Even though we love them, sometimes our cats can be downright naughty. Honestly, that’s part of what makes our cats so fun but it can also get really frustrating when you just can’t seem to communicate with your feline friend that it’s not okay to jump on the counter.
So what can you do to get the message across? You’ll hear a lot of different advice across the internet and one of the most popular is to spray your cat with water to let them know that they need to stop whatever it is they’re doing.
But is it really okay to spray your cat with water? While it’s not going to hurt your cat, spraying your cat with water isn’t very nice. But it also isn’t a great way to actually discourage a behavior. Instead, you need to understand the root of the behavior and work from there.
So let’s dive deep into the world of squirt guns, spray bottles, and spritzers as a form of feline punishment.
Why Do Cats Hate Being Sprayed With Water?
While it might seem like there’s some deep-seated reason why your cat doesn’t like being sprayed with water it’s honestly not that complicated to consider. I mean, imagine you’re having the time of your life hanging out on the kitchen counter. Not a care in the world then suddenly your best friend and roommate shows up and starts spraying you with water!
What the heck is going on!?
So it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that our cats aren’t excited about getting sprayed with water. But getting a light spritz of water isn’t actually universally hated by our feline friends.
I’ve seen many cats who simply don’t care. They’d rather do whatever it is they’re trying to do even it means they have to get sprayed with water while it happens. Other cats, (like my dad’s cat) seem to instantly decide that the water spraying is all part of a human game that they’ve been invited to play and jumping on the counter is just one way to start the fun!
And that’s just part of the problem with spraying your cat with water.
The Big Problem With Spraying Your Cat With Water
In short, spraying your cat with water isn’t a consistent strategy for actually changing your cat’s behavior. Sure, it will work for some cats some of the time but it’s much more likely that your cat learns they can’t jump on the counter or scratch the furniture while you’re around instead of just giving it up altogether.
Because your cat can’t make the connection between their behavior and your intention for spraying them. Instead, they make the connection that when they’re on the counter and you’re around they get sprayed. That means when you’re away, the counter (or any other behavior) is fair game.
You might even think everything is working as intended when you walk into the room and your cat suddenly jumps off the counter or stops chewing the plants. You might think that they understand they shouldn’t be on the counter and that your message is crystal clear. But this only proves the point that your cat will still engage in the behavior when you’re not around! Instead of understanding that they shouldn’t be on the counter they just understand that they should avoid you!
And that’s not what we want at all. We want to build a strong bond with our cats and get them to stop what they’re doing.
So let’s break these problems down one by one to really see why spraying cats with water just isn’t effective.
Problem 1: Consistency Is Impossible
When it comes to successfully modifying behavior, consistency is extremely important. So in order for your cat to make a strong connection between the water squirt and something like chewing plants, scratching furniture, or surfing the counter the result needs to be consistent. Since a squirt bottle relies on you to actually be there during the kitty crime it’s impossible to consistently connect a squirt with the bad behavior.
Instead, your cat will quickly connect the dots and understand that you’re the main variable here. Sure, getting on the counter is bad but ONLY if you’re around. Otherwise, it’s a great place to find tasty crumbs, and chewing plants is just plain fun.
Problem 2: It Doesn’t Resolve the Root Cause
It’s important to ask ourselves why our cat is doing whatever it is we don’t want them to do. In some cases it’s obvious and in others, it can be more subtle. Still, there’s usually a clear reason why our cats do the things they do. Simply spraying a cat with water doesn’t make them not want to do whatever they were doing- it only lets them know they need to be more stealthy about it.
Let’s look at scratching furniture as an example. According to Dr. Conrad in an article for Chewy “Cats scratch for a variety of reasons. It relieves anxiety; it’s a form of exercise; it hones their nails; it strengthens and stretches their muscles; it marks territory.” In other words, scratching is something that cats need to do and it isn’t just something they do for fun or because they’re bored.
So is it realistic to believe that a spray bottle will correct millions of years of instinct and evolution? Probably not.
Instead, we need to try and redirect the behavior into something more appropriate like a scratching post and allow our cats to fulfill their instinct to scratch.
Problem 3: It’s Stressful for Your Cats
We want our cats to feel safe, secure, and comfortable in our homes. But if the spray bottle is lurking around the corner it can be hard for your cat to chill out. Of course, this is going to depend a lot on the individual cat but some of our more shy feline friends will have increased fear and stress if they’re constantly sprayed with water. Again, realize that cats aren’t making the connection between bad behavior and the spray bottle. There’s no self-reflection where they later admit to themselves that they really did deserve a good squirt.
Instead, it can feel random and a little pointless- which can increase anxiety. Imagine that instead of getting a ticket for speeding, a police officer would randomly show up throughout your week and give you a $100 ticket. Consider the stress that would cause especially if you couldn’t figure out exactly why you kept getting those tickets!
Problem 4: The Connection Just Isn’t Going To Happen
The only connection your cat is likely to make is that they need to run when you get the squirt bottle. Let’s look at jumping on the counter for example. While a cat is hanging out on the counter they’re doing a lot more than just “being on a counter.” They may be seeking attention from you with a chirp or a purr, watching birds through the window, or sniffing around for food.
How the heck is your nonverbal cat going to connect being on the counter as the main offense that resulted in a water spray and not watching birds or purring. Again, it seems like a pretty tall order!
Additionally, we can’t expect our cats to understand our social cues enough to even understand they’re doing something wrong. Instead, the spray bottle feels like a random action from a creature they don’t fully understand. Or as veterinarian Tony Buffington explains “your cat thinks you’re a huge unpredictable ape.”
