I just got a new kitten, and she jumps all over the kitchen countertops and the dinner table. This is dangerous for her and annoying for me, so she has to learn some boundaries. Friends keep telling me to squirt her with a water bottle, but I know that doesn’t work. Why does everyone else still think it does?
Yes, when you spray your cat with water, chances are she’ll stop what she’s doing and run away. With a playful kitten, this quickly becomes a game: “I jump on the counter, you give me a squirt, I run away, then I jump back on the counter and the game begins again. This is fun!” Have I taught her not to jump on the counter? No.
With a more shy cat, this quickly becomes a reason to stay away from you: “I jump up to a high place to feel safe, you attack me with water, and I run and hide. You can’t be trusted. I’ll wait until you leave the house to investigate the counter.” Have I taught him not to jump on the counter? No.
Here’s the problem with spraying a cat with water: The only thing the cat learns is that when he sees the water bottle, it’s time to run. “Run whenever you see this bottle” is not a particularly useful cue to teach, and running to escape punishment is not a positive way to interact with your cat. It doesn’t build the bond between you, and it’s not an effective training method. Let’s think about why not.
What we’re really trying to say with the spray bottle is “stop whatever you’re doing”—in other words, “no.” There’s nothing wrong with setting reasonable limits on your cat’s behavior, especially when his health and safety are involved. But “stop whatever you’re doing” or “no” or a squirt of water don’t convey clear information.
At any given moment, a cat is doing a lot of things—sitting or standing, being in a particular place, looking at something, perhaps swatting or some other action. Which one of these things does “no” refer to? Is he supposed to stop doing them all, or some of them? Are you trying to teach him that he should not sit, not look, not swat, not be in that place? He has no way to know what you want.
First, I make sure to praise her and sometimes even give her a treat and pet for choosing her cat tree instead of the counter. Rewarding her for making the choice on her own will make her more likely to choose the cat tree more often than the counters. I’m also teaching my kitten exactly what I want her to do: get on the elevated surfaces I have provided for her: a cat tree and multiple perches. I’m teaching her a cue for “place.” Every time I feed her a meal or give her a treat, I say “place” and point to one of her perches. I then walk over and place the treat or meal there. Soon she will learn that when I say place and point to a perch to run there and wait for her reward. Once she understands this, if I see her thinking about jumping on the counter or table, I can cue her to where I want her to go by redirecting her to her own safe elevated surface. Another option, you might consider is teaching, “off.”, If she is up on the counter, I use a sweeping motion with my hand to pick her up and gently deposit her on the floor, while I say “off.” When she’s on the floor, she gets a pat or a kiss and a moment or two of play, so she knows when she’s on the floor, life is very rewarding. That sweeping motion will eventually become a hand signal I can use along with my cue word (“off”) to get her off all kinds of things, even from across the room.
These are positive interactions between us. My kitten gets clear information about what I want her to do, she gets a reward, and she doesn’t start to think of me as someone she needs to run away from.
Is the training taking time? Yes, of course it is. I’m being patient and consistent and calm, because she’s a baby and she doesn’t speak my language. Climbing to high places is a natural cat behavior, too, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to her not to do it. I’ve made sure she has plenty of things she’s allowed to climb on—some of them near my table and countertops, so she can get that high vantage point nearby. But I save my spray bottle for my houseplants. That’s no way to train a cat.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Beth Adelman, MS, is a cat behavior consultant in New York City. Beth is currently on the executive committee of the feline division of the Pet Professional Guild, and is a frequent speaker on cat behavior.