Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
We have a domestic short haired cat, Hughie, we got from the local shelter when he was about 4 months old. He is now 20 months old and he has the most wonderful disposition and is friendly and affectionate. He eats the very best dry food we can find, and occasionally we feed wet food as a treat. He is healthy, energetic and alert. The problem is he gets into EVERYTHING! We had to get rid of all the house plants shortly after we brought him home. We tried pebbles in the soil, foil around the pots, sprayed the plants with awful smelling stuff we got at the pet store…to no avail. So we got rid of the plants. He always gets on counter tops in the kitchen, knocks things off onto the floor, gets on the buffet, breaks glasses, jumps on the dining room table, jumps onto the television set, gets caught in cables, climbs all over the computer printer and pounds on the buttons until he sets it off, etc. When I set the dining room table for dinner, I cover it with another table cloth in case he jumps onto it and when company comes I have to sequester him because he will jump onto the table. He is not interested in the food, just nosy and wants to sniff around. Using a water bottle doesn’t work since he seems to be immune to it. I once put cayenne pepper on the kitchen counter to keep him off, then worried all day that he may have been irritated by it and doubled back home to wipe it off the counter…all to find him perched in the middle of it, wagging his tail. We think our biggest regret is having to get rid of all the house plants, we miss them. And for the last two years we have given up all hope of having a Christmas tree, Christmas decorations, etc. He has his own little “condo” he can sleep in and climb all over, a variety of play toys, balls, etc. He prefers rubber bands, twist ties and balled up pieces of paper. We don’t mind him on the couch, or the bed, the window sills, as a matter of fact I wouldn’t mind him on anything if he wasn’t so clumsy and destructive. Any advice?
Siouxsie: Carole, this is one of the most common behavior issues people have to deal with. We cats love to get on counters and tables, eat plants, and do all sorts of things that people don’t particularly like us to do.
Thomas: A lot of the time, we do our explorations of these areas because we’re bored and want some new experiences. Also, we love to be up high, so tall cabinets and the like are really fun places for us to hang out.
Dahlia: But rest assured, Carole, there are some things you can do to teach Hughie to avoid your counters, cabinets, table and plants.
Siouxsie: The best training method is what feline behaviorist Pam Johnston-Bennett refers to as “remote control.” By using the remote control technique, you can ensure that Hughie will get negative reinforcement for his counter exploration behavior even when you’re not home.
Thomas: The easiest method of “remote control” training involves place mats and double-sided tape. Buy a bunch of plastic place mats–enough to cover the surfaces you don’t want Hughie to explore–and cover one side of the place mats with double-sided tape. You can also use a product called Sticky Paws. Sticky Paws is essentially double-sided tape, but it comes in a variety of sizes that can help you combat lots of behavior issues.
Dahlia: They even make Sticky Paws for Plants, which you can put in your plant pots to keep Hughie from wanting to get into those!
Siouxsie: Simply put the tape or Sticky Paws on the place mats and cover the no-go areas with those place mats when you’re not home. When you need to use the counter or the table, remove the place mats, then replace them as soon as you’re done using those areas.
Thomas: The tape trick will make the counters very unpleasant for Hughie. No cat likes to get their paws stuck in things, and he’ll soon discover that counters and tables are not that much fun after all.
Dahlia: Another remote control trick is to put coins into soda cans and tape the top of those cans. Place the cans on shelves or other places you don’t want Hughie to explore. When Hughie gets into the buffet or the cabinet, instead of knocking down your glassware he’ll knock the soda cans off, which will result in a loud rattling sound and startle him.
Siouxsie: When you’re working on the counter, make sure you have your spray bottle handy. If Hughie jumps onto the counter or the table, squirt him with the water bottle. Make sure the sprayer is set on “mist” and try to be as sneaky as possible about using the bottle so that he can’t determine that you’re the source of the spray.
Thomas: You can also combine these training methods with what we call the “No, and Down” technique. When Hughie gets on the counter or the table, tell him “No!” in a very firm voice (don’t yell, just use a firm voice) and then put him down on the floor.
Dahlia: The most important thing about the spray bottle trick and “no, and down” is that you and everyone in your household needs to be consistent in reinforcing these rules. If you use these techniques and your housemates don’t, Hughie will learn that the rules don’t apply when you’re not around. This will undo all the other training techniques. So make sure everyone else in your house is on board with putting the place mats on surfaces when they’re not in use and the parts of the training that require human involvement.
Siouxsie: Also, make sure the rules are consistent! Hughie should never be allowed on the counter; it shouldn’t be OK to get on the counter as long as there’s no cooking going on, for example. The inconsistency will confuse him.
Thomas: Make sure everybody understands exactly which places are not OK for Hughie. If you want him to stay off the counter and the table, out of the plants and the cabinets, make sure all your housemates know this and agree with those rules.
Dahlia: You can have a Christmas tree in your home, too. But there are some extra precautions you should take.
