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Using a spray bottle to punish your cat is not only ineffective, but could also damaging the relationship you have with your companion.

Why do people use spray bottles?
Spray bottles are typically used to prevent or interrupt behaviours that we consider to be undesirable.  Historically, cat owners were taught that this is a safe and effective way to teach cats that certain unwanted behaviours have negative consequences. Squirt the cat – cat gets wet – cat doesn’t like it and learns to stop doing the undesirable behaviour.

What really happens when you use a spray bottle
I hear this statement often – “but it worked for us…..we sprayed our cat with water and the behaviour has stopped”.

It is important to be aware that it was not the bottle itself or the threat of getting wet that the cat reacted to, it’s the person behind the bottle!  Take counter-surfing for example – a cat that has been punished for jumping up on kitchen counters or table tops has been shown to continue the behaviour when there is no-one around to punish it.  Put a spray bottle on the table and they will simply walk around it, but as soon as a person enters the room they’re off the table and out of there in a matter of seconds. What has this cat learned? Only that people are unpredictable and should be avoided.

Punishments don’t work
Cat’s always perform actions to fulfill a purpose, even if we don’t always understand what that purpose is. Cat’s do not do things because they are spiteful or angry with you or a family member.  Instead of punishing your cat for behaviours you don’t like, try positively reinforcing behaviours that you do like using rewards. If a cat has a positive experience they are more likely to repeat the behaviour again.

What is a Deterrent?
A deterrent is very different to a punishment, and is an effective tool you can use to teach your cat in combination with reward based training.

The key things to remember about deterrents are:

  1. they activate within 3 seconds of the undesirable behaviour occurring or it will have no effect
  2. the resulting action must be consistent, i.e. delivered in the same way every time
  3. the deterrent must happen each time the behaviour occurs – 24 hours a day / 7 days a week
  4. the deterrent cannot be associated with human involvement
  5. an appropriate alternative must be offered to allow the cat to carry out the original behaviour

Take the counter-surfing cat – putting tinfoil on benchtops can be an effective deterrent as cats typically do not enjoy the feel of the tinfoil under their paws.  They get the same unpleasant feeling every time they jump on the counter surface, day or night, and it happens with or without you in the room.  Eventually, the cat learns not to jump on counters and the tin foil can be removed. Importantly, consideration must be given as to why your cat wants up on the counter. Is it near a window facing a garden?, Does your cat enjoy spending time with you while you make dinner?, Is it the sunniest spot in the house? Offering a suitable alternative like a perch or seat nearby (and rewarding its use) will allow your cat to satisfy it’s motivations for the original behaviour.