Cats are often seen perched in places high up, such as counters, surveying the goings-on below. But why do cats love hanging out up there? And how can we keep them off our counters?
Speaking to Newsweek, Vicki Jo Harrison, the president of The International Cat Association (TICA), explained cats like countertops because they smell good and they help satisfy some of their natural instincts, like climbing and jumping.
"Cats climb trees and leap long distances to move through their territory, avoid danger, and find food," Harrison said. So many domesticated cats attempt to maintain these instincts, even when living indoors.
But this desire to act on their instincts can often be a nightmare for many households, especially during mealtimes or when hosting dinners and other events where all the action may be taking place around the kitchen area.
Cat counter surfing presents a number of potential hazards, such as the risk of your cat landing on a hot stove or your cat spreading bacteria from their paws onto your food prep area, Harrison added.
Speaking to Newsweek, Pam Johnson-Bennett, the author of several books on cat behavior and training who is the former vice president of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants said in order to train a cat not to jump on counters it's important to know what specifically is appealing about that location. Not all cats want to be on the counter for the same reason.
It is important to figure out the reason for the behavior so you can provide a better alternative, and also not to punish cats to keep them off counters. Johnson-Bennett told Newsweek: "Punishment damages the relationship and can cause a cat to become fearful."
Speaking to Newsweek, Zazie Todd, the author of the forthcoming book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy, warned owners should not use a squirt bottle, loud noise or other form of punishment to deter cats from jumping onto counters as the cat will find this stressful and may become fearful of you.
Here we look at some ways to keep your cats off counters.
Don't Leave Food Nearby
The most common reason why your cat may love counter surfing is the availability of food there, Johnson-Bennett said. Food aromas are extremely enticing for cats, whether that be leftovers from their owner's dinner or their own food being prepared at the countertop. Be sure no food is left out uncovered and don't leave dirty dishes in the sink or unwashed pans on the stove.
Todd told Newsweek: "Changing your own behaviour is hard, but it makes a difference. If your cat finds some chicken breast or tuna or other tasty food on the kitchen counter, they are going to keep going there in the hope of finding something nice to eat."
If your cat appears to be perpetually hungry, simply feeding them more may help discourage them from frequenting countertops in search of food, says the Humane Society of Huron Valley, an animal shelter in Michigan.
Cats love routine, so feeding them several small meals throughout the day on a regular schedule not only helps to decrease their need for food but also keeps them glued to the floor, where they know their next meal will be served.
Distract Them Before They Pounce
If you sense your cat is on the move and about to jump onto the counter, lure them away from doing so with their favorite food or toy.
Harrison said owners can use a "hunting" toy that contains small amounts of kibble to cater to cats' natural instincts for going in search of more food.
California's Animal Behavior College (ABC) warns "timing is critical" when it comes to using a distraction to keep your cat off a counter, as you could inadvertently reward your cat for climbing onto the counter.
"It can be tricky and it might take several months of treating good behavior, but your cat will eventually understand that it's to her benefit to stay off the countertops," the ABC said.
Provide Plenty of Alternatives
TICA president Harrison told Newsweek the easiest way to keep your cat off counters is to give them another outlet for climbing and hiding, such as a cat tree or tower. These are great ways for cats to nurture their natural instinct to climb.
Some cats may prefer being on the counter to feel more safe. "Being in an elevated location is natural for cats because it gives them more ability to see around them and it prevents being ambushed from behind," Johnson-Bennett told Newsweek.
The counter may be seen by cats as the only safe place often in households with multiple cats, small children or a dog, the author explained. "Cats often feel safer up high so the more allowable options you provide, the less the counter will be needed," she said.
Todd noted it's a good idea to place the cat tree next to or near the counter, encouraging them to use it by leaving treats in the cat tree for them to find.
"You could even train your cat to do a down-stay in the cat tree if you'd like. To do so, reward them with treats for gradually increasing lengths of time on the tree, always including plenty of short, easy times too so they don't get bored. Use small treats or pieces of tuna or prawn as rewards and keep training sessions short," Todd told Newsweek.
Set Up Another Window View Area
Cats love watching the world go by and some may be attracted to the window view from the kitchen counter.
Setting up a window perch or cat tree by another window can provide a more comfortable place for the cat to watch outdoor activities, Johnson-Bennett said.
There are also kitty shelves that attach to window sills available at many pet stores.
Get a Cat Water Fountain
Kitchen and bathroom counters are frequent hangout spots for cats because they like drinking running water from faucets. Getting a cat water fountain and placing it on the floor will provide the same appeal, Johnson-Bennett said.
Don't Reward Them for Jumping Off Counter
Counter surfing could also be a cry for attention from your cat and the countertop positions them closer to you. In many cases, we reinforce that behavior by giving attention to the cat at that moment.
However, when a cat is displaying attention-getting behavior, owners should just pick the cat up without petting, kissing, making eye contact or talking and gently place them back down on the floor, Johnson-Bennett told Newsweek.
The ABC says: "Don't forget that negative attention can often be positive to a cat who doesn't get enough attention overall. If your cat only receives attention when she climbs up on a counter—by you yelling at her or picking her up and placing her on the floor— it's still attention in the mind of an animal (or human) who is constantly ignored."
Do Show Them Regular TLC
It's important to make sure you have plenty of interactive play time with your cat on a regular basis to fill their need for engagement and attention that may be causing them to jump onto counters.
Johnson-Bennett said: "To occupy the cat's solo time, set out things such as food-dispensing toys, or set up an outside bird feeder for your kitty's viewing pleasure. It may be time to tweak the environmental enrichment in the home for your cat."
Make the Counter Less Attractive
The counter top can be made undesirable to the cat by using "environmental aversives" to deter them from jumping onto the surface.
For example, placing some baking sheets at the edge of the counter may