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My new kitten tries to eat my food. (And quite often succeeds, since I take my time to eat, usually while working)

She has her own food dispenser with lots of food in it that she eats regularly, but when I have food she wants it.

With a dog, I could just say "no" and spank it when it won't listen, but this kitten seems to ignore all rebukes, maintaining the singular focus to have the food, no matter how many times I push it away, put it on the ground, or pull the food away.

What can I do to teach my kitten that it's my food and not hers?

With dogs, I know a small spanking does the trick - not causing serious pain, but the offensive action seems to send the correct message to a dog. Cats on the other hand, don't seem to have the same mechanic.

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    Anecdotally: green curry. Erik didn't come near my plate for weeks. :-) Feb 4, 2015 at 2:00
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    Define "your food". Is this food kept in a cabinet, or food actively on your plate, or food you leave out on a dining room table for serving purposes?
    – JoshDM
    Feb 4, 2015 at 21:41

8 Answers 8

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You're right, cats really don't have the same ideas of discipline as dogs. Dogs are pack animals, and the leader's reaction means a lot to them, while cats are solitary predators, so your disapproval doesn't mean much to them. They might choose to cooperate if you consistently forbid them to do something, or they might not. Most cats I know chose to cooperate in the end, because things get old even for them. But it usually takes a lot of time and patience.

As for the food, aside from the answers in the question recommended by Ashley Nunn, the best way to keep your cat away from your food is not to leave your food unattended. Also, I used to use a simple trick with my first cats (didn't need it after the first 2, I don't know why) : make sure you have something on your plate that your cat won't eat for sure, like a pickle or a slice of lemon, and when your cat tries to get into your plate, give her that to sniff. After some time the cat associates your plate with yucky staff and doesn't bother with it anymore.

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Simplest answer I've found is to set a "no cats on food surfaces, whether there is food on them or not" rule. That's something cats can learn fairly easily, and it solves the problem by removing the opportunity for temptation.

If I'm eating elsewhere, they're allowed to expess interest, and if it would be bad for them or I don't fedl like sharing I just push them away gently with a firm "no."... which is a word they understand, more or less... sometimes combiined with "mine" or "not for kitty" which they probably don't understand.

One of mine wants to at least sample anything I'm eating, if allowed. Cat nibbling on the corner of a graham cracker is amusing, though I generally don't share.

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    Side comment: One of my cats just tried to lawyer her way around no-cats-on-table when she noticed someting left on the table that she had been allowed to lie on elsewhere. "Look, I'm only touching what I'm allowed to touch; is that good enough?" I hated having to tell her no; for a cat that's a pretty sophisticated bit of reasoning.
    – keshlam
    Feb 12, 2016 at 21:44
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Redirect...show her to her own food when she attempts to eat yours. Same as for scratching on furniture, move her to her scratching post. This way they know you’re not saying “no food” or “no scratching” which are natural instincts and can be confusing to reprimand, just redirect her to what she is allowed to eat/scratch.

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Cats don't really care about pleasing their owners, but they can be trained. As with any animal, you have to find what motivates them, what discourages them and what the most effective way to apply these is. Most of the time I find that it's a matter of persistence.

A good example is my Jack Russell. She has a crate she sleeps in at night. I let her in early, but I have to take her out before bed. She's warm and knows that it'll be cold out, so she pretends not to hear me, takes her time getting up, or even hangs back and tries to sneak back to bed. This frustrates me and makes me want to snap, but I look at it from her point of view and realize that every time she obeys, something negative happens (E.g. going out in the cold).

Along these lines there are several options. You cannot have food in a reachable spot, but almost any spot is available to a cat. You could do like one poster suggested and try to trick her into thinking it's nasty, but she already knows it's been good before. Another option is to deter her from getting up there in the first place. Two good methods of doing this are:

  1. Getting one of those plastic car mats with the little plastic cleats to keep it from sliding on the carpet and turning it upside down on the counter. They don't hurt the cat, but it's uncomfortable on their feet.
  2. Using double sided sticky tape. Supposedly, it only takes a few times with either of these before they don't want to get on the surface. The mat works on couches, beds, or anything else and always works, where the tape may lose its stickiness.

The important thing in any training is to be consistent. You'll lose weeks or months of effort if you let the cat win once, because it bolsters the idea to keep trying in the face of not getting a treat, because you might get one every once in a while. You see people do this on purpose when weaning trained dogs off treats. One way to be continually consistent is to get a device off Amazon that attaches to the top of a can of compressed air. It has a motion sensor on it, and when it senses motion, it sends out a jet of air, poofing the cat off the surface. It works whether you're paying attention or not, or even in the room. I also saw something like that is good from the Cat Daddy. He said that cats don't make the association the way dogs do and that if you punish a dog for trying to get your food, he understands that trying to get the food caused the correction. If you, for instance, spray a cat with a water bottle for getting on the counter, he doesn't think that getting on the counter caused the spray, he just thinks you're a butt hole. I hope this helps you.

