Feline Behavior Solutions (FBS) provides services that result in happy, healthy relationships between cats and their people. Cat behaviorist for cat behavior problems using fundamental animal behavior concepts tailored for your domestic cat.
Underlying photo from missioncats.net and aah4pets.com.
Why, oh why, is spraying cats with water still a thing? In looking around online and talking with people, I find that – over and over again – people are drawn to using a squirt bottle to either discipline or punish cats for unwanted behavior. Even shelters and those who should know better are still recommending the use of spray bottles or squirt guns. With everything we now know about cats, learning, and behavior, we need to update this antiquated mode of trying to teach cats to stop one behavior and do something different!
Well, folks who encourage the use of the spray bottle do have one thing right – using a spray bottle may indeed change your cat’s behavior, although not in the way you want it to. You know all of those stories where a fairy or genie or leprechaun grants three wishes, but the way those wishes are granted usually means something awful happens to the wisher? You can get similar results when you use a squirt bottle with your cat. Your cat might stop scratching the couch…only to start scratching on another piece of furniture when you’re not around. Or, your cat might stop chewing the plants…until you’re not around. Or, your cat might stop hopping up on the kitchen counters…until you’re not around. See what I’m getting at? Your cat won’t necessarily make the connection between his behavior and the squirt bottle, other than he gets squirted when he does those things AND you’re around. But when you’re not around, there’s no consequence. So the behavior continues…when you’re not around.
And frankly, squirt or spray bottles may not even be that effective. I’ll be honest with you. Many years ago, before I knew what I know now, I used a squirt bottle on a cat I had who was constantly jumping up on our kitchen counters. It worked the first few times I squirted her – she got down immediately and ran away. But the behavior continued, and pretty soon, she simply stared me down while I was squirting her and her tiny little face was just like “BRING IT” (she was a tortie and had tortitude, so this was totally in line with her purrsonality). The spray bottle was completely useless at that point, and all I was doing was 1) showing her that I was mean, and 2) soaking her. I didn’t have the intention of being mean, of course – my intention was simply to keep her from getting on the counter! But she didn’t know that, she was just getting squirted down by a big old meanie. Ahhh, I’m so sorry, Zoe!!!
I’ve also talked with many people who have had similar experiences, where the squirt bottle didn’t do anything to correct the behavior. And, I’ve even talked with a couple of people who said their cats thought the squirted bottle was a GAME, so they would do things just to get sprayed! (So much for the myth that cats hate water, eh?)
To correct (or change) a cat’s behavior, either punishment (like using a spray bottle) or reinforcement (to reward good behavior) needs to happen consistently – that’s when cats start to put two and two together, linking their behavior with the consequence. With positive reinforcement, this is fun for everyone – kitty does something good, and you get to be the hero by providing a reward (e.g., a treat) in hopes of encouraging the kitty to repeat that behavior. The more often you are able to reinforce a desirable behavior, the more likely the cat will repeat it (think consistency). However, the same is NOT true of using punishment such as a spray bottle. You will not always be around to punish your cat for doing something undesirable, thus, the punishment will not be consistent. And the more consistent you are with punishment, the more frequently your cat is receiving bad juju from you. So, if you are able to be consistent enough with punishment, it comes with a price – fear and distrust. If you are constantly doling out punishment in the form of spray bottles or even yelling (and I certainly hope not hitting or making physical contact), your cat is more likely to start fearing you. The end result is more stress for everyone, and when cats get too stressed, that results in…yup, you guessed it…more behavior issues (which can even include aggression towards you).
So what happens when you use a spray bottle, or other method of punishment that comes from you?
Your cat starts to associate the unpleasant experience with you, and not necessarily his actions with the punishment (as you intended).
Your cat will begin to do the undesired “thing” when you’re not around.
Your cat will begin to fear and distrust you.
Your cat’s stress levels may increase, which can result in more of the behavior you are trying to correct, or result in a new undesirable behavior.
Ok, so now that we’ve got that cleared up, what CAN you do to correct your cat’s behavior? Please understand that most cats do things because to meet a biological need. Cats need to scratch, so you must provide them with an adequate scratcher – if they don’t like the one they’ve been given, they will find something more suitable (i.e., your couch). Your cat jumps up on the kitchen counter because he’s hungry or has been rewarded by finding food up there before. Your cat tries to get out the door when you open it because he’s maybe not getting enough enrichment inside and is bored with his environment. Or, perhaps your cat sprays your bedding because he’s feeling insecure about his place in the household and needs to put his scent down as a self-soothing measure. Maybe you have even been unknowingly rewarding or reinforcing an undesirable behavior, or just not have given your cat an appropriate outlet for what he is biologically driven to do. So, when it comes to correcting any undesirable behavior, please consider:
What is the need your cat is trying to meet? (Scratching, viewing his territory, getting exercise, eliminating in a place where he feels safe?)
