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My cat is a 4 month old Himalayan rag doll. We got her when she was 2 months old. She was cute, nice and gentle. But now she keeps destroying so many things whenever we're not there.

She would also scratch and bite us sometimes. She would occasionally attack us as well

We tried spraying her with water, yelling at her, and flicking her nose, and nothing seems to work. What should I do?

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    She sounds bored and lonely. Can she go out when you are not there? Does she have a cat flap? – Mick Nov 17 '17 at 20:32
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Usually when animals become destructive it's due to a lack of appropriate ways to take out their energy.

The article I've linked above lists these four reasons for primary destructive behavior:

  • Not enough supervision
  • Not enough, or the wrong kind of scratching materials
  • Not enough exercise
  • Not enough daily activity

Try playing more with your cat to tire here down. If you can't commit any more time than you already are, I'd recommend looking into interactive toys (toys that move or make noise without you operating them) that can keep her entertained while you are busy.

When it comes to how to discipline cats, that's a little more difficult. Instead of focusing on how to react negatively to teach her a lesson, focus on providing her the alternative routes to playing positively and hopefully this will lessen her need to act out.

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But now she keeps destroying so many things whenever we're not there.

Cats have a habit of scratching and playing with things. It's important to understand that this is an urge that they get. It's an instinct, not a willful decision.

The general rule is that you cannot stop an urge, but you can steer it.

  • Our cats love scratching a particular spot of wallpaper. If we put a scratching post on the other side of the room, that doesn't redirect their attention. But when we put the scratching post near the wallpaper spot, then it does redirect their attention.
  • Our cats kept biting and ripping pieces of paper. Whenever we get a cardboard box now, we give it to them. They rip it into little pieces over time, and haven't messed with our papers since then.
  • They kept asking for attention while I was working on the computer. I put a blanket next to me. They didn't stay on it. I moved that blanket next to the monitor, so I could see them. They did stay on it then.

She would also scratch and bite us sometimes. She would occasionally attack us as well.

If the cat engages with you (as opposed to an inanimate object), that's generally a sign that they want you to interact with them. Especially when they're being (playfully) aggressive, the fact that they choose to engage a living object (who can retaliate) as opposed to an inanimate one highly suggests that they want interactive playing.

Provide your cat with ample toys, both those that it can use to play by itself (mice, balls) and those that require you to play with them (laser pointer, fishing rod). If the former isn't fulfilling her needs, and she still engages you, then play with her using the latter.

My cat is a 4 month old Himalayan rag doll.

This may be a wrong inference on my part, but fluffy cats such as the ragdoll are often assumed to be lazy cats (due to their fluffy and chubby nature) that prefer to lounge or sleep.
This is not a given. Though different breeds of cat will have different overall characters, that doesn't make it impossible for your cat to be unusually playful (compared to their breed's average playfulness).

On top of that, it's only 4 months old. I would expect nearly any cat to be playful for the first 12-18 months of its life.

We got her when she was 2 months old. She was cute, nice and gentle. But now ...

It's perfectly possible that the cat was initially out of her comfort zone with you, in a way that you were the center of her attention.

It's possible that your cat was always very playful, but it initially didn't feel at home in its new surroundings and therefore didn't feel as playful. Now that it feels more confident, it might start behaving more like itself again (including playfulness).

We tried spraying her with water, yelling at her, and flicking her nose, and nothing seems to work.

Those are all negative feedback options. What are the positive feedback options?

If you only give her negative feedback, she will eventually start seeing you as the problem. Make sure that her experiences with you are predominantly positive.

Whenever you see young children rebelling against their parents (saying things like "I hate you"), it's often caused by a succession of negative interactions between the child and their parent. The negative feedback may be justified for every encounter (e.g. the child actually misbehaving); but if the child exclusively encounters negative feedback, it eventually starts feeling that the negative feedback is inevitable (and subsequently stops caring about it).

Negative feedback only works if your cat knows that what it did was wrong. If your cat does something that it thinks is perfectly fine, and then gets punished by you, it won't understand that the punishment is related to its behavior. You need to make that clear to them.

As a rule, I try to reserve negative feedback for cases where the cat willfully opposed my rule. E.g. when told to get away from the food, it moves faster in an attempt to steal it anyway. Or when I tell it to stop scratching something and it immediately continues when I turn my back.

I would also suggest an escalation pattern, that starts off mildly instead of immediately resorting to relatively aggressive responses (like the spraying). Something like this:

  • State the cat's name, to get their attention, but without telling them what (not) to do.
  • Tell them what to do. Usually, a strong "No" is what you need.
  • Approach the cat calmly. Say "No" again.
  • Push the cat away from what it's doing. Be gentle, don't hurt them, but slowly push them aside. Repeat the "No" when they look at you in confusion.
  • Get out the spray bottle. Display it first, it may work as a visual reminder.
  • If they still continue their behavior, spray them (not in the face).
  • If they still continue, physically pick them up (remain calm), walk them to another part of the house, and gently put them down.