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    I like the show. I think that cat behavior modification is in its infancy. I think that most people just think cat's are jerks and there's nothing to be done about it. He's changing peoples minds about it, so I expects the cats to rise up and take him out at anytime before the secret gets out.
    – Dalton
    Feb 5, 2015 at 13:30
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    Nah, he'll talk them out of it ^_^ Seriously though, he might be the first one to get such publicity, but he's not the first one who's done some serious work with cats. In some countries a much more popular personality is Yuri Kuklachev ( kuklachev.ru/eng/yuri ), although his work is a bit different.
    – Kaworu
    Feb 6, 2015 at 11:56
  • I'll have to look him up, I've never heard of him, though I did see a special on the animal planet about a guy and his daughter that do a 'Circus' act with their cats. He has platforms the get on and hoops they jump through. He also has a ringmaster uniform and the shoulder pads are little platforms the cats can sit on.
    – Dalton
    Feb 6, 2015 at 20:20
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Mimic another cat 'spitting'. It's a strong warning to keep away that other cats understand.

Difficult to describe but you can just make a loud "phhh" sound with a lot of out-breath. They will feel the breath on their face and know that it means 'paws off'.

Another good sound is hissing an abrupt "Tsss" or "Tchhhh".

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What I normally do to keep cats away is to growl similarly to a cat growling at another cat, the higher the pitch and louder the volume the more serious the threat (I can't really describe the sound but just watch videos of cats making aggressive sounds and imitate those). And if that doesn't work, a quick slap to the face and then keep it there until the cat starts to back away. That's a common way I see cats interacting aggressively to other cats (it essentially says "back off"). But if the slap doesn't do the trick or isn't as effective, you can pair it with a loud noise or just slamming your foot (or hand) down in front of them as a scare tactic. If your pair these threat well with the growl, then eventually you get to the point where the growl itself works and even from a distance (as an added note to something I mentioned before, it works best if your growl sounds exactly like a cat's, but even if it doesn't you can still pair it with a threat like a slap or a stomp to make your cat eventually see that sound as a scary threat even without a slap or stomp).

Of course that may not work for all cats, it depends how motivated yours is to get the food. In my experience with my own cats, they tend to weight the risks vs. the rewards. If the reward is good enough, then they'll take the risk if they think they can get away without the punishment (I'm not condoning actually hurting your cat, just threatening them) If they're seriously motivated, then they'll risk your threats just for a single bite. It sounds like you free feed your cat which is good in this scenario because it means your cat isn't motivated by hunger. So I think its probably your cat being motivated by flavor. You could try feeding your cat a special treat at the same time as you're eating, so they'll think that this special treat which tastes just as good as the human food is much safer since you won't try to scare them off and so they won't want to risk your threats and just eat the safer treat. And if one treat doesn't work, I'd try a variety of things till you find the one that does work. Another thing that might help are things similar to puzzle toys, that make your cat work for the treat. They might be less motivated because they have to work for it now, but it still much safer than risking your food plus it slows their eating down, giving you time to finish your meals.

A last point I like to add is taste is only one potential motivator (and one I consider very likely based on the limited information provided). But you know your cat and the situation better than me, so only you can be the judge of if that's what's motivating your cat. Establishing some kind of threat or scare tactic is key to make your food less desirable, but until you find what is motivating your cat and provide a safer and close to equal alternative, the threat itself is likely to not be enough (I don't know about dogs and only really have experience with cats, but usually the threat for highly motivated cats only works when your back isn't turned, but the MOMENT you look away, they'll try to do the bad thing).

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Spray the cat preferably in the face with a spray bottle. They will stop coming near you when you're eating very quickly. That's also effective way to discipline the cat when they're doing other things that you rather not too. Just one small spray usually works. This is not abuse and is a effective way to discipline or redirect a cat. They might still try to test you. But mine is they even see me pick up the spray bottle moves away I don't even have to spray it anymore. Yes you're going to have to have at least three spray bottles so it's always Within Reach because you need to use it as quickly as the cat does that unwanted action as possible you can't go and hunt for it and then spray them five minutes later.

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Lemon did the trick for me. Squeeze in the plate, dip the very tip of your finger in the juice. Flicker at them when they go to grab from the plate.

I had to actually do it twice. Next time I simply just threatened and it got the message.

From then on, no more was needed.

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    Lemon is toxic to cats. Absolutely do not do this!
    – Allison C
    May 30, 2023 at 2:15

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