How can you meet your cat’s need in a way that would be acceptable to you? (Can you purchase a scratcher he would like, or try a different location for the litterbox?)
Can you reinforce a better, alternative way to express the behavior? (Does your cat like treats for using his scratcher, or praise for using the litterbox?)
In conjunction with providing an acceptable outlet for the behavior, is there a humane way to discourage the old behavior even when you’re not around ? (Can you put Sticky Paws on the couch where he was previously scratching, or put a food bowl in a spot where your cat had previously urinated to change the purpose of the area?)
Spraying cats with water from a squirt bottle is not a reinforcement; it’s a punishment. Giving your cat a choice of ways to express his behavioral needs and then rewarding his use of the choice you prefer is the best way to encourage your cat’s “good” behavior. The inappropriate behavior will fade away, the bond between you will be strengthened because you’re giving rewards based on something your cat does (i.e., operant conditioning), and your cat won’t fear or distrust you. In my book, that’s called a win-win!
As cat guardians, most of us are aware that within the bodies of our adorable, fluffy feline friends lurk fearsome predators. However, cats evolved not just as predators, but as prey to larger carnivores as well. And even though cats are some of the most efficient predators in the world, small cats (like our “domestic” house cats) evolved behaviors specifically to avoid being eaten by someone with bigger teeth and larger claws. No matter how safe their home might be, our little kitties are programmed to avoid predation. This behavior manifests itself in several ways – it’s why cats love hiding. Many cats like to hang out in high places (so that they can see what’s around them and avoid ambush); prefer their litterboxes to be placed in corners of rooms with clear lines of sight and no corners or shelves where predators can hide; and orient their body direction towards cats or people they don’t necessarily know or trust. But in fact, the first line of defense for a cat not wishing to become someone’s dinner involves not being seen in the first place.
Why do cats love hiding?
When a cat finds a good hiding spot, they feel safe and more comfortable than being out in the open. It’s no wonder why cats enjoy finding spots in our homes that conceal their location – they can snooze in peace and dream about catching the mouse, instead of being the mouse. In a small little cat cave (whether it’s a box, bag, under the bed, or tucked in a closet), a cat can quickly become familiarized with the small area, fill it with its own scent, and create a safe spot in which to relax. Cats in homes with several people, young children, other animals, etc. will often seek these safe spaces out to get a few moments of “alone time”, which we all need occasionally!
Further, hiding spots are very important to cats who are new to their environment, or who are just beginning to be socialized with people or animals. Cats need a safe spot in these cases – being out in the open and vulnerable to interactions with anyone who comes along can be very stressful and scary to a new cat, and can really be detrimental to the new cat getting to know a new home or learning about humans. I’ve talked with several people who have adopted under-socialized kitties who report that their cat just hides under the bed all of the time. Obviously, these cats need places to go, but hiding under the bed all the time is not going to help!
I believe that we can do better for these cats by providing them with safe hiding places that can help them adjust to a new home or people. A cat who has stationed herself under the bed is completely unreachable (and attempts to get a scared cat out from under the bed can go very wrong for everyone involved), so blocking off access to the bed or behind a couch and providing alternative hiding spots is preferable. Several alternative hiding spots should be offered, and they can be placed in different orientations; for example, you might put a cat cave in the corner of a room on the top of a cat tree, or put a cardboard box on its side with a towel partially covering the opening opposite a door so the kitty can see who comes and goes. This allows the cat to take on an observational role until she becomes comfortable enough to explore and interact with the things and people in the new environment.
Hiding spots around the home can also help keep the peace in multi-cat families. Cats who are prone to being chased or bullied by more dominant cats (or dogs) in the home will appreciate safe places to hide where they go unnoticed by other animals. While I encourage you to work on improving those relationships where there is aggression happening between animals in your home, providing some safe hiding spots can go a long way to giving your kitties the space they need to peacefully coexist.
What kind of hiding places do cats love?