The idea is simple: stop with what you're doing, or I'll escalate. Whenever the cat ignores your request, escalate again.

Some tips:

  • Be consistent.
  • The escalation must be inevitable, and must always follow the same pattern.
  • When your cat backs off, it has complied with your request. Don't punish or follow it any further. It did what you wanted it to do.
  • Don't get upset that you need to escalate. It's normal for cats to not understand your escalation pattern in the beginning. Over time, they'll learn to spot it quicker. But it takes time.
  • Do not make the steps more severe every time you have to go through the pattern. Keep them consistent.
  • Remain calm (but strict). Anger or aggressions triggers a reflex in the cat, which is an instinct. Cat's don't learn from doing what their instinct tells them.
  • Always start at step one. Don't resume an escalation mid-way because the cat misbehaved not too long ago. Every transgression is unique, and must be approached from step one.

There's a reason for this progression of steps. Over time, the cat will learn to avoid a bigger consequence by complying with an earlier step. Chronologically, it will learn these steps, one by one:

  • I don't want to be picked up. I should back off when I get sprayed. If I don't, I get picked up.
  • I don't want to get sprayed. I should stop when the human pushes me aside. If I don't, I get sprayed.
  • I don't want to get pushed aside. I should back off when the human approaches me, because he's going to push me.
  • I don't want the human to push me. Whenever he makes that sound ("No"), he will approach me soon after.

Eventually, a "No", or even just stating their name will be enough for them to understand the consequences of ignoring your verbal cues.

After about 6 weeks now, our youngest (7mo) is now at the point where he knows that he's doing something he's not allowed to. He generally backs off when I state his name, even for new things that he hasn't been told off for yet. He clearly takes my verbal cues to heart, even though his playful nature still gets the better of him at times.


Edit

I would suggest you don't flick your cat's nose. Personally, I find it a bit aggressive, it's the equivalent of shoving a dog's nose in his urine if he went inside the house. It's much too aggressive (negative for your relationship) for too little gains (not guaranteed to actually teach them anything).

Since flicking is something that only humans are capable of doing, I would expect a cat to eventually realize that only humans can flick their nose, which may impact their opinion of humans negatively.
E.g. if a human gets bitten by a dog, they can develop a dislike of dogs (possibly even a fear) but not necessarily of other animals. Similarly, if a cat gets flicked by a human, that can trigger a similar response.

  • "Since flicking is something that only humans are capable of doing" Isn't spraying water something only humans can do also by that logic? How do you know what a cat's opinion is anyway? – LateralTerminal Nov 22 '17 at 14:56
  • @LateralTerminal: Water exists everywhere in nature. Cats have experience with water in other contexts than just getting sprayed with it. Rain, drinking, ... Cats don't have human fingers flicked on their nose in nature, and only experience that when their owner is upset with them and nearby. That strongly ties having your nose flicked to having your owner near you, and can teach a cat to keep their owner at a distance. I also didn't claim that the cats' conclusion is objectively correct, only that it's reasonable for the cat to draw that conclusion. – Flater Nov 22 '17 at 15:12
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    @LateralTerminal: Pavlov's dog salivated when it heard a bell, even though bells are used for purposes other than announcing a dog's dinner. Because the dog was only fed after a bell had rung, the dog made the assumption that hearing a bell invariably means dinner is coming. That's not logically correct, but it is a fair assumption. Similarly, if a cat gets flicked on the nose only when it is near its owner, it can make the assumption that a nose flick is imminent (just like how the dog thinks his dinner is imminent) when its owner is near. Not logically correct, but a fair assumption. – Flater Nov 22 '17 at 15:17
  • Flater, that's a good explanation. – LateralTerminal Nov 22 '17 at 15:29
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Most cats seem to notice that you are the source of any reinforcement. They might be trained when there's a witness, but they will often go back to their regular behavior when no one is there. Therefore, using redirection, that is, getting them to prefer some appropriate alternative, is more effective.

  1. The cat may be getting bored. Try to tire the cat out before you leave. Also provide the cat with plenty of toys to enjoy while you are away.
  2. Some cats enjoy being destructive. So give them things that are okay to destroy. Scratchers of various varieties are a must. Cats have different preferences for what material they want to scratch, so you might try a variety. I recommend cardboard scratchers, because if your cat likes the act of destroying stuff, the cardboard ones are designed to be destructible.
  3. Place your scratchers right by the place they like to scratch. Sometimes it's the location they like. They may be redirected onto something else if it's at their favorite spot.
  4. Make the places they like to destroy inaccessible, or less attractive. There are various options for making an area less attractive. Like using citrus cat repelling spray, which theoretically smells bad. You can lay down double sided tape, which cats don't usually like walking on. I've also heard of people getting those plastic carpet protectors with the little spikes on one side and laying them upside down on the surface you're trying to get the cat to avoid. They don't like walking on the little spikes.

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