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Counter-Surfing Cats: What to do When Your Cat Loves Hangin’ Ten (…er…Eight…)
When I visit my clients to resolve cat behavior issues, one topic almost always comes up as a “by-the-way-can-you-help-me-with-this” question. And that question is: “how can I get my cat to stop jumping up on counters and table tops?” Many cats just LOVE to hop up on tables and counter-tops, scavenging for food, knocking stuff off shelves, or getting in our way. And for many of us, that’s just not appropriate behavior. Why do they do this? Counter-surfing cats seek out work-surfaces for a few reasons:
Cats are inherently curious creatures and they want to see what’s going on when you’re busy working on the surfaces they can’t see from the floor. They want to be where the action is!
Some cats have learned that there are rewards to be received by exploring counters and table-tops, namely FOOD. Cats – if food-motivated – can be quite persistent in checking places that might offer delicious snacks!
Is your cat bored? Your cat may have learned that getting up on a forbidden surface is a good way to get immediate attention from you, or that there are fun things to play with up there (i.e., objects he can knock on to the floor for his amusement).
Cats use space in a three-dimensional manner, meaning that they often like to be up in high places. Cats evolved to both escape predation and observe their prey by hanging out in higher places – trees, rock-outcrops, and other perchable locations.
Regardless of the reasons why cats like to occupy space on counters and tables, you may decide this is not an appropriate place for them to be. In kitchens, you risk food being contaminated by fur and “remnants” of things stuck to your cats’ paws (ew). But don’t worry – the process of breaking your cat’s habit of hopping on off-limits surfaces is fairly simple. The only drawback is that it can take time, so be patient and persistent when it comes to the following procedure. Most importantly, don’t let your cat get away with this behavior even occasionally – your cat doesn’t understand that it’s “sometimes” ok to be on a table or counter, nor can he recognize the circumstances where he can “sometimes” get on the counter or table. There’s really no half-way here; it’s all or nothing, so be careful about sending mixed messages. Decide where your cat is permitted and where he is not, and stick with it.
Step 1: Eliminate all Payoffs for Your Counter-Surfing Cats
Put ALL food away, ALL the time! Even if you put food in bags (for example), make sure the food is secured in a cupboard or in the refrigerator; counter-surfing cats who are food-motivated will even chew through containers and bags to get at food.
If your cat is hungry and is looking for food (particularly around mealtimes when you are preparing food for humans and/or cats), this can cause an increase in attempts at counter-surfing either while you are working at the surface or before. You may want to consider the following to curb hunger-related counter-surfing:
Break up meals into more feedings. If you feed your cat twice a day, consider adding a third meal. Cats should not go more than 8 hours between meals, and in the wild, they have several small frequent meals throughout the day. Try adding a small meal after you get home from work, or by setting an automatic timed feeder to open up around noon if you’re not home. Keep your cat’s overall daily calorie allotment the same, but just feed more frequent, smaller meals (or snacks) instead of two larger meals.
You might also try adding pumpkin to wet food, as it adds fiber to your cat’s diet, which can make your cat feel fuller for longer. Read this article to get started with adding pumpkin to your cat’s food.
Give your cat a food puzzle to work on during the day. If you’re not home to feed your cat snacks, food puzzles and puzzle feeders are a great way to keep your cat’s hunger curbed while providing mental stimulation! Get started with food puzzles by reading my article about food puzzles – there are a TON of both commercial food puzzles and free do-it-yourself options!
And, while not food-related, if your cat is bored, make sure you’re giving him plenty of active play-time. A bored cat will look for something to keep himself occupied, and if he’s jumping up on tables or shelves to do so, he may need some assistance in that area. Daily play sessions with a wand toy are an essential start, but there are also plenty of enrichment activities you can give your kitty, too!
Step 2: Make Off-Limits Surfaces Unappealing
Not only do you have to take away the reward for cats getting up on the counter, but you may have to go a step further and temporarily use minor aversive techniques to keep cats off the counters when you’re not around. This way, cats will learn that counters and table-tops are off-limits all the time, not just when you’re around to shoo them away. If they only get chased off surfaces by you (by clapping, yelling, spraying water, etc. – which you shouldn’t do, btw), they will simply learn to do the behavior when you’re not around. Here are a few things to try:
Some people have had success with covering surfaces with aluminum foil or upside-down plastic carpet runner, with the nubby sides up. This depends entirely on how sensitive your cat is to preferred walking surfaces. I’ve met cats who will simply lay down and take a nap on both of these surfaces, but they’re cheap and easy to try.
