If you have been reading a bit about feline behavior, then you should know by now that cats and discipline don't mix; in other words, you should never punish your cat. Cats are not dogs and you simply can't take your cat to obedience class… That said, sometimes you need to lay down some rules in the house and get an educational point across to your cat.
Punishment, in the human ethical and moral sense of the word, does not work with cats. In this article I'm going to try to explain the negative reinforcement principles of one common behavioral issue: cats jumping on counters.
This article will show you how to discourage your cat from jumping on kitchen counters and what techniques should not be used. If you're not in the mood for big words and long sentences, just skip to the last technique: surface covering. It's the method of choice, as it's both effective and non-stressful for your cat.
Why Do Cats Jump on Tables and Kitchen Counters?
Before you even begin teaching your cat to stay away from certain places, let's look at the causes for this type of behavior. Cats require a sufficient amount of living space, including enough vertical space. So before restricting your cat from accessing some areas, make sure that your kitty has plenty of roaming and climbing space within your home. Invest in cat trees, cat gyms and designated cat shelves. This stage is crucial! Giving your cat very little climbing space will result in a stressed and frustrated kitty and even more behavioral issues down the road.
Using Negative Reinforcement with Cats
Once you've made sure that your cat has enough space (vertical space included), it's time to learn how to teach your cat right from wrong and "explain" to her which surfaces are off-limits. Since we are trying to prevent a certain type of behavior, rather than encourage one, we'll have to use Negative Reinforcement.
Remember, we are not talking about punishing the cat! We are simply trying to create a certain connection in the cat's mind by associating undesirable behavior with a negative outcome. .
Before I review the various methods for achieving this, there are three principles to keep in mind when attempting any kind of negative reinforcement with your cat –
- Keep the human out of the loop - We want to make sure that the cat associates the negative result directly with the action we want to prevent – never with you, the cat owner.
- Keep the reinforcement consistent – This is true of any behavioral learning process and is crucial when it comes to negative reinforcement. It means the cat has to receive a negative reaction every single time it attempts the behavior we wish to discourage.
- Keep stress levels down – Remember that cats are individuals and may have different reactions to sudden sounds, or any other type of sensory stimulation you may opt to use. Aim at making the unwanted behavior result in something unpleasant, but make sure it's not too frightening and doesn't cause your cat unnecessary stress.
Here are two options that are to be avoided:
1. Water Squirting
This is probably one of the best-known techniques of negative reinforcement. The idea here is for the cat owner to always be on guard, ready with a squirt bottle.
If you take a look at the principles outlined above, you'll see that water squirting is not a good method for negative reinforcement.
First, it could possibly associate you with the punishment. Ideally, anyone using this method should try to attract as little attention to her or himself as possible. In reality, this is extremely difficult to achieve, as ‘hiding’ and squirting is really problematic and also most owners project their own nervousness and agitation into the process.
Secondly, in terms of consistency, this method is far from perfect. It's difficult to be on the alert at all times, or even around at all times, and you end up with having a non-consistent pattern.
Thirdly, and probably most importantly, the water spray is too stressful for most cats. Fourthly, it could very well make them frightened of water.
2. Can Shaking/Compressed Air Can
Another well-known technique, it involves an empty soda can with some coins in it, or even a compressed air can. It relies on making a loud and disturbing noise to disrupt the cat’s activity.
It has most of the problems associated with water squirting: You, the ‘can shaker’, can be seen as the source of the negative reinforcement, there is a big problem with continuity, and of course, it can create a strong stress response in many cats.
In both of these instances you could end up with a stressed cat and a multitude of behavioral problems.
Booby Traps: Common but Problematic
Another popular negative reinforcement technique is booby trapping the area you wish your cat to avoid. One way to achieve this is to prepare a few empty soda cans, fill them with some coins or beans, and tie them one to the other. Then, place them on the edges of any high surface that you wish to keep your cats from jumping on, such as the kitchen counter. Should your cat jump, the cans all tumble down creating a loud racket.
The mousetrap version of the same idea entails setting up several wooden non-baited mousetraps, and placing them upside down on the surface you wish your cat to stay away from, and then cover them with a sheet of newspaper or even a towel. Should the cat jump on the counter, the triggered trap snaps with a loud noise, scaring kitty away.
Booby trapping surfaces like this has the advantage of getting you, the owner, out of the loop. The loving owner is never associated with the loud noise produced by the mousetrap or line of cans. It is also more consistent, as you can set up your booby trap and leave the room. Your cat will still create the negative reinforcement if she or he jumps on the counter. However, if you are away there is a consistency problem as it will only work once before you reset it.
The downside of booby trapping surfaces like this is that the surprising noise can be too startling for some cats, and again, you could end with a stressed feline instead of a trained one.
So what is the answer?
Here’s a good option:
The idea is to make the surface that you wish to keep your cat away from uncomfortable to walk on. This can be done by using plastic carpet runners with points up, or using some double-sided adhesive tape. You don't have to stick any of the tape directly on your counters. What worked best for many of my clients was taking a thick plastic sheet and covering it with double-sided tape, creating their own homemade sticky mat. Then, whenever they were not using the counters, they would cover them with that sheet of plastic.
When taping directly on surfaces, we would usually use regular adhesive tape, creating small loops of tape, with the adhesive on the outside of the ring, and then placing/sticking them across the surface. This would create a similar effect of a sticky surface, but easier to lift off the surface than double-sided tape.
The end result is the same: The surface becomes uncomfortable for cats to walk on. They may jump once or twice, decide they don't like it, then jump off. Usually within a few days to a couple of weeks, the cats would stop jumping on the treated surfaces altogether, at which point you can take off the adhesive tape/sticky mat.
With this method you get very consistent negative reinforcement, as your cat will get a negative reaction generated every time she jumps on that surface, whether you're around or not. In fact, you, the cat owner, are completely disassociated from any discomfort caused. As an added benefit, there is no startling factor here, no loud noise or sudden movement.
This is the right way of teaching cats to stay off counter tops. It does take some effort, but you will end up with a trained cat without creating new behavioral problems.
The Solution that Works for You and Your Cat
Negative reinforcement can be very effective as way to teach your cat what not to do. Hopefully this article has provided a better understanding of how negative reinforcement works and why some methods, such as water squirting and booby trapping, should not be used.
Remember you must always provide your cat with plenty of space, including appropriate vertical space for climbing and jumping. Only then implement the sticky surfaces method. Be consistent and give it time. Some cats can take up to three weeks to stop trying.
It can be a longish journey, but we're here for you!
Why not start a thread in our cat behavior forums and let us know about your progress?
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