Cats and Counters

If your cat jumps up on the counters, you probably don’t like the thought of those litter-kickers all over your food prep surfaces. So you peruse the internet and find a brilliant solution. Maybe you spray the cat with water or you shake a can of pennies in an attempt to scare your cat away from the counter.

There are several possible outcomes:

A black cat sits upon a countertop in front of a variegated blue tile backsplash

1.) It Works

If, after 1-5 repetitions, you notice a shift in your cat’s behavior around the counters (they stop jumping up there), you’re golden! And you’re in the lucky minority of cat owners. You’re done! You probably don’t need to keep reading this article. Go celebrate with an ice cream cone; life is good!

a black and white cartoon depicting a person holding a spray bottle with the caption of "no!"

2.) It sort of works.

The cat may jump off, which may make you think it works. But the cat may come right back, or come back when you’re not looking. If this is happening, then your training plan isn’t really working. It may seem like it’s working, because the cat jumps off, but your cat probably isn’t learning what you want him to learn. Your cat might be learning that it’s not okay to jump on the counter while you’re looking, or while you’re in the room, but it’s okay at other times. If our goal is to train the cat not to jump up on the counters at all, we need to rethink our plan.

This scenario is one that can lead to the most frustration and animosity between cat and owner. If the human really wants their cat to stop, and the human is convinced that this should be working, but the cat is just stubborn, this may lead the owner to dislike their cat, or even think their cat doesn’t love them because the cat refuses to listen or follow the rules. This can even lead some owners to consider even more extreme measures, getting caught up in an escalating cycle that never ends.

An orange cat sits atop a green counter

3.) It Doesn't Work At All

Maybe your cat likes to be sprayed with water. Or maybe the sound of the penny-filled can just doesn’t bother him. Most of us living organisms have genes that tell us to persist in the face of adversity. That means that we’ll tolerate pain and discomfort in order to keep existing, eating and reproducing. If you’ve ever heard a trainer say “Reinforcement drives behavior,” this is what we mean. For these reasons and more, punishment just isn’t as helpful as reinforcement, when it comes to molding or modifying an animal’s behavior.

Some owners might resort to using pain or other more powerfully aversive stimuli in an attempt to get their cat to stop jumping on the counter. That might work. Or it still might not work. It might push this cat into category 2 (it sort of works). Or, it could push this cat into our 4th category.

An orange tabby cat sits upon a white countertop.

4.) It Works Too Well

I’ve been invited into many homes where a spray bottle or a penny-filled can was used, and now the cat is fearful all the time. The cat might never enter the kitchen again. The cat may isolate himself in the basement, or only come out of hiding at night.

This is not the most common outcome, but it is a possible outcome, and it’s impossible to know for sure which cats will have a reaction like this. Are you ready to deal with this level of fallout?

So what’s the solution?

Let’s look at biology and ethology.

Cats like to be up high. Their DNA tells their brain to be up high. Just like our human brain tells us to cook our food (most of it, anyway). Being up high has kept generations upon generations of cats safe and fed and alive. We can’t remove that part of our cat’s brain, so why not use it to our advantage? Here are three strategies that can help make life with your cat better:

* Think about providing a station, or several stations to serve as appropriate up-high places for your cat. Make those places extra-special. Tall dressers, sturdy and wide shelving stacked like steps up a wall, or perhaps one specific part of a kitchen counter is acceptable? Consider feeding you cat’s meals in these places, hiding special treats like real tuna, chicken, cheese, or whatever your cat really loves, there for your cat to discover. Instead of pestering you while you prepare your human meals, your cat may sit on his/her station to receive periodic reinforcers. This will keep your cat out of the way without the need for high-conflict interactions. If you cat is able to get all the good things from these appropriate places, and we keep other temptations off of the kitchen counters, we will see our cats spending more and more time in the appropriate places, because it pays to be there. Over time, the brain learns to enjoy being there, because good things happen there. So you don’t always need to be using as much food. But it is important to keep the rate of the reinforcement at a reasonable level; reinforcement drives behavior, after all.

* Consider providing your cat’s daily meals (or at least one) through some sort of puzzle. If your cat needs to work or hunt to eat, she will get to use parts of her brain that are often neglected when living in the lap of luxury as a pet. She may become more content, reducing the amount of time she spends getting into trouble on your countertops.

* Give your cat a long lasting treat or toy when you really need them to stay out of your way. For me, that means Francis gets a sprig of the wild catnip growing in our yard when I am cooking things that he normally likes to try and steal. For others, a small Kong filled with their kibble and frozen with pureed tuna or chicken might be helpful. Anything that will keep your cat’s attention long enough for you to accomplish your goals uninterrupted will do!

Next time you find yourself irritated with your cat (or any other pet), take a step back and think about how you might help them meet the need that they are trying to fulfill, only in a more appropriate manner.