I’ve been most successful with sticky surfaces, on which cats hate walking. Purchase several cheap plastic placemats from the dollar store (or use large pieces of cardboard) and cover them with double-sided tape. I recommend Sticky Paws, which is specifically developed to keep pets off of surfaces! You can buy Sticky Paws in sheets, strips, or on a roll. Cover the placemats with the tape, and leave them out when you’re not working at the counter; stack them loosely when you need to use the surface. If you can only cover part of your surface, try moving placemats around to different spots so that your cat doesn’t learn where they are and where not to hop up. They are like tiny little velociraptors who keep “testing the fence” (see the first Jurassic Park movie if you don’t know what I’m talking about).
I do not generally recommend the use of stronger aversives like motion-activated compressed air cans, except in specific cases. These should NEVER be used with a cat who has stress or anxiety issues, as you do not want your cat to be fearful in his environment. Please talk with a behaviorist BEFORE employing this type of tactic, as this can potentially lead to or amplify other behavior issues that are stress or fear-related. Anything that produces an electric shock – no matter how mild it claims to be – should never be used.
If one of the above approaches works, use that method for a couple of weeks (remembering to shift locations if you can’t cover the entire surface) and then reduce the usage. By that time, most cats learn that the counter or table-top is not a great place to be.
Step 3: Provide an Alternative Location for Your Cat to Perch
A lot of people skip this step, when it’s actually an important part of the solution. Your cat has a need to be up high so that he can see what’s going on in a particular area. So give him an acceptable place to be for that purpose! If you have a cat tree or a stool that you can place next to your counter-top or table, encourage your cat to use that instead of work surfaces. Make sure that he can see what you’re doing from that location, and reward him every time he uses his perch. If kitty gets onto the counter-top, put him on the floor very neutrally (don’t yell or punish), then call him over to his special perch. Encourage him to climb up (using a toy or a treat), and when he does, give him a reward. An important thing to note: if your cat jumps up on the counter, DON’T move your cat directly from the work surface to the perch then give him a treat, otherwise you’ll just be rewarding him for getting on to the counter. Make sure that there’s a “break” between the inappropriate behavior and the behavior that can be rewarded! Put him on the floor, then have him jump up on his perch, then reward him. It helps to have a verbal command for the perch, like “tree” or “stool” so that you can direct him to his spot before he gets the urge to jump on the counter.
Pretty soon he’ll learn that he can see just as well from his special place, and he gets a pay-off for doing so. After he gets into the habit, you don’t have to reward him every time – and in fact, positive reinforcement doesn’t have to be a treat – you can give him pets, affection, or sweet-talk instead. This is also a great thing to work on with clicker-training, if you’re familiar with that process!
If you are consistent about making your work surfaces undesirable and providing an alternative perch where your cat get rewards, your formerly counter-surfing cat will soon learn about better alternatives to be, and that will make everyone happy. For more help with this issue or information about other behavior issues, contact Dr. Marci at email@example.com.
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!
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, we spend a lot of time trying to ensure that our cats are happy and healthy. This includes not only their physical welfare, but understanding our own role in our cat’s emotional connection with us. We can tell when our cats are happy and content, anxious, scared or fearful, or irritated. Which is great – the more aware of how our kitties are feeling, the better we are able to meet their needs.
But how much do our cats know about us and our emotional states? Quite a lot, actually. Cats have this amazing ability to detect when we are sad or upset, hurting, happy, or nearly anything else. Don’t worry – I’m not going to get all woo-woo on you – but I’m hoping that you’ve had at least one cat in your life who has expressed an acknowledgement of how you were feeling at some point.
Jesse making sure I recover from surgery with plenty of snuggles.
I’ve had a couple, and I know I’m not alone. Many years ago, I had a bad breakup and was uncontrollably upset. My cat Zoe hopped up on the table and actually put her paws on my face, which she had never done before. Two weeks ago, I had surgery and was largely confined to my couch. My cat Jesse spent a lot of time snuggling with me, as if he knew that I needed that cuddle time. My cat Abbey spent part of my recovery time hovering above my head on the arm of the couch, which she has never really done before.
I’m not saying that cats are psychic (although maybe they are, I don’t know). But I do know that cats are incredibly adept at reading subtle changes in our body language, facial expressions, movements, and detecting changes in the tone of our speech. Dogs are great at doing this, too!
While not all cats will necessarily acknowledge your emotional state as in my examples above, it is important to understand that your emotional state does affect your cat. I’ve had several clients who had cats with behavior issues, with the emotional state of their guardians as a contributor to the problem. Cats see that you are stressed, and they become stressed. Cats see that you are relaxed and calm, and they become relaxed and calm. Of course, there are mitigating circumstances and it’s not always this simple; cats can have issues arising from various sources. But, all things being equal, our cats may tend to mirror our own emotional states. I’ve had clients on the verge of divorce whose cats were being overly aggressive with each other. I’ve also had clients who were dealing with both personal and professional stresses whose cats were constantly hiding and developing minor health problems. The behaviors exhibited by these cats may not have been caused by their guardians directly, but their guardians’ emotional states did not help the cats’ situations.
