Q. My cat is always jumping up on tables and kitchen counters. When I think about where those paws have been, I know he needs to stay on the ground. What can I do?
A. If pressed on the issue, many people will admit that their cats walk all over them, and that includes walking wherever they choose, including kitchen counters. And many of those people are just fine with that. I’m with you on this, however. I don’t want my pets to walk where I eat.
Prevention is usually a better plan than changing an established problem behavior, which means deciding ground rules before you adopt a kitten or cat and making sure everyone is on the same page. If you already have the problem - or just decided it is a problem - there are a few things you can try.
It’s important to understand why your cat is on the counter in the first place. Getting into the food probably isn’t the most compelling reason, although food certainly can add to the appeal. By nature, cats like high places, which give them a commanding view of their world and offer protection from natural enemies. If you’re going to ask your cat to give up your counters, you have to offer an alternative.
The ideal in your cat’s mind would likely be something like The Cat’s House, the famous San Diego home of Bob Walter and Frances Mooney that my daughter, Vetstreet trainer Mikkel Becker, had the privilege of visiting when she attended the American Pet Dog Trainers Association conference. The creative couple took an ordinary tract home and turned it into a feline paradise, complete with ceiling-level catwalks that go through holes cut into the walls over the doors. Check it out!
Even if you’re not willing to let your entire home go to the cats, you can add some environmental enrichment with high cat trees with platforms or cubbies that give your cat an appropriate place to look down on the world. Additionally, a multistory “catio” can provide your cat with room to climb along with a breath of fresh air. These additions are relatively inexpensive to add to your home. Situate these new high-rise zones near where your cat already loves perching to get the best result and make them more appealing by rubbing catnip onto them and playing with your cat there as well.
Once you’ve covered your cat’s needs, you can work to deter him from counters. Make sure you keep food put away and dishes cleaned promptly to remove food temptations. Since some cats are attracted to running water, make sure your tap doesn’t drip and can’t be pawed on by a clever cat - and offer your cat a feline fountain to meet his desire for clean, cool running water. (If your cat seems frantic for fresh water, get in to see your veterinarian, because your cat may be sick.)
Now, the deterrents. Some people swear by spray bottles, but unless you are the stealthiest person on earth, your cat will quickly figure out that you are doing the spraying. That’s not great for your relationship, and it tends to teach your cat to behave only when you’re home. Instead, cover the counters with textures cats hate - aluminum foil is one example; cardboard protected with double-faced masking tape or shelf liner is another. No, you won’t have your counters covered forever, but you will need to keep them covered while your cat learns to use the new perches. For the more determined cat, you can look at harmless automatic devices that discourage counter cruising by making sounds cats dislike when they trigger a pressure pad or electronic eye by jumping up.
The trick is to make the counter experience unpleasant for your cat without it appearing that you have anything to do with it. Above all, resist the urge to swat or yell at your cat: It won’t teach him anything except possibly to view you as someone to avoid.
As always, if you find yourself not getting anywhere, ask your veterinarian for a referrthel to a qualified behaviorist or trainer. These professionals can spot where you may be going wrong and get you and your cat back on track for a happier relationship.