A big reason is that cats don’t live in packs like dogs and instead they evolved as solitary hunters that didn’t need to rely on social cues from their own species let alone ours. Dr. Buffington goes on to say “How the heck is your cat supposed to know that you’re yelling at him because you want him to stop scratching the couch? To the cat, you’re this crazy primate who is attacking him for no reason.”
What To Do Instead?
Now that we’ve got a good understanding of why spraying our cats with water isn’t the most effective way to change behavior, it’s time to figure out what actually works. But like many things, doing it the right way can often take more work!
Start By Understanding the Behavior
The first thing to do is understand why your cat is doing whatever it is they’re doing. Like with the furniture scratching example, there’s usually an instinctual basis that explains why cats do what they do. Once we understand why our cats are doing what we don’t want them to do we can figure out how to satisfy their instinct and bring the household into harmony.
Let’s look at another common example and break down how understanding the root of the behavior can help us fix it.
Jumping On Counters
Jumping on counters can be one of the more complex kitty behaviors to break down since different cats will have different reasons.
So why do cats do this?
The most fundamental reason is that cats like high places. Cats are uniquely positioned in the animal world as both predator and prey. So while they’re excellent hunters, they’re still small enough that they could easily become a meal for a larger predator. As a result, the folks at Vet Street suggest that “Staying in higher places was most likely a behavior that, for smaller cats, was associated with an increased probability of survival. Staying in a high location provided a cat with a better vantage point to spot prey and predator alike.”
So like scratching, finding a nice high perch is a deeply rooted instinct in our cats that’s unlikely to be modified by a spray bottle!
But what starts as a search for a perch can quickly become something different if your cat is able to consistently find a tasty treat on the counters! Over time, your cat learns that sniffing around the counter can be a great activity between naps.
Finally, cats may jump on counters for increased stimulation. Whether that’s simply exploring a new area or because of a uniquely placed window near the counter jumping on the counter can be a great way to break up the day (if you’re a cat).
What To Do About It
Your cat is looking for somewhere high up to perch, with a nice view and a few snacks now and then…
So simply give them that with a cat tree and some feline-appropriate treats!
For my money, the folks at Go Pet Club do it best and you can see their store on Amazon by clicking here. You can get some very nice cat trees for a great price and it’s easy enough to get free shipping with Amazon. You don’t need anything crazy tall but you at least need to match the height of the counter or go a little taller.
Next, make sure it’s positioned near a window or other interesting area. Finally, sprinkle a few tasty treats on the cat tree now and then. It doesn’t have to be every day but just like the counter, we want to mimic the random reward that the countertop brings.
Now you’ve got the perfect replacement for the countertop and most cats will prefer their cat tree to the counter- especially if it’s higher than the actual counter.
If You Do Use Negative Reinforcement, Make Sure It’s Consistent and Humane
So it might sound like I’m totally against negative reinforcement in every scenario. But that’s certainly not the case- it’s just so much harder to pull off when compared to positive reinforcement. Mess up with negative reinforcement and your cat will fear you without ever understanding what you actually want them to do.
And one of the easiest ways to mess up negative reinforcement is by making it inconsistent which will always be the case if you’re the one behind the spray bottle.
Let’s look at scratching for an example. We’ve already covered how scratching is a deep-rooted instinct for our cats and even though a spray here and there isn’t going to hurt our cats it’s not likely to reverse a couple of million years of evolution. So we need to have an acceptable scratching surface for our cats to use. You can make your own using sisal rope or pick up a ready to scratching post- Amazon has its own line of posts and it’s tough to beat the price.
But we can also discourage inappropriate scratching areas. The ASPCA suggests using “plastic, double-sided sticky tape, sandpaper or upside-down vinyl carpet runner (knobby parts up) on furniture or on the floor where your cat would stand to scratch your furniture. Place scratching posts next to these objects, as “legal” alternatives.” You can pick up cat-specific double-sided tape on Amazon and this one has more than 200 five-star reviews so far.
This type of negative reinforcement discourages your cat from scratching the areas you don’t want with 100% consistently and you’re never seen as the source of the punishment. What could be better?
When it comes to countertops, you can consider something like a motion detected air sprayer to deter cats from the counter with 100% consistency. The tragically named Scat Deterrent is the most popular but I’d suggest starting with the cat tree first unless your cat is completely food crazy.
I think we’ve gone pretty deep into the world of cats and spray bottles but let’s break out a few more questions especially for the folks that just want to skim this article!
Will My Cat Hate Me If I Spray Her With Water?
Hate is a pretty strong word and while you’re cat likely won’t hate you it isn’t going to improve your relationship. That’s because your cat will associate the unpleasant spray bottle with you and not whatever activity they were doing. That’s why it’s important to try and take yourself out of the negative reinforcement equation. Not only does that increase the consistency but it also makes sure your cat doesn’t think you’re just a wild water spraying jerk.
Is Using A Spray Bottle On A Cat Cruel?
Spraying a cat with a little water isn’t painful but it can cause some cats some mild anxiety. Still, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s cruelty but that’s going to depend a lot on the individual cat. Some cats won’t care at all and a handful will even like it! But other cats will find the experience pretty stressful and when you consider that it’s not actually a very effective method for correcting behavior it’s probably better to just skip the spray bottle.
Spraying your cat with water really does look effective when you see your cat run away as soon as you grab the bottle. But when you really break it down…they’re just afraid of you and the bottle! So while it’s okay to spray your cat with water from a safety perspective, the big problem is that it’s just not effective. Not only is it impossible to stay consistent, but your cat is also likely to think of you as kind of a jerk!