I’m currently working with a client who has a cat who is very aggressive towards her and visitors to the home, hissing at and sometimes striking people when they get too close. My client is very scared of this cat, even though she loves him a great deal. However, she ACTS very scared around the cat, and he picks up on it. In his world, he sees his guardian as afraid, and while he doesn’t know WHY she’s afraid, he assumes there is something to be afraid of. As a result, he becomes afraid and puts up his defenses, resulting in hissing and scratching. My recommendations to my client involved increasing her confidence around the cat; simply ignoring him as she walks through a room was a challenge. As a result, things have improved; my client is controlling her fear, and the cat has responded in turn. The hissing has greatly decreased, and I’m happy that they are on friendlier terms!
Cats are amazing companions who have the ability to comfort, love, and support us when we need them. But it works both ways in our cat’s emotional connection with us. Just as we want to know that our cats are happy and content as a result of what we provide them, we have to realize that we contribute to our cats’ emotional health in ways that we are often unaware of. Cats thrive on harmony, and it’s up to us to give it to them.
Even though our cats have fur and four legs instead of being mostly hairless and able to walk upright on two feet, many of us consider our cats to be part of the family. We humans take on the role of cat parent or guardian, and we are responsible for the well-being and care of those under our watchful eyes. In most family units, there are four major parenting styles people have with their human children. I decided to take a look at these and see if there are any parallels to how we take care of our cats, and guess what? There are! Having an understanding of the type of cat parent you are (or what you’d like to become) is an important factor in the well-being of your kitty. Want to take a short quiz to find out what kind of cat parent you are? You sure do! Here are a few scenarios; what would you do?
Question A) Your cat is BEGGING to go outside, even though you live on a busy road, and there’s a pack of coyotes with tattoos that live just beyond your yard, and there’s a gang of feral tom cats that terrorize the neighborhood by demanding milk-money from small children. You:
Take your cat out onto the patio with you and make her sit in your lap so that you can give her hugs and kisses while she tries to scramble out of your arms.
Let your cat outside – it’s her fault if she gets hurt or in trouble and maybe she’ll learn her lesson.
Completely ignore her pleas to go outside unless it’s to yell at her when she keeps meowing because she’s got to learn SHE’S NOT GOING OUTSIDE!!!
Think about how you could safely give your cat the outdoor experience that she wants, so you train her to wear a harness and leash to go on walks, or you look into building a catio.
Question B) Your cat jumps on the counter, which she’s not supposed to do. She’s looking for food and walks her little dirty litter-box paws over to where you’re prepping dinner. You:
Say hello and give her some chicken, and then pet her and give her kisses and more chicken.
Leave her up on the counter – if she walks across the hot stove and burns her paws, it’s her own fault and maybe that will teach her not to do it again.
Pick her up roughly and drop her on the floor, then scold her for jumping on the counter.
Think about why she wants to get up on the counter, figure out how to make the counter free of temptation, and then train your cat to use an alternative perch where she can see what you’re doing (but stays out of the way), and gets rewarded for doing so.
Question C) Your two cats aren’t really getting along very well, and never have. One cat wants to chase and fight the other cat, who just wants to be left alone and often hides. You:
Keep the cats separated in the home. These two kitties will just never get along, but they will get plenty of love from you, no matter how inconvenient it is to try to keep the cats separated from each other!
Let the cats work it out on their own – if your shy cat ends up permanently under the bed, that’s her problem; she’ll learn that she has to suck it up and stop letting the other cat bully her around eventually.
Put the cats together in a room and shut the door. When fighting ensues, you enter the room and tell those cats they’re going to learn to get along or suffer the consequences…no more catnip toys for a week!
Keep the cats separate initially, but slowly work on reintroducing them, using positive reinforcement with rewards to create good associations with each cat for the other. This takes time because you have to move at the pace of the cats, but after a month or so, your cats are able to both hang out in the living room together on opposite ends of the couch.
Question D) Your cat – YIKES – has decided she no longer likes using the litterbox! She will poop inside the box most of the time, but she urinates just outside of the box about half of the time. You:
Tell her it’s ok, scoop her up in your arms, give her smooshy kisses on her face, then grab the enzyme cleaner and clean up her mess. C’est la vie!
Let her go wherever she likes; if she doesn’t like the litterbox, let her find some place else she likes better. You might end up giving the cat away or abandoning her at an animal shelter, but too bad; that’s what happens when cats don’t use the litterbox.
Take your cat’s little nose and rub it in a place where the cat peed previously, which you just found. You punish your cat the same way each time you find a new place that she’s soiled. For some reason, there seem to be more and more incidents of her not using the litterbox (go figure)!
