Establishing Dominance Over Your Feline. 3 Surefire Ways to Show Who’s Boss

Understand Cat Behavior

Cats are territorial animals that value their personal space. They establish domains that they mark and defend through behaviors like rubbing, scratching, and urine spraying (Smith, 2022). Within their territory, cats form social groups with dominance hierarchies that determine priority access to resources like food, resting spots, and mating opportunities (ICATCare, 2018).

Cats use body language and ritualized behaviors to communicate and establish these dominance rankings. Dominant cats exhibit confident postures with an erect tail, make prolonged eye contact, and initiate play. Less dominant cats show deference by avoiding eye contact, crouching down, and allowing more dominant cats to pass first (Catster, 2023).

Avoid Punishment

Punishing cats does not work to establish dominance and will likely backfire by causing mistrust, fear, or aggression. Cats do not understand punishment the way humans do and will often associate the punishment with the punisher rather than their own behavior. As explained by The Spruce Pets, “Positively reinforcing good behaviors is better than trying to punish a cat. When your cats are spending time together, be sure to give them treats so they begin to associate good things happening when they’re calm around each other.”

Physical punishment like hitting or holding a cat down should never be used, as it can create anxiety and fear that leads to more undesirable behaviors. As Hill’s Pet Nutrition advises, “Cats are already intolerant of human forms of punishment, but physically dominating a cat will break your bond with her. Never hold down, strike, or scruff shake your cat.”

It’s best to redirect and separate cats when signs of aggression or dominance arise. Punishment will likely worsen any behavior issues. Positive reinforcement training can gently reshape a cat’s conduct over time.

Use Positive Reinforcement

One of the best ways to influence a cat’s behavior and show dominance is through positive reinforcement. This involves rewarding your cat with treats, praise, pets or play when they demonstrate a desired behavior. For example, if your cat uses their scratching post instead of furniture, be sure to provide a treat immediately after. You can even use a clicker to mark the exact moment the behavior occurs, then provide the reward. According to Training Cats with Positive Reinforcement, this helps cats associate the reward with the specific action you want to encourage. Over time, the positive reinforcement will shape the cat’s behavior in a positive way.

Positive reinforcement builds trust between you and your cat. When your cat receives rewards for good behavior, they learn to look to you for guidance and approval. This can establish you as the dominant one in the relationship. Training sessions are also quality bonding time that strengthen your connection. With patience and consistency, positive reinforcement gives you a force-free way to communicate what you expect from your cat.

Control Resources

One way to establish dominance with a cat is by controlling access to resources the cat values, like food, treats, and resting spots.[1] Restricting access to these items, and then allowing access only when the cat is calm and compliant, can reinforce dominance.

For example, keep food bowls and treats up high or behind closed doors. Only put them down and allow the cat access when it sits calmly and waits patiently. The same goes for resting spots – don’t allow the cat onto furniture or beds whenever it wants. Instead, require it to wait calmly before granting access.

Over time, the cat will learn that you control its valued resources, and it has to defer to you and behave appropriately to gain access. This taps into a cat’s innate social hierarchies and can help establish you as the dominant figure in your home.

Ignore Unwanted Behaviors

One strategy for showing dominance over a cat is to ignore unwanted behaviors like meowing, scratching, and biting. Giving a cat attention for undesirable behaviors will reinforce them because the cat learns that those actions get a response. As difficult as it may be, it’s important not to react to problematic behaviors. This means avoiding eye contact, verbal reprimands, and physical engagement. The goal is to convey to the cat that the behavior will not elicit any reward.

According to feline experts, “The least effective way to try to correct unwanted behavior is to physically or verbally punish your cat.”1 Pushing, hitting, yelling, squirting with water, and other punishments often backfire by making cats anxious or aggressive. It’s better to simply withdraw all attention when a cat misbehaves. As one source explains, “When they’re engaging in an unwanted behavior, don’t respond. That’s it. When your cat misbehaves, ignore him. Do not speak one word to him.”2

Use Scents

Cats use scent marking to communicate and assert dominance. They have scent glands on their cheeks, paws, and flanks. When a cat rubs against objects or other cats, it deposits pheromones to mark territory and send signals. Dominant male cats may scent-mark through rubbing objects with their cheeks more than subordinate cats.