Whether your cat hides for the sheer pleasure of it, she’s acclimating to a new environment or people, or taking a break from interacting with the other beings in your home, cats love hiding in different types of nooks and crannies. I actually interviewed my own cats about their favorite kitty caves that I’ve provided them, and this is the list they gave me, listed in order of the amount of money I had to shell out for their royal highnesses:
Hide and Sneak Cat Tunnel, by Dezi & Roo
This might be the BEST bang for your buck you’ll get in a cat hiding spot, because it’s not just a place to hide, it’s a place to play. To be completely transparent, Dezi & Roo sent one of these for free to see what I thought about it (or my cats, really), but this amazing cat tunnel is ONLY $10.99 for all the rest of you!!! There are several things I love about it. First, there’s both an entrance and exit, which can help cats feel more secure knowing that they are not “trapped” if someone decides to enter the tunnel behind them. Second, it’s completely collapsible, which makes it super easy to put away (rotate toys to keep them fresh!) or travel with – popping this baby up in a hotel room can provide a familiar place for your cat to hide in while on a road trip. Third, it’s made in the US out of recyclable paper and cardboard. Yes, it is basically a large cardboard bag with holes on both ends, but my tunnel has lasted forever. My cats sleep in it, play in it (it makes an irresistible crinkling sound), and have even torn open a corner that they use as a little spy-hole to attack toys or bat at each other from. This is simplicity at its best – cats love simple, and this is inexpensive, fun, and convenient. WE LOVE THIS TUNNEL! For more details, please go to Dezi & Roo’s website here.
HEXA-Scratch Cat Scratcher, by Savvy Tabby
In our home, we also love this hexagonal cat cubby that is made with six corrugated cardboard sides that cats can also scratch. The great thing about this hiding option is that it can be moved anywhere – cats love being up high, so I actually put this one on our fireplace mantle (it’s in a corner, so there’s plenty of room for it) and Abbey could comfortably hang out in it and keep an eye on what our other cats were doing from a safe place. It’s really easy to assemble (no tools or glue), and it’s only $17.50 from baxterboo.com. There are a couple of other sizes and models that these cubbies come in, too. My cats don’t really use it for scratching, but smaller cats and kittens might really enjoy it for that purpose as well.
Cat Ball Beds, by The Cat Ball
One of the first cave-style beds I bought for my cats was a Cat Ball. They are roomy enough for our larger kitties, and on a couple of occasions I’ve caught our two largest cats in one (ok, so the larger one was hanging out by a significant amount, but his upper half was in the ball, so it still counts). Cat Ball beds are padded and come in many different fabrics and styles (regular and large sizes, special editions like sharks and whales, and even a cat canoe style that is more like a regular bed). Cat Balls have a larger opening on one side and a smaller opening opposite, again allowing cats not to feel trapped. Check out the current styles and colors on The Cat Ball website; Cat Balls start at around $55 and prices go up depending on style. But they last a long time and the cute fabrics are worth it!
Le Sharma Cat Caves
This really is more of a cat cave, with an opening that is on the top, leaving a snuggly cave in the back of the bed. We have one cat (Momo, pictured) who really likes this bed, and I suspect that the other cats know it has been claimed by her because the others don’t use it all that much. I LOVE the purple and gray model that I have – it was either that one or the turquoise and gray, but honestly, either one is an attractive choice. These are made entirely of felted wool in Nepal with natural dyes. And they are a little bit more expensive – around $70. You can see all of the color choices at the Le Sharma website, HERE.
Vesper Cat Trees
Ok, Catit has had a line of cat furniture for a few years now that I love – the Vesper furniture collection. It. Is. Awesome. For too long, we’ve lived with carpeted monstrosities in our living room serving as cat trees! Sure, our cats like them, but us? Not so much. The reason why I’m including the Vesper cat trees in this article is because nearly all of the trees have an elevated cubby box that your cat can use as a hiding spot. The box is off the ground which gives your cat some height for a better line of site, the boxes have an entrance/exit on opposite sides, AND, there’s a removeable pad of carpet on the bottom of the box that you can wash if necessary. And did I mention that it’s stylish? My cats love this one – we have the shorter Vesper Base model, and it was only about $90. Totally worth it, in my opinion!
I hope you’ve gained some insight about why cats love hiding, and how you can better provide them with suitable hiding spots. There are a lot of products out there but these are my (I mean my cats’) favorites. If you find an exceptional cat cubby that your feline friend adores, let me know in a comment below!