Bring your cat to the vet and make sure that she doesn’t have a bladder or urinary issue that needs to be treated. When she’s medically cleared, you make sure that you are scooping her litterbox at least daily, are using a litterbox that is big enough for her, and are using litter that she approves of. If these things don’t work, you consult with your local cat behaviorist to identify the issue and work on resolving it.
Ok, how do you think you did? Could you see any trends in the answer options? Thinking about the types of answers available, do you see yourself in any of them, or see a cat parent that you would like to be? Do you see the type of cat parent that you don’t want to be? Let’s go over the answers and figure out which type of cat parent you are!
Permissive-Style Cat Parent
If you answered 1 for each question, you are a permissive cat parent. It’s hard to say “no” to your cat when she does something she’s not supposed to do. Get up on the table while you’re trying to eat? Aww…isn’t that cute, here’s a little piece of chicken. Wanting to play with you while you’re asleep? It’s ok, she just wants attention. You’ll bend over backwards to give your kitty what she wants so that she loves you as much as you love her. You may be rewarding bad behavior though, or at the very least being inconsistent with the rules, so it’s difficult to get long-term training done with this approach. Pros: You’ve got affection and love for your cat for miles! Cons: Long-term consequences. Cats are hard to teach if they are not given consistent lessons. If scratching the sofa is not ok and you only correct her sometimes, it’s going to be much more difficult to get her to learn not to scratch the sofa, period.
Hands-Off-Style Cat Parent
If your answer was 2 for most of the questions, you’re a hands-off cat parent. You pretty much let your cat do what she wants to do so that she can learn lessons independently. Unfortunately, you don’t really keep her safety or best interests in mind as a priority, and there may be some harsh lessons to learn. The hands-off cat guardian lets their cat do what they want and learn through experience. And sometimes the consequences can be tough. Your cat meows to go outside, even though you know that there’s a roaming gang of bad-ass tomcats on the prowl? You’re tired of hearing his meowing, so you let him out and he gets beat up. Oh well! Maybe next time he won’t want to go outside so badly. Pros: You’re teaching your cat to be independent and to not rely on you for everything. Cons: He’s a cat. Your cat does in fact rely on you for certain things for his overall health and happiness, including your attention! As a cat guardian, it’s your responsibility to keep your cat safe and teach him how to stay out of trouble (e.g., don’t jump up on that hot stove).
Authoritarian-Style Cat Parent
Did you answer 3 for the above questions? If so, you’re an authoritarian. Tough love is your approach (which includes punishment), but without showing affection or compassionate corrections, you risk destroying the relationship you have with your cat due to fear and distrust. Respect is the key to this cat parenting style, and rules, rules, rules. Your cat can’t do anything that isn’t authorized by you! Do you put your cat away (e.g., in a kennel, in extreme situations) if you’re not around or otherwise restrict her from making her own decisions at any time? Pros: Uh…can’t really come up with too much here…anyone? Anyone? Cons: Too much “tough love” can destroy the relationship you have with your kitty and result in fear and distrust. Make sure to reward your cat for the things she does right, and show her love and affection occasionally.
Authoritative-Style Cat Parent
Anyone answer 4 for all questions? Good job! You are an authoritative cat parent (not to be confused with the authoritaRIAN style). While you expect good behavior from your cat, you realize that YOU play an essential role in making this happen. You use positive reinforcement when your cat uses appropriate alternatives to inappropriate behavior. This is the most challenging type of cat parent to be (it requires patience and time for training), but the work will pay off in the end. You’ll have a strong bond of trust and affection with your cat. Authoritative cat parents expect their cats to behave as the result of training, but they also hold themselves accountable for the success (or lack thereof) of their cat achieving a desired behavior. These cat parents are willing to put in the time to train and reward cats for good behavior, and correct inappropriate behavior in a calm, kind, and patient way. Pros: You’ll have a well-behaved kitty who both loves you and understands the limits that you’ve set. Cons: This takes time and patience. But the rewards are worth it!
So, what kind of cat parent are you? What kind of cat parent is your partner, if you have one? If you are not on the same page, is there something that you can do to bring your cat parenting styles more in harmony? Being aware of your parenting style can help you move in a positive direction for both you and your kitty, so next time your cat tries to claw the sofa or drink out of your glass of water, think about what approach will get your cat to where you want her to be in the long-run.
If you hare having a hard time figuring out the best way to parent your cat or are having a specific issue you need help with, please let me know. Contact me by sending me a request to talk about what’s going on with your cats HERE.
When I talk with people about what type of litter their cats like, I often get these types of answers: “I like this brand because it smells good,” or “I like this brand because it clumps well,” or “I like this brand because it doesn’t track as much.” These are all fine answers to the question what do YOU like about your cat’s litter. But the question is, what kind of litter does YOUR CAT like? And how do you know? What is the best litter for your cat?
