OK, we can motivate cats to do what we want – what about when they do things we don’t want? In general, behaviors that go unrewarded will become less and less frequent over time – there is little point in the cat investing energy in an action if it brings no benefit. However, once again we need to think about the nature of the reward. If a cat scratches the wallpaper, it may be as a response to a feeling of threat from another cat and a need to mark its territory to improve its own confidence – the reward is the feeling it gets from carrying out behavior it is highly motivated to do. Without removing the cause of the problem, it is difficult to change the behavior. You may be able to move it onto a more appropriate surface, such as a scratch post, but you need to understand where to put it and why. You need to think like a cat.
In general it is easier to train your kitten to do things than not to do them, especially if something has already become a learned habit. Prevention, as usual, is better than cure. Punishment, whether physical or only vocal, will be associated with the last event that occurred, and the kitten will be very confused about your aggressive behavior.
Many problems are brought on by owners themselves being inconsistent and sometimes by inadvertently teaching the kitten something wrong in the first place. It is important to be consistent from the start and not to allow your kitten to do things you would not appreciate it as it grows into a cat. Many people encourage this by tickling the kitten’s tummy and being amused as it grabs their hands – men are particularly good at these games that push kittens a little too far! Of course, it will be the children who get grabbed rather too hard by the growing kitten in play. It has not learned that it does not get attention if it gets rough – on the contrary, it has been encourage to act in this way and rewarded with heaps of attention.
If you don’t want your cat on the work surfaces in the kitchen, don’t let the kitten go there and don’t leave good out that acts as a reward should the kitten find it there, making it worth exploration in the future. Lift the kitten down each time and praise it for being on the ground.
It you want to be awakened at 5am every morning with demands for food and play, by all means get up and give the kitten attention. It then cannot be blamed for depriving you of a good night’s sleep. Giving in only once a week is enough to reward the kitten and give it the signal that it is worth the effort of waking you. Finally, don’t train your kitten to avoid the litter box by using it as a spot to give medicine.