Cats also groom themselves to distribute their scent. Grooming reinforces social bonds and hierarchy. The dominant cat in a pair will often groom the subordinate cat as a caretaking behavior. This allows the dominant cat to assert its authority through distributing its scent onto the subordinate cat.

Body Language Signals

Cat behavior experts recognize specific body language signals that indicate dominance and submission between cats.[1] Direct eye contact is one way cats show dominance, while getting low to the ground or slow blinking are signs of submission.

When a dominant cat wants to assert themselves, they will make and hold direct eye contact. Staring straight at another cat without blinking is a clear power play. The dominant cat will stand tall with their head and tail held high. Meanwhile, a submissive cat will look away or slowly blink at the dominant cat. The submissive cat may also crouch down with their stomach low to the ground.

These body language cues help cats negotiate relationships and establish harmony within a group. While the terms “dominant” and “submissive” imply force, cat experts note this is just normal cat communication. It allows cats to express themselves and avoid the stress of fighting.[2] Understanding this body language allows owners to better interpret their cats’ interactions.

Voice Commands

Giving clear voice commands is an effective way to show dominance and teach your cat how to properly behave. Cats naturally respond to firm, authoritative voices from those they view as dominant.

Use a low, firm tone when giving commands to your cat. Say commands like “sit”, “stay”, “come”, or “no” in a calm but assertive voice. High-pitched babying tones will reinforce your cat’s perception of you as subordinate and make commands less effective.

Begin training kittens with basic commands as early as 8 weeks old. Always reward with treats when they follow commands correctly so they learn to associate obedience with positivity. Adult cats can learn as well, though may take more time and effort.

Be consistent with commands and do not give up if your cat ignores you at first. With regular short sessions each day, most cats will pick up basic verbal commands for core behaviors within 1-2 months.

For best results, combine voice commands with hand signals. And use the same words consistently – “sit”, not “sit down” one day and “have a seat” the next. This repetition builds understanding.

With patience and the proper authoritative vocal approach, you can establish yourself as the dominant pack leader and train your cat to listen and respond to your voice.

For more information, check out this guide on training kittens with commands:

Provide Enrichment

Providing enrichment for indoor cats can help satisfy their instincts for play, scratching, climbing, and hunting. According to the Feline Enrichment website, “Feline enrichment can help with a wide variety of behavioral issues including destruction, inter-cat aggression, escaping, retreating to isolation, anxiety, inappropriate elimination, and more.”

Indoor cats especially need outlets for their energy and ways to engage their natural behaviors. As explained in an article from Face4Pets, “Results indicate that environmental enrichment is an important component to feline emotional health. Indoor cats who do not receive adequate play and attention can develop behavior problems.”

Providing climbing structures, scratching posts, puzzle toys, playtime with feather wands, and other enrichment can satisfy a cat’s needs and prevent boredom. According to Preventive Vet, “Cat enrichment prevents boredom, burns energy, and helps reduce stress or anxiety in our cats.” Meeting a cat’s enrichment needs can make them less prone to challenge a human’s dominance as they have appropriate outlets for natural behaviors.

Consult an Expert

If your cat displays ongoing aggressive behavior or dominance issues that do not improve with behavior modifications at home, it is wise to seek professional help from your vet or an animal behaviorist. Consistent aggression or attempts to dominate can indicate an underlying medical condition causing your cat distress or pain. A vet can perform exams and testing to rule out illness or injury as a cause. An animal behaviorist specializes in modifying unwanted pet behaviors and can assess your cat and home environment to determine the triggers and circumstances of the aggression. They will work with you on solutions tailored to your cat and situation.

Do not attempt punishment, physical force, or other harsh tactics which could worsen your cat’s behavior. Well-informed guidance is key. Your vet can provide a referral or you can look for a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB). With an expert’s help, many cats exhibiting aggression or dominance can go on to coexist happily again.

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