Do you have a spray bottle on the counter, ready to stop counter-surfing? Or maybe on the coffee table to prevent furniture scratching? It’s a common tool in many cat homes. I’ll admit, I once kept a squirt bottle close at hand to try to stop a pet behavior problem. But, today, I want to challenge you: is that spray bottle really, actually, working the way you want it to?
What is Your Real Goal?
Does this sound familiar? Your cat wanders around the kitchen for a minute, peers up at you cooking, and then hops up on the counter. You turn around to grab the spray bottle and point it at your cat. They hop down at the sight, maybe even when you reach to grab it.
So the spray bottle is working, right? Your cat clearly understands they shouldn’t be on the counter because they jumped off, right? But wait one minute! What’s your real goal here?
Most owners don’t want their cat to jump on the counter in the first place. In that case, the spray bottle isn’t doing anything. Your cat is learning to jump down when they see the bottle, but they’re still jumping up. If your goal is to teach your cat not to jump on the counter at all, the spray bottle ISN”T working!
Effective punishment changes behavior, period. If your cat is still hopping up on the counter, then your attempts at punishment aren’t effective. If you’ve been using the same punishment over and over, there is probably a better way out there.
Why Your Punishment May Not Work
Cats are smart – they can easily learn when the spray bottle isn’t nearby and that the spray bottle only works when you’re there. This is a common problem with our attempts at punishment. To work, punishment needs to be connected to the exact behavior only and nothing else in the environment. With the spray bottle, your cat is really learning “I will be chased off the counter if my person is standing there, looking at me, and the spray bottle is in the area.” There are lots of situations where all those conditions aren’t met and your cat will know they are safe to hop up.
Another factor is your cat’s motivation for jumping on the counter. If they can sneak a bite of food, get some attention from you, or just check out a desirable high space, then it is probably worth risking the spray bottle. Every choice is a calculation of risk versus reward, after all. If the punishment is unlikely (because your back is turned) or not as bad as the reward (there’s tuna up there!), your cat will keep jumping up.
Effective punishment isn’t easy to pull off. It has to be there every single time, whether you are in the room or not, and be at an appropriate intensity that the reward isn’t worth it. But, punishment can also become scary, and even traumatizing. A cat can end up with long-lasting fear of certain spaces, people, or things. Some cats react to punishment with defensive aggression toward people or other pets in the area, even if the punishment wasn’t caused by those individuals.
What To Do Instead
Avoiding punishment, especially ineffective or risky punishment, doesn’t mean living with unwanted behavior. You have options.
First, use management to prevent the problem behavior. Management is setting up your cat’s environment so they are unable or unlikely to make the “wrong” choice. For counter-surfing, management includes putting away all food from the counters, except when you are actively preparing something, so there is nothing to be gained from jumping up. Even if you are going to be doing some training or using other techniques, management is a key step to getting the behavior you want in the long run.
A “Yes” For Every “No”
Next, identify an appropriate behavior for your cat to do, instead of the unwanted one. Pick something that meets the same needs that your cat was meeting with their problem behavior.
If they want to get up high, give them a raised perch somewhere in the kitchen – a cat tree, a chair or stool, or a section of counter that is away from the food prep area that you are willing to share. Reward them for sitting in that place only. If your cat is looking for a snack, give them a food puzzle when you are cooking so they have a rewarding alternative.
Finally, you can add a deterrent. This is a mild type of punishment that makes a behavior just unpleasant enough that it’s not worth it. The goal isn’t to scare the cat, only to make them look for a better option. Since you provided an appropriate choice in the last step, they’ll easily find a different place to sit or activity to do. A deterrent must be present every time your cat tries to do the unwanted behavior and must be connected only to the exact behavior you are working on. To deter cats from counters, for example, you can cover your counter with something that is unpleasant to sit or lay on, such as an upside down carpet protector. When the cat jumps up, they don’t like the feeling so they hop down on their own. A deterrent can be slowly faded out once your cat is very consistently choosing a different option.
Easier on You and Your Cat
This discussion of punishment applies to more than the spray bottle. Have you tried yelling or scolding, chasing your cat away, picking them up and moving them, tossing things, making noise, or other punishments you have to keep repeating over and over? It can be very hard to effectively punish your cat. Many cat behavior problems can instead be addressed proactively through management, providing an appropriate alternative, and deterrents, as needed. This will be easier and more pleasant for both you and your cat.
Take a minute to identify your real goal for your cat’s behavior and you’ll find you can stop chasing bad behavior and get a better-behaved cat, for real.
If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.