Counter-Surfing Cats: Is Your Kitty a Professional?

Counter-Surfing CatsCounter-Surfing Cats: What to do When Your Cat Loves Hangin’ Ten (…er…Eight…)

When I visit my clients to resolve cat behavior issues, one topic almost always comes up as a “by-the-way-can-you-help-me-with-this” question.  And that question is: “how can I get my cat to stop jumping up on counters and table tops?”  Many cats just LOVE to hop up on tables and counter-tops, scavenging for food, knocking stuff off shelves, or getting in our way. And for many of us, that’s just not appropriate behavior.  Why do they do this?  Counter-surfing cats seek out work-surfaces for a few reasons:

  1. Cats are inherently curious creatures and they want to see what’s going on when you’re busy working on the surfaces they can’t see from the floor.  They want to be where the action is! 
  2. Some cats have learned that there are rewards to be received by exploring counters and table-tops, namely FOOD.  Cats – if food-motivated – can be quite persistent in checking places that might offer delicious snacks!
  3. Is your cat bored?  Your cat may have learned that getting up on a forbidden surface is a good way to get immediate attention from you, or that there are fun things to play with up there (i.e., objects he can knock on to the floor for his amusement).
  4. Cats use space in a three-dimensional manner, meaning that they often like to be up in high places.  Cats evolved to both escape predation and observe their prey by hanging out in higher places – trees, rock-outcrops, and other perchable locations.

Regardless of the reasons why cats like to occupy space on counters and tables, you may decide this is not an appropriate place for them to be. In kitchens, you risk food being contaminated by fur and “remnants” of things stuck to your cats’ paws (ew).  But don’t worry – the process of breaking your cat’s habit of hopping on off-limits surfaces is fairly simple.  The only drawback is that it can take time, so be patient and persistent when it comes to the following procedure.  Most importantly, don’t let your cat get away with this behavior even occasionally – your cat doesn’t understand that it’s “sometimes” ok to be on a table or counter, nor can he recognize the circumstances where he can “sometimes” get on the counter or table.  There’s really no half-way here; it’s all or nothing, so be careful about sending mixed messages.  Decide where your cat is permitted and where he is not, and stick with it.

Step 1: Eliminate all Payoffs for Your Counter-Surfing Cats

Put ALL food away, ALL the time! Even if you put food in bags (for example), make sure the food is secured in a cupboard or in the refrigerator; counter-surfing cats who are food-motivated will even chew through containers and bags to get at food. 

If your cat is hungry and is looking for food (particularly around mealtimes when you are preparing food for humans and/or cats), this can cause an increase in attempts at counter-surfing either while you are working at the surface or before.  You may want to consider the following to curb hunger-related counter-surfing:

  • Break up meals into more feedings. If you feed your cat twice a day, consider adding a third meal.  Cats should not go more than 8 hours between meals, and in the wild, they have several small frequent meals throughout the day.  Try adding a small meal after you get home from work, or by setting an automatic timed feeder to open up around noon if you’re not home.  Keep your cat’s overall daily calorie allotment the same, but just feed more frequent, smaller meals (or snacks) instead of two larger meals.
  • You might also try adding pumpkin to wet food, as it adds fiber to your cat’s diet, which can make your cat feel fuller for longer.  Read this article to get started with adding pumpkin to your cat’s food.
  • Give your cat a food puzzle to work on during the day. If you’re not home to feed your cat snacks, food puzzles and puzzle feeders are a great way to keep your cat’s hunger curbed while providing mental stimulation!  Get started with food puzzles by reading my article about food puzzles – there are a TON of both commercial food puzzles and free do-it-yourself options!

And, while not food-related, if your cat is bored, make sure you’re giving him plenty of active play-time.  A bored cat will look for something to keep himself occupied, and if he’s jumping up on tables or shelves to do so, he may need some assistance in that area.  Daily play sessions with a wand toy are an essential start, but there are also plenty of enrichment activities you can give your kitty, too!

