You start chopping vegetables for dinner and there’s your favorite companion — right on the counter top nearby, rubbing himself against the microwave oven. You love your cat, but this behavior doesn’t make you happy.
“Like many owners, I dealt with it with my own cat,” says Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, a faculty member in the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Her concern wasn’t just about the hygienic issue of a cat going from a litter box to a place where food is prepared. She was also concerned about the safety of her cat. “At our home, the stoves are flat surfaces, so I was afraid the cat would get burned.”
If you, too, are concerned about your kitten or cat jumping on kitchen counters, dining room tables or even shelves that hold your fragile family heirlooms, it’s comforting to know that there are solutions, says Dr. Borns-Weil. The best ones, however, arise first from understanding both the biological and psychological needs that your cat satisfies by this jumping behavior.
According to Dr. Borns-Weil, “We can stretch to meet our cats’ needs and they can stretch to meet our needs, too. By gently discouraging your cat from being on certain surfaces — and making sure that you provide plenty of alternative surfaces that he enjoys — you can ultimately meet both your needs for hygiene and your cat’s need for an elevated resting space.”
Why do cats jump?
Before you try to change jumping behavior, take a moment to understand its deep biological roots. “Domestic cats are descended from tree-dwelling cats,” says Dr. Borns-Weil. (That evolutionary ancestor is the “wildcat,” Felis silvestris.) “Although they live in our houses now, they still prefer to be in high places when possible. Being in high places is natural for cats. We have to acknowledge that they have a certain biological need to be up on high surfaces.”
Additionally, your cat may also be jumping up on surfaces to be near — you. “Perhaps you’ve been out of the house all day, and your cat may simply be lonely,” she says. “People have the notion that dogs require a lot of work, whereas cats are self sufficient. But in truth, the modern cat’s life is very controlled. They don’t have interesting lives chasing mice and worrying about territory and other cats.
A need for attention
So when your cat jumps on the counter, she may simply be vying for your attention.” That’s true even if the jumping upsets you. To your cat, she says, “bad attention may be better than no attention at all.”
With this background, the solutions become obvious. Certainly, use behavioral tricks to make certain surfaces less attractive — and move fragile heirlooms to safe spots. But these approaches will work better if you provide your cat with ample opportunities to exercise his biological desire to survey the world from a strategically high spot, and satisfy his psychological needs for attention and play.
Approaches that work
Dr. Borns-Weil recommends a combination of techniques to redirect the natural vaulter you’re living with:
Make target surfaces unappealing. “You can roll out foil or bubble wrap, or tape with the sticky side up, on the side of the counter,” she suggests. “You can also spray surfaces with a non-toxic lemon substance that they won’t want to get on their paws. Most cats don’t like citrus odors or flavors.” You don’t have to live permanently with sticky tape or lemony oils on your counters, however. Just use them to break your cat’s habit of jumping on that surface.
Use clicker training. “You can teach your cat to get off a surface on command. Cats are good learners and usually find positive reinforcement training to be fun.” Here’s how: Get a clicker and a feather. Use the feather to get your cat’s attention. Once you have it, use the clicker while saying something like “off” — when your cat jumps down, reward him with a food treat. “It’s fun to train cats,” she says. “They are smart and really enjoy it.”
Create alternative high spots for your cat to perch on. It can be as simple as a fluffy pillow on a windowsill, or as complex as a series of cat shelves on walls with mats so your cat has a choice of several different levels from which to peer down. “Cats can never have too much vertical space,” says Dr. Borns-Weil. Provide good sight lines, too. “Cats generally prefer to be where the action is — where the family hangs out and where there is a view of the outside.”
Provide vertical environments that are fun for play. “The most useful products are those that contribute to a more enriched environment for your cat. If there are plenty of interesting things for a cat to do — foraging toys, prey-like toys, cat grass to munch on, regular play time, window seats — they will be happier and better-adjusted pets. It won’t keep them off the counter per se, but it will keep them happy and occupied and less apt to just lie around.”
Play with your cat. “When you get home, make sure your cat has physical exercise, and fun and games,” she suggests. Now that most cats live indoors, instead of indoors/outdoors, they rely on us more for play and exercise. “If your cat is tired when you are preparing dinner, she’s unlikely to drive you crazy.”
Cat-proof your home. When you have a toddler at home, you may need to retire that glass coffee table for a few years. The same holds true if you live with feline jumpers. Put that family heirloom behind a glass cabinet door.
By giving your cat places to perch — and opportunities for exercise and play — you may not only help discourage unwanted jumping, but also have a happier cat. Just make sure you don’t damage your relationship with harsh punishments marketed to discourage jumping and other behaviors. “I’m not a fan of water pistols, or spray bottles, or loud noises, or screaming in your cat’s face, or throwing your cat on the floor,” says Dr. Borns-Weil.
She also warns about products that provide an air blast, or mats that deliver an electric shock. “These punishments can be very upsetting to cats and create anxiety. I can’t help but feel that it’s not good for the person either. You’re doing something scary to an animal who is only one-twentieth of your size.” — Bob Barnett