If your cat is going outside of the litterbox, one of the first things I look at is the kind of litter your cat is using, and whether you’ve tried other litters. There are all sorts of different types of litters out there, made of different materials and having different grain sizes. You can find litter made of natural, sustainable materials such as corn, wheat grass, pine, and coconut husks. There are all sorts of clay litters with various scents, additives (or not), clumping ability, and texture. There are even silica crystal litters that change color. Litter comes in grains, shreds, and pellets. There are so many options out there – how do you know which one your cat likes best?
Here are a few indicators that your cat likes her litter (although not all cats do these things, even if they are perfectly content with their litter):
Your cat spends time before using the box digging around in the litter
Your cat buries her waste with litter
Your cat doesn’t shoot out of the litterbox, spending as little time as possible in it
Your cat doesn’t perch on the edge of the box, as if she doesn’t want to touch the litter with her paws
So what’s the answer – what is the best litter for your cat? The one that she will use consistently. The one that SHE likes. You may have to go with a litter that is not your favorite – maybe it wasn’t grown on an organic coconut plantation or is a little dustier than you’d prefer. But will your cat use it regularly? Does SHE like it? Of course, if you can find something that you both like, that’s ideal. But your cat likes what she likes. And as long as she uses the litterbox on a regular basis, YOU are going to like it, too!
I will say that scientific studies have shown that cats prefer fine-grained clumping cat litter the best. This is probably because the clumps can be easily removed (by humans) or avoided by kitty paws, and the fine grains are gentlest on sensitive toes. But if you are having success with other litter types, GREAT!!! You don’t need to fix what isn’t broken…cats have wide and varied preferences. However, if your cat does start to go outside the litterbox, consider the litter your cat is using. Is there an alternative your cat can try? You bet…lots of them!
PS – There’s also the NO LITTER option of toilet-training your cat. DON’T DO THIS. Find out why you don’t want to toilet-train your cat HERE.
PPS – There are many other components to your cat’s litterbox setup that are important. To find out more about these components and give your kitty the best litterbox setup imaginable, check out THIS ARTICLE.
You know how some people say that cats can’t be trained? Well, I’ve gotta tell you – those people have got it all wrong. In fact, cats have got the whole training concept down – they are masters in the art of training! Think about it – they’ve already got YOU trained to respond to their every whim – they meow, you give them food. They jump on your lap, they get pets. They know just how to get what they want from you, because they know that you are motivated by their reward: a little bit of their precious attention! You have been trained to respond to your cat’s demands. You have been positively reinforced by your cats to do good things for them because they reward you with their affection, so you do those things again, and again, and again. But guess what? They’ve taught us a valuable lesson. We can turn the tables on them, and you can learn how to use positive reinforcement for good cat behavior. We’ve caught on to your game, felines, and now it’s our turn! Ha!
Positive Reinforcement for Good Cat Behavior
What do I mean when I talk about “training” a cat? I’m not just talking about tricks (although it certainly applies) – I’m talking about encouraging any behavior that you’d like your cat to exhibit. In the case of many of my clients, a preferred behavior (e.g., clawing a scratching post) could be replacing an undesirable behavior (e.g., turning your grandmother’s antique armoir from France into match-stick sized bits of wood). Many perceived “bad” behaviors arise out of a biologically-evolved need – scratching, urinating and defecating, climbing, etc. – and if you don’t give your cats an appropriate way to express that need, they’ll make due with what’s in their environment. It then gets more difficult to switch them from using one (undesirable) thing to another (more desirable) thing. But it can be done!
The most important thing is to find out what motivates your cat to exhibit a desired behavior and use that as a reward so that they repeat the behavior, and forget about doing the other undesirable behavior. Luckily, many cats are food-motivated (i.e., they like treats), which is a fine reward to use in many cases. But for those cats who don’t respond so much to food or who are on a restricted diet, you can always use affection or sweet-talk as a reward, or even a short play session with a favorite toy. Or a clicker, which becomes a bridge to a reward (the positive reinforcement) once you’ve conditioned your cat to recognize the association between click and treat! Basically, you have to show your cat that you’ve got something she wants, and that there’s a way she can get it. Once she figures out what you want her to do, it’s GAME ON!
What is positive reinforcement?
Let’s start with the basics. Reinforcement refers to something you do that will cause your cat (or child, or chicken, yes, chicken) to repeat a behavior. On the other hand, punishment is something you do that will result in a behavior NOT being repeated. Makes sense, right? Now, you can have both positive and negative reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment. When behaviorists use the terms positive and negative in reference to reinforcement or punishment, we’re not saying positive is good and negative is bad. Positive means that something is added or given (like a treat), and negative means that something is taken away (like attention). Here are a few examples:
You give your cat strokes (POSITIVE, since you’re giving her something) when she sits on your lap, so she has gotten into the habit of snuggling up on your legs while you’re watching TV (her behavior is repeated, so it has been successfully REINFORCED).