Siouxsie: Mama has a Christmas tree every year, and she keeps it cat-safe by doing a few extra things. First, she anchors the tree to the wall using fishing line. Make sure it’s at least 20-pound test strength. You can either pound in special nails or hooks in less visible places–make sure those nails or hooks are hammered into studs and not just through wallboard–or use existing picture hooks.
Thomas: We wouldn’t recommend attaching the tree wires to curtain rods or rod holders unless you have special heavyweight hardware as you might for fancy curtain rod holders.
Dahlia: Fishing line is virtually transparent, so it won’t interfere with the beauty of your tree.
Siouxsie: Mama puts unbreakable ornaments on the lower branches of the tree, so that if we get excited and want to bat at them and knock them off, we won’t break them. Mama found some pretty ornaments that look very similar to her glass ones, so they don’t clash with the overall aesthetic of her tree.
Thomas: We’d be remiss on the subject of Christmas tree decoration if we didn’t remind you that you should never use tinsel on a tree in a cat-owned household. Sometimes we cats will eat the tinsel, and although it generally comes out the other end without many problems (except for dirty bloomers and being referred to as “tinsel-butt” by our humans), it can get caught in your kitty’s intestines and cause life-threatening problems. A trip to the emergency vet is nothing you want to add to your holiday season!
Dahlia: Hughie may be bored, too. You say he’s got lots of toys, which is great, but do you play with him? Interactive play is a great thing for cats and people because it’s fun and it helps us to work off extra energy that we might use in doing naughty things.
Siouxsie: “Thing on a string” toys, “cat fishing” toys, or laser pointers are especially great things to use when playing with Hughie. You can buy thing on a string or cat fishing toys at pet stores or you can make them yourself. My personal favorite toy is my Red String Of Death. It’s a big, long red shoelace with a bunch of rags tied on one end. I could chase that thing for hours.
Thomas: More like minutes. Lazybones!
Siouxsie: Don’t make me come over there and cuff you!
Dahlia: Anyway! Carole, if you use the training techniques we mentioned above, and you use them consistently, you should be able to teach Hughie that the counters and cabinets are simply not fun places to explore.
Siouxsie: It may take quite a while to instill the habit in Hughie, so be patient. Don’t stop as soon as you notice Hughie having second thoughts about getting on the counters. Leave the place mats and continue using the spray bottle and “no, and down” for a couple of weeks at least. Then begin to keep the place mats off the counter when you’re home and see what happens. Leave the place mats down whenever you’re away, so that the remote control training continues even when you’re not there to say “no.”
Thomas: By using the double-sided tape or Sticky Paws, you may even be able to get your house plants back!
Dahlia: Make sure the plants you bring into your home are not poisonous to cats, though. Toxic plants can cause reactions ranging from minor ones like vomiting or diarrhea to seizures and even death. This list contains every plant in the world known to be toxic to cats.
Thomas: You could even make Hughie his own “kitty garden” so he can munch on plants that are just for him!
Dahlia: Catnip, of course, is a big hit. Of course, you might have all the neighbor cats over, too. Wheat grass, or any thin-stemmed grass, is good for us. We can eat most garden herbs, too. But we don’t like the spicy ones like chives.
Siouxsie: You can actually buy cat grass gardens at most pet stores. We’d recommend that you plant it in a shallow clay pot or another attractive planter instead of the little plastic thing it comes in, though. The important thing is that the planter should be heavy enough that he can stand on or in it, or pull the grass out, without spreading his garden all over your kitchen.
Thomas: Mama did that when we were indoor-only cats, and we loved it!
Dahlia: Good luck, Carole, and please let us know how Hughie does in his training.
We have three cats, however only one is a problem (and very stubborn) “counter surfer.” What’s more, she has gotten into the noxious habit of *peeing* near the coffee pot. Repeated scoldings, loud noises and squirt bottles failed to have any effect other than to train her not to get *caught* climbing on the counter, as evidenced by the appearance of phantom paw prints, and the telltale “ka-thump” of the cat jumping to the floor whenever she heard anyone approaching the kitchen. Lining the edges of the counters with double-sided sticky tape had no deterrent effect. (Like I said, this is a *very* stubborn cat.)
I finally cured her of the noxious habit by a applying a thin layer of Murphy’s oil soap to the kitchen counters. It’s a mild, non-toxic (non-sudsing) liquid soap that has a thick, almost gel-like consistency. We left it on the counters for a couple of days for good measure, making sure to periodically re-wet the gel so that it wouldn’t dry out completely. The morning after the initial application we found a few paw prints in the soap, but not nearly as many as usual. Later, the offending cat acted unusually unsociable, refusing to come near the kitchen, and generally acting very miffed toward us. We had clearly spoiled her fun!
After that, we had no more trouble. It was a cheap, easy, non-toxic (if slightly messy) solution to what had become an extremely aggravating problem with one very stubborn cat…