The Mind of Your Cat: 06/03

Question: Our male cat has been marking indoors. My husband thinks that if he holds the cat in front of where he marks and spanks him, this punishment will deter the cat from marking in the future. Im not so sure. My fear is that it will make the cat afraid of my husband and afraid to be in our home. Our female cat already hisses and swats at him. Does he need this from my husband, too.

Answer: Cats mark our homes for many reasons. Some cats mark as a consequence of underlying anxiety or insecurity. Depositing a personal scent may offer comfort. Examples include the cat that is victimized by another cat, or the one that shares his space with an exuberant child. On the other extreme are cats that mark as a consequence of overconfidence. These bold cats appear proud to leave their calling cards in prominent locations. And in the middle are cats that are simply doing what comes naturally: Scent marking is a perfectly normal behavior.

Ways to Modify the Behavior
To successfully treat a cat for indoor urine marking, one must first identify the triggers that predispose an individual cat to engage in this behavior. The presumptive underlying motivation is determined, a diagnosis is established, and an appropriate treatment plan is designed.

One treatment modality might be modification of the environment. It may be possible to reduce or eliminate the cats exposure to certain triggers. A second treatment modality is behavior modification. A therapeutic plan is designed to enable a cat to cope with those triggers that cannot be removed.

An effective behavior modification strategy may incorporate one or more techniques. The spanking you described is an example of punishment, one of many tools that can be used to modify behavior. The term punishment generally refers to a positive punishment technique: An aversive stimulus is applied with the intention of decreasing the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated. Used appropriately – the appropriate intensity, timing, and choice of patient -punishment has the potential to be an effective technique. However, punishment is one of the most difficult tools to employ.

Why should this be the case? First, it can be difficult to determine an appropriate intensity. In order to be effective, the stimulus should be aversive enough to interrupt a behavior without eliciting an undue amount of fear. This ideal intensity will vary from individual to individual. For some cats, a stream of water from a plant mister may be sufficient to interrupt a behavior; other cats might require a blast from a super-powered water gun. Under no circumstances should a cat be hit or chased because the intention of punishment is not to create fear of a person.

Timing is Everything
The second difficulty with the use of punishment is that it is not always easy to achieve appropriate timing. To be effective, punishment must occur immediately upon completion of a behavior. The corollary is that the behavior that is ongoing as the punishment strikes is the behavior that will be modified.

Suppose your cat were resting on a chair as you stomped toward him, angrily scooped him up, and whisked him to the urine spot for a spanking. The next time you happened upon your curled-up kitty, he would recall the unpleasant consequence of remaining quietly in a chair while you approached. To avoid another painful experience, he would begin to leave the area whenever he heard your footsteps.

Can Cats Feel Guilt?
Many people insist that their cats have learned their lessons even when punishment is delivered after the fact. They report that their cats appear guilty after they have soiled indoors. Rather, these expressions of apparent guilt are merely appeasement postures. Hoping to spare themselves from our wrath, our cats use their body language to communicate their submission.

Why would a cat attempt to appease us if not for guilt? Thats simple. Once a cat has been brought to the scene of the crime and reprimanded, he is able to understand that your presence plus a puddle of urine is not a good combination. But will he relate the reprimand to the act of spraying that occurred several hours ago? Not very likely.

So you can begin to see why, under the best of circumstances, our attempts at punishment might not result in the desired results. A final difficulty in using punishment appropriately is that the technique may be particularly detrimental to the cat that marks as a result of underlying fear or anxiety. Remember, punishment must be established at an appropriate intensity. When it involves a fearful pet, it may not be possible to create an intensity that is low enough that it does not produce excessive fear.

Again, Dont Hit Your Cat
It is worth repeating that there can be no benefit from physically hitting a cat. Striking a cat teaches the cat to retreat from the approach of a hand. A cat that has been hit may grow frightened of a particular person, or of all people. The cat may strike back, injuring an unsuspecting person who simply reaches to pet him.

Rather than attempting to punish your cat, instead try to learn about his motivation for marking. Since your female cat swats and hisses at him, trying to improve that feline-to-feline relationship might be a good starting point. Your cat is not attempting to punish you, and he cannot understand why you are angry. He does not yet understand that his marking behavior is unacceptable. Try to change his motivation, address any underlying fear and anxiety, and it is likely that there will be a successful ending for all of you.