A mother cat nursing her kittens gets up and walks away when one of her kittens bites her too hard (NEGATIVE, the mother removes herself – and her attention – from her kitten) and the kitten learns that unless she only suckles gently, she gets NO attention from her mother (the hard-biting behavior gradually stops, thus there has been successful PUNISHMENT).
You’re trying to teach your cat to walk on a harness and leash outside. You pull on the leash when your cat tries to run off in a direction you don’t want her to go, but then remove the pulling pressure from the leash (NEGATIVE, since you’re removing the pressure) when your cat stops pulling you in an unwanted direction and walks next to you. Your cat learns that she prefers to walk next to you without the leash pressure (REINFORCEMENT, since walking next to you is repeated). (On the other hand, the pulling that you do would be POSITIVE (because you’re adding pressure), and getting her to stop the behavior of running away from you would be PUNISHMENT.)
Finally, your cat is fascinated by the live crickets you feed to your pet lizard. On several occasions she has knocked over the cricket container and they scatter everywhere in your home. You hit her on the nose (POSITIVE, because you’re doing something to her) in hopes that she will quit knocking over the cricket container (PUNISHMENT, since you don’t want her behavior to be repeated).
Punishing cats just doesn’t work
What do you think is the best approach for training your cat, and what do you think is most detrimental? Positive reinforcement is the much-preferred way to help cats establish better habits in your home. It is fun to reward your cat for desirable behavior, and it improves the strength of your bond. The more often you can reward behavior with a motivator your cat enjoys, the more often you will see that behavior repeated. On the other hand, positive punishment in any form (e.g., yelling, hitting, using a squirt bottle, tossing objects directly at your cat) is ineffective. Cats don’t learn from punishment unless it is applied ALL THE TIME (and trust me, you will NOT be around to catch your cat in the act 100% of the time…your cat will just learn to do the “thing” when you’re not around). Unless punishment is applied consistently and immediately (within a matter of seconds), your cat will not associate her behavior with the punishment. And what do you think will happen to the relationship you have with your cat if you’re punishing her all the time? That’s right, she’ll start to mistrust and fear you, which can even result in aggression. Punishment will only serve to damage the cat-human relationship, and I know that’s not what you want. Cats respond so much better to positive reinforcement!
Ways you can apply positive reinforcement every day
Here are a few ways you can use positive reinforcement to make changes to your cat’s daily behaviors (these are just examples, but positive reinforcement can apply to nearly any behavior you’d like to encourage):
Encourage Social Behavior: If you cat is shy and has a tendency to hide, you can encourage your kitty to come out more by using treats to reward her when she emerges from her hiding spot. At first keep her ventures brief and easy, but then try using more positive reinforcement (treats, sweet-talk, affection, etc.) to encourage her to travel further from her hiding spot for longer periods of time.
Teach Your Cat to Accept Petting: If your cat doesn’t like to be petted, give her a treat for one pet, then pet her twice and give her another treat. Reward longer petting sessions with more treats, and stop the petting sessions before your cat has a negative reaction. Pay attention to her body language and always end on a positive note! (For more about petting aggression, click here.)
Reward Quiet or Calm Behavior: If you’ve been having issues with your cat yowling or being aggressive with another cat, you can reward good behavior using treats or play. If excessive vocalization is a problem, give your cat a treat after several seconds of quiet if she has been meowing. If she’s aggressive, reward your cat when she is relaxed and peaceful in the presence of the other cat.
TRICKS! You can teach your cat all sorts of tricks using positive reinforcement: sit, high-five, sit-pretty, go to mat, lay down, come, up, down, jump, etc. Just search for cat tricks on YouTube and you’ll be occupied for hours! A good book I recommend to get started is called “Trick Training for Cats” by Christine Hauschild. You might also check out the Amazing Acro-Cats (they have lots of videos on YouTube as well) – all of the tricks are taught using positive reinforcement, and they are, in fact, AH-MAZE-ING!
Drink out of the Correct Glass: Let’s say your cat likes to drink out of your cup of water with her paw and it’s getting a bit annoying. All you need to do is provide her with her own cup in an acceptable location (for you and the kitty), and when she goes for your glass, simply move her to her cup in a very neutral way, and then give her a treat/pets/affection/sweet talk when she uses her cup.
A word of caution, though – make sure you are rewarding the correct behavior. You need to have an interruption between the undesirable behavior and the acceptable behavior so that your cat associates the reward with the correct behavior, or you could simply be reinforcing a behavior you don’t want! Know what I mean, Vern?
What if my cat gets bored with her reward?
