Jacque Lynn Schultz, C.P.D.T., Companion Animal Programs Adviser. National Outreach
Every morning Martha, a stately Maine coon mix, sashayed across the breakfast table and made a beeline for her favorite windowsill, shedding cat hair into the butter and flinging litter granules from her long furry tail along the way. When Mitch noticed clay particles floating in his coffee mug for the third morning in a row, he erupted. “No more cats on the kitchen table!” he bellowed-and Martha seemed to get the message. But by 7:30 the next morning, Martha’s march began anew. Short of barring her from the kitchen, Mitch wondered how he could put an end to Martha’s “surface shenanigans.”
Before you can train your cat to stay off a forbidden surface, you must decipher why she’s drawn to it in the first place. Whether tabletops, counters or infant changing tables, cats like high platforms from which they can view their territory. If these surfaces provide other pleasures, as well, all the better. Is there leftover food on the stove? Is the kitchen table next to the window that overlooks the birdbath? Is the changing table warm, cozy and comfortably padded? When surfaces offer such tempting rewards, it’s hard to convince a cat to keep away.
First, remove the rewards that make a surface so appealing. If your cat enjoys snacking on crusty remains left in cooking pans, let them soak in the sink before sitting down to a meal. If she likes to lounge on the sunlit windowsill at the end of the kitchen table, “remove” the rewarding sunshine by pulling the shades down or putting up shutters.
Next, offer alternatives. If birdwatching is rewarding for your indoor cat, set up a feeder or birdbath near a windowsill that you don’t mind her sitting on-in the family room or home office, perhaps. Don’t complain that she perches upon forbidden surfaces if you haven’t provided her with some that she can use. Multilevel scratching posts-complete with resting areas and hideouts-make perfect viewing platforms for territory surveillance. As for the counter surfer looking for food rewards, if she’s healthy and fit, feel free to share the occasional leftover-but put the goodies in her bowl. Don’t let her eat straight out of the pan.
Cats are creatures of habit. They will repeat behaviors until new ones are established-so break the routine. Martha had been watching birds from the kitchen windowsill for years, and it would take more than some shouting and shoving to interrupt her routine. If she found herself shut out of the kitchen every morning, however, Martha would most likely develop a new habit. She would probably scratch and cry at the door for the first week, but if that didn’t work-even if she became increasingly obnoxious as her efforts intensified-she would eventually seek out something more rewarding. Perhaps birdwatching from that newly padded windowsill in the bedroom would prove more pleasurable.
Make the off-limits surface unwelcoming. Cats have tactile preferences; most do not like surfaces that are sticky, slick, cold or prickly. If your cat likes to nap in an empty crib, place a crib-sized sheet of cardboard, covered with doublesided tape, atop the mattress. For at least two weeks, leave the cardboard in place whenever the crib is not in use, and the cat will most likely seek out a more comfortable space. Thick plastic sheeting, upside-down plastic rug protectors and tinfoil are all coverups cats don’t like. Noisemaking motion sensors, flashing lights and water or citronella sprays may serve a similar purpose. Note: If your cat is skittish, tense or easily aroused, do not use a method that employs startling elements-it may provoke her to attack the first living being she meets.
Sometimes it’s just easier to “manage” the situation. Close nursery doors. Refrigerate leftover food; if your countertops are clean, there’s no reason for the cat to visit. Move the kitchen table away from the window so Martha will have to leap directly onto the windowsill to watch the daily avian frolics. Mitch could also invest in a covered butter dish and drink his coffee from a travel mug.
There are many ways to address feline surface conflicts; the method you choose depends on the situation, the cat’s persistence and the strength of your resolve.
Reprinted from ASPCA Animal Watch, Spring 2004, Vol. 24, No. 2, with permission from The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 424 East 92nd Street, New York, NY 10128-6804