Whether it’s advice about cats, dogs, or kids, one suggestion is common: ignore bad behavior. That can seem like a good plan and sometimes it works, but sometimes it backfires. Is “ignore bad behavior” actually bad internet advice? Or just one piece of the puzzle?
Why Ignore Bad Behavior?
Many behaviors are controlled by consequences, meaning what happens to you because you did something. You make a new recipe for dinner and your family says “thanks, that was amazing!” and you start browsing recipe websites. They don’t notice and you don’t put in that effort the next night.
Our cats value our attention and will work to get it. By petting them when they hop into your lap, you’re encouraging them the sit there more in the future. The advice to ignore unwanted behaviors relies on the idea that not rewarding a cat with attention will teach them not to do that behavior. Some people are also concerned about teaching their cat that they can “get away with” using aggression or other problematic behavior to get out of situations (like nail trims). Would it be better to just ignore this behavior and press on?
What’s the Problem?
If behavior is motivated by consequences and ignoring your cat takes away a desirable consequence, why shouldn’t you do it? The first reason is that your cat may not care. The idea that your cat doesn’t care about you is quite the stereotype of course but if your cat isn’t motivated (in that moment) by getting your attention, then ignoring them wouldn’t help.
The next issue is that your cat may be trying to meet a very important need like the need for social interaction or a need to escape discomfort or fear. In both of these cases, ignoring your cat’s behavior will still leave them with that unmet need. They will continue to display whatever behavior they hope will get them what they need. A cat who hasn’t had enough social interaction will continue to annoy you; a cat that is fearful will continue to hiss or swat.
Lastly, but no less important, ignoring a cat can build frustration if the cat doesn’t know any other way to behave or has been rewarded for their behavior in the past. Frustration can lead to an increase in the behavior and may also cause lower tolerance and a higher risk of aggression. Think about someone banging on a broken vending machine!
To Ignore or Not to Ignore: That is the Question
Ignoring bad behavior can be a helpful tool but to be effective it should be used in particular situations and along with other steps.
Don’t Ignore It
If your cat’s safety is at risk because of their behavior, never ignore it.
Not Motivated by Attention
Ignoring any behavior that isn’t motivated by attention won’t do anything to change the behavior. A common example is a cat that scratches or bites during petting. Sometimes called “petting aggression” or “overstimulation”, these cats are motivated by wanting the petting the stop. Neither ignoring your cat completely after they react or ignoring their behavior and continuing to pet them will solve this issue.
Hissing, growling, scratching, and biting are all ways of your cat saying “I’m uncomfortable or scared.” Ignoring this behavior will not help them feel safer or change the behavior. In fact, when aggression is ignored and the cat is still in the situation, they are likely to escalate their behavior.
When You Can Help Them Choose Better Behavior
Simply ignoring a behavior leaves your cat on their own to decide how to behave. A fairer method is to show your cat the behavior you want from them. Set up your home and your cat’s routine to help them make good choices from the start. Be ready to redirect problem behavior before it starts. For example, if one cat has a history of bullying the other, pull out a toy as soon as they start staring at each other.
Before They Know What They Should Do
If you’re trying to stop a behavior, choose a clear goal for what your cat should do instead. Send some time rewarding your cat for that behavior before you think about ignoring their bad behavior. An example would be teaching your cat to sit on their bed instead of trying to eat off of your fork during dinner.
Consider Ignoring It
Once you get through all of that, ignoring problem behavior can have its place. Once you’ve identified that getting attention is a motivator for your cat’s behavior, start here:
First Time Behaviors
Occasionally your cat will suddenly learn a new, “naughty” behavior. Maybe they’ve just discovered that they can knock the books off the shelf. Don’t add the joy of lots of attention to the fun of making a mess. Instead, quietly redirect your cat while giving them as little attention as possible. Now get proactive and use management (like pushing books to the back of a shelf or closing door to tempting rooms) to make sure that new behavior can’t become a habit.
They’re Getting Enough
Make sure you are truly providing enough attention and play for your cat. Ignoring a cat that only gets attention when they demand it is unfair and unlikely to work. Must cats prefer short but frequent interactions so spend a couple extra minutes giving them some love. Only then can you ignore their demands at inappropriate times.
You’re Ready to Reward
If your cat is likely to quickly switch to a more appropriate behavior and you are ready to reward that behavior, then ignoring them can help make it clear what the correct choice is. If they don’t make the right choice fairly quickly, you may need to spend more time teaching your cat what you want from them.
The best ways to change your cat’s behavior are through proactive management of the environment (don’t let a bad habit take hold!), through plenty of outlets for social and play needs, and by identifying the behavior you want and rewarding it. If you do ignore bad behavior, do so fairly and watch for frustration. Better behavior can be just around the corner!
If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.