Another thing to keep in mind is this: if you give a particular treat reward all the time, your cat may soon decide that she doesn’t need to do what you want her to do because she doesn’t necessarily want the treat. What you’ll want to do is reward based on a variable schedule – don’t reward a desired behavior with a treat every single time it is performed! Maybe reward your cat’s behavior only 50% of the time (once she learns what it is you want her to do) – this actually works as a STRONGER reinforcement long-term than rewarding all the time. It’s the same thing as slot machines – humans play longer because of the unpredictability of the payoff. If we only got a penny each time we took a spin, the reward would cease being a reward pretty quickly – it’s the big payoff we want, and who knows, it could happen on the next spin! Let’s just hit the button another time to see if we win. Oh darn! Maybe one more time…and so on. It’s a very strong draw to perform a desired behavior! We always want to see if we’ll win on the next spin…similarly, your cat will always want to see if she gets a payoff when she performs her behavior.
Finally, what do you do if your cat is doing something she shouldn’t be doing? The key is to distract, disrupt, and redirect your cat’s behavior. First, if you notice that your cat is going to scratch something she shouldn’t be scratching (for example), make a noise or toss a toy in her direction (not at her directly) to distract her from what she was going to do. When you make a noise, don’t yell because you don’t want her to associate the startling noise with you; you can clap, shake a jar of dried beans, etc. Next, once your cat has stopped her activity because of the noise, you want to disrupt her current course of action. Redirect her to a different (or preferred) activity by using a wand toy to guide her over to the scratching post (a more appropriate choice for scratching), or engage her in a short play-session. Once she engages in the appropriate behavior, you can reward her for that.
Positive reinforcement for good cat behavior is a great way to improve the bond between you and your cat, and let her know which behaviors are favored. And it doesn’t only work on cats – as I mentioned at the beginning, positive reinforcement works with people, too! Who will you to train first, and what will the task be? Let me know by leaving a comment below!
What is the effect of your cat’s behavior issue on you and your family?
I just read an interesting article by Kristin Buller called “3 Ways Owners are Impacted by Pets with Behavior Problems“. Kristin is a licensed clinical social worker and provides veterinary social services to people who care for pets with behavior problems. In a research project she’s conducting, preliminary results indicate that there are three areas of impact for people who are dealing with their pet’s behavior problems:
Emotional Impact – while you love your pet to pieces, their behavior can cause frustration, anger, and feelings of hopelessness. The term “emotional roller-coaster” fits well to describe this!
Day-to-Day Life – managing your pet’s behavior problem can cause big changes to your daily life. Whether it’s medicating your pet, or running around every day after you get home from work to make sure your cat hasn’t peed on anything/scratched anything/ingested anything dangerous that you’ve tried to secure prior to leaving home, management of behavior issues can create a tremendous burden on pets’ caretakers.
Relationships – how you manage your pet’s behavior issue may cause friction between family members who disagree with your course of action, or it may be a source of judgement by friends and family. Pets are a part of the family, and people have different ways of addressing family problems. Human relationships are complex, and the relationships we have with our pets can be as well.
In addition to the three above ways the effect of your cat’s behavior issue can create stressors on you and your family, I’d like to add a fourth – and not insignificant – impact:
4. Financial – how much is your pet’s behavior issue costing you?
For people living with cat behavior problems, this is a factor that shouldn’t be overlooked. A cat who doesn’t use her litterbox may be costing you hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars in cleaning supplies and services, new clothing or the cost of dry-cleaning, new furniture, new carpet and installation services…not to mention the hours of your time you spend trying to manage the problem and even just worrying about it. A cat who scratches inappropriate objects in your home causes physical damage to furniture, carpet, and I’ve even seen wooden doorways and banisters destroyed! Cats who fight with each other can result in expensive vet bills to take care of injuries. Cats with behavior problems can be pretty dang expensive!
What is your cat’s behavior problem costing you in terms of any of the four ways listed above? Let me know if I can help – the cost of a consultation with me or another cat behaviorist may be a fraction of what you’re currently paying in time, emotional stress, and physical costs. And the solution might be simpler than you think!
No matter what type of cat you have or what her personality is like, mutual trust in each other must be learned so that you can both enjoy a happy, healthy, relationship. Whether your cat is shy or fearful, bold or aggressive, there are things you should do to foster her confidence and faith in you. It’s much easier to build your cat’s trust from the get-go then to try to re-build it after you’ve broken it; however, cats are often forgiving creatures and they don’t hold grudges (and they never act out of revenge or spite – cat’s just don’t think that way). With time, you can improve (or repair) the relationship with your cat to one of comfort, ease, and predictability. Here are a few things to keep in mind when trying to build your cat’s trust:
Respect your cat’s space. Your cat will need some time to settle in if she’s new to the home; some take longer than others to do this. Let your cat find comfortable spots to hang out, and don’t invade those spaces. This general rule will continue even after she becomes comfortable in her home. Cats enjoy their independence and will let you know when they would like your attention (or give you clues as to when they don’t want it, if you are a space-invader!).
