter box was so dirty, I wouldn’t set foot in it, but found a nice clean piece of floor to pee on. Another time, because my box was dirty, I dug in the dirt in the large planter on the table, and accidentally knocked it to the floor.
She was really mad at me. Why? It’s not my fault that the box was too dirty to set my paw in — it’s her job to clean it. What does she expect me to do?
I just don’t understand. What can I do?
Tabitha, believe me, I understand your problem, as I am often faced with a similar dilemma. Fortunately for me, my CCL (Cantankerous Cat Lady) is a bit more understanding and, when I am doing something she doesn’t like, she will distract me in some way.
What our two-leggeds often forget is that we are different from them. We are cats; they are humans. We are small and cuddly, so they tend to think of us as their furry children, and they think they can raise us as if we were their child.
It doesn’t work that way. The human world is so complex that parents feel the need to make things simpler for their children, so they devise many rules that outline how the child is to behave.
Their child-rearing, unfortunately, is often based on guilt. Once the rules are established, if the child does not follow them, they are made to feel guilty because they have broken one of them. Then the parent punishes the child for their wrong-doing (as they see it), to help the child remember.
Cats do not understand guilt. A cat does not have what is called a “conscience” and does not conform to some standard of behavior determined by this conscience. The cat only has a knowledge of what they need for their survival, as well as a healthy curiosity about the world. They see their actions as an innocent choice made because it seemed to be the best thing to do at the time.
Dogs, perhaps, can be taught to feel guilt because they are so anxious to please. It is not natural to them, either, and they may not understand why they can’t do so-and-so, but they obey out of the desire to make sure their two-legged loves them.
Cats are far more independent. Rudyard Kipling understood cats when he said, “Cats walk by their wild lone and all places are alike to them.” Cats do not feel guilt or aim to please. They are just themselves.
If you can, remember the things that anger your two-legged and see if you can find a solution that does not make her mad. It might be trial and error, and you shouldn’t have to submit to such choices, but at times it will make things easier for you and keep them more peaceful.
Just realize, for all their intelligence, they are often blind to things that seem obvious to you. Forgive them their ignorance and try to make the best of things, as you do share their home and eat their food.
Best of luck to you. As long as there is love between you, all will be well in the end. If your two-legged is cruel, that’s a different story. If such is the case, plan your escape.
This next letter is from a Mrs. Arneson, who writes:
Lucinda, what is an acceptable way to punish my cat? She is forever misbehaving. I have tried to teach her what she can and cannot do, but she will not listen. How can I discipline her?
She’s damaged things in my house with her claws; she gets on my kitchen counters over and over. When I scold her, she waits and gets up there when I am not around.
I can’t leave food out because she will steal it. She knocks things over and digs in the houseplants. I love her, but am considering taking her to a shelter. Do you have suggestions?
Oh, please, Mrs. Arneson, if you love her, do not abandon her to a shelter. They will feed her and house her, yes, but the love is absent, and in its place is fear. A shelter is not a nice place for a cat.
You must realize your kitty is not like a child and you cannot treat her in the same way as you would one of your children. She is a cat. She is not like you. She does not see things in the same way.
You cannot punish her as you would a child, because she does not understand that you think she has done something wrong. If you punish her, you will simply confuse her, and eventually alienate her. You must learn to change her behavior in other ways.
Let me tell you a little story that might help you understand:
A young cat entered the bedroom she shared with her two-legged. She jumped up on the bed and found a big, bright, beautiful ball of yarn.
“Oh, my two-legged is so thoughtful,” the little cat thinks. “Look at this beautiful toy she left me.”
The little cat bats at the ball and it rolls. She spies a loose end and begins pulling on it. Soon she has the ball partially unwound and is playing with it in delight.
Now all her feet are wound up in the yarn, as she bats it and plays with it. “Oh, this is such fun,” she thinks.
Then her two-legged comes into the room and sees the cat, tangled in the yarn.
“What are you doing, you bad cat! Get away from that yarn right now!” she shouts.
To emphasize her point, the two-legged swats the cat, who immediately escapes and runs and hides, frightened, confused, and saddened, her trust a little fractured.
What she thought was a gift left by her companion for her to play with turns out to be nothing of the kind. She didn’t know that, but for her lack of understanding she was slapped.
Now she doesn’t know what to believe. Why was she punished? She was having so much fun. Saddened and disillusioned, her fun day ruined, she eventually goes to sleep.
Do you not see what your lack of understanding of the nature of cats can do? You can compromise her love and trust, and eventually you will erode a loving relationship.
What could you have done instead? You could have diverted her behavior so she would leave the yarn alone. You might carry a laser light in your pocket. By shining the light around the yarn, you can divert her attention. Then you could have her chase the light for a little bit, and rescue your yarn without having to punish your cat for something she did not think was wrong.
You could have put the yarn away before the cat saw it. You could tell her “no” and gently remove the yarn, giving the cat a little pat so she knows you have forgiven her.
You could teach her to recognize a certain way you say her name that shows you are less than happy with her. She will come to recognize the sound and will respond.
You can use what experts call “safe aversive training techniques,” such as shooting her with a water pistol.
Such a method, however, can also have its downside. The CCL tells about Tiger, her neighbor’s cat when she lived in Bells Flats near Kodiak. Tiger would come in the cat door as soon as he knew someone was up, because he loved the CCL’s cat, Carlos. CCL tried the water pistol, thinking to keep Tiger out, but it didn’t work.
Yes, he’d go out, but would turn around and come right back in again. The CCL finally gave up and let him come in whenever he wanted.
The result was that Tiger didn’t like the CCL at all, but he loved Carlos, so he’d come over and spend every day with his friend.
CCL asked me to recommend a book to you. She says it is her go-to book when she has trouble understanding her cats. It’s called Outsmarting Cats. The author is Wendy Christensen, who is the secretary of the Cat Writer’s Association.
You can find Wendy through the Cat Writer’s Association online. CCL says the book has helped her a great deal in understanding how to deal with us cats.
I hope these answers have helped you, as well as some of our readers. Thanks for visiting and reading. I’d love it if you would leave me a comment at the end of this post. I love letters from readers!
Lucinda the literate cat