Step 2: Make Off-Limits Surfaces Unappealing

Not only do you have to take away the reward for cats getting up on the counter, but you may have to go a step further and temporarily use minor aversive techniques to keep cats off the counters when you’re not around.  This way, cats will learn that counters and table-tops are off-limits all the time, not just when you’re around to shoo them away.  If they only get chased off surfaces by you (by clapping, yelling, spraying water, etc. – which you shouldn’t do, btw), they will simply learn to do the behavior when you’re not around.  Here are a few things to try:

  • counter-surfing catsSome people have had success with covering surfaces with aluminum foil or upside-down plastic carpet runner, with the nubby sides up.  This depends entirely on how sensitive your cat is to preferred walking surfaces.  I’ve met cats who will simply lay down and take a nap on both of these surfaces, but they’re cheap and easy to try.
  • I’ve been most successful with sticky surfaces, on which cats hate walking. Purchase several cheap plastic placemats from the dollar store (or use large pieces of cardboard) and cover them with double-sided tape.  I recommend Sticky Paws, which is specifically developed to keep pets off of surfaces!  You can buy Sticky Paws in sheets, strips, or on a roll.  Cover the placemats with the tape, and leave them out when you’re not working at the counter; stack them loosely when you need to use the surface.  If you can only cover part of your surface, try moving placemats around to different spots so that your cat doesn’t learn where they are and where not to hop up.  They are like tiny little velociraptors who keep “testing the fence” (see the first Jurassic Park movie if you don’t know what I’m talking about).    
  • I do not generally recommend the use of stronger aversives like motion-activated compressed air cans, except in specific cases.  These should NEVER be used with a cat who has stress or anxiety issues, as you do not want your cat to be fearful in his environment.  Please talk with a behaviorist BEFORE employing this type of tactic, as this can potentially lead to or amplify other behavior issues that are stress or fear-related.  Anything that produces an electric shock – no matter how mild it claims to be – should never be used.
  • If one of the above approaches works, use that method for a couple of weeks (remembering to shift locations if you can’t cover the entire surface) and then reduce the usage.  By that time, most cats learn that the counter or table-top is not a great place to be.  

Step 3: Provide an Alternative Location for Your Cat to Perch

A lot of people skip this step, when it’s actually an important part of the solution.  Your cat has a need to be up high so that he can see what’s going on in a particular area.  So give him an acceptable place to be for that purpose!  If you have a cat tree or a stool that you can place next to your counter-top or table, encourage your cat to use that instead of work surfaces. Make sure that he can see what you’re doing from that location, and reward him every time he uses his perch. If kitty gets onto the counter-top, put him on the floor very neutrally (don’t yell or punish), then call him over to his special perch. Encourage him to climb up (using a toy or a treat), and when he does, give him a reward.  An important thing to note: if your cat jumps up on the counter, DON’T move your cat directly from the work surface to the perch then give him a treat, otherwise you’ll just be rewarding him for getting on to the counter. Make sure that there’s a “break” between the inappropriate behavior and the behavior that can be rewarded! Put him on the floor, then have him jump up on his perch, then reward him.  It helps to have a verbal command for the perch, like “tree” or “stool” so that you can direct him to his spot before he gets the urge to jump on the counter. 

Pretty soon he’ll learn that he can see just as well from his special place, and he gets a pay-off for doing so.  After he gets into the habit, you don’t have to reward him every time – and in fact, positive reinforcement doesn’t have to be a treat – you can give him pets, affection, or sweet-talk instead.  This is also a great thing to work on with clicker-training, if you’re familiar with that process!

If you are consistent about making your work surfaces undesirable and providing an alternative perch where your cat get rewards, your formerly counter-surfing cat will soon learn about better alternatives to be, and that will make everyone happy.  For more help with this issue or information about other behavior issues, contact Dr. Marci at marci@felinebehaviorsolutions.com.

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