Observe body language. Your cat will communicate first and foremost with her body language (see cartoon below). Respect what she is telling you. Is she crouched away from you or is her body oriented towards you and more welcoming? Is she flicking her tail as a sign of annoyance, or is it relaxed? Pay attention to her ear positions, how wide her eyes are, and body position.
Let your cat come to you. Don’t force a friendship – let your cat decide how comfortable she is and when she wants to interact with you (although you can do some things to encourage interactions, see below). Cats learn a lot just through observation, so even though you may not be directly interacting with her, she’s learning a lot about you if she’s simply watching you from a window perch or the couch. Let her watch and learn about your movements, smells, and sounds!
Learn your cat’s limits to being touched. Take a gradual approach to learning where and how your cat likes to be touched. Never poke or tease when attempting to touch or pet your cat; always use predictable movements. Be aware of her body language to learn where and how your cat likes to be stroked or petted. If your cat has petting aggression, try to limit petting sessions both in terms of where you pet her and for how long.
Give your cat choices and respect the choice she ends up making. Whether it’s a place to nap or perch, or an opportunity to play (or not), letting your cat decide what she wants to do will build her confidence and help her learn that you are not going to force her to do anything. Cats become stressed when they have no control over their environment (that’s one reason why animal shelters can be so difficult for them), and enjoy having choices about when, what, where, how, and who to interact with. It’s no fun when someone constantly tries to control what you’re doing, so why would your cat enjoy that?
Be predictable. Try to move and speak in ways that won’t surprise or startle your cat. Don’t lunge suddenly or stomp on the floor, and try to keep a steady, calm voice. This applies to all times, not just when you’re directly interacting with your cat. It can be difficult if you have children or other pets (DOGS) in the house, but if you have a shy kitty, this could be important. Some cats are very easy-going and don’t really care what’s going on around them and can pretty much nap through anything. But with a more sensitive kitty, this is a good opportunity to teach children about empathy and the needs of others.
Decide how to make each interaction a positive one for your cat. You have control over whether or not the interactions you have with your cat will be positive or negative. Play-time can be really fun for both of you, for example, but be careful – what you might think is playing might be interpreted as aggressive teasing or taunting by your cat. Always use toys to play, and let her catch the toy occasionally. Before interacting with a particularly sensitive cat, really try to think about what you can do to make that interaction positive so that you build your cat’s trust. Take every opportunity you can to create a positive association with you!
Use positive reinforcement to reward positive interactions. You can use treats, a soothing voice, play, or even petting (if she likes it) to reward any good behavior. Further, you can use any of these things to encourage your kitty to do something (like coming out of a hiding spot, for example)…but respect her decision to not do something as well (just don’t provide the reward). Positive reinforcement, given consistently, can be a great way to build your cat’s trust and communicate that she’s done something good. It’s also a great way to train your cat to do anything, including tricks…your kitty will appreciate the mental stimulation, and it will give you another great way to bond with her.
How to Build Your Cat's Trust - YouTube
Here’s a graphic that I love, from Catsu. Perhaps it will help you interpret some of your kitty’s body language in terms of her levels of trust!
Image by www.catsuthecat.com. A word of caution – an exposed belly is NOT necessarily an invitation for tummy rubs! It’s an indicator of trust, above all.
Do you have any other ways that you’ve build your cat’s trust that you’d like to share? Please leave a comment below and share – as we’re all cat lovers here, I know everyone is interested in learning new ways to strengthen the bonds we have with our kitties!
Your cat is doing something – anything, really – that you would like to change. Whether it’s not using the litterbox, being aggressive with another cat in the home, or simply jumping up on the counters where you prepare food, you wish that this behavior would stop! The good news is that you can change your cat’s behavior. But because cats respond to their environment and those within it, they are not going to change their behavior on their own. The fact is, the only way to change your cat’s behavior is to change YOUR behavior. This can include making changes to your cat’s physical environment, establishing new habits for yourself (for example, setting up a scheduled play time for each day), or changing the way you interact with your cat. Your cat does not have the power to change her environment or her needs; only you can change her environment and control if/how/when her needs are met!
Successful Changes are the Result of Two Things
I’ve worked with a lot of clients to change their cats’ behaviors. I do not change cats; my clients do. My job is to provide recommendations for changes my clients need to make to see desirable behaviors. The most successful clients are ones that are 1) open-minded to change, with a “can-do” attitude, and 2) take the initiative to do the work. Sometimes it’s easy, other times it’s more challenging. But the only way your cat will change is if you take the first step to change something yourself.
If you need help to change your cat’s behavior, please contact me HERE, or sign up for my Mewsletter to learn more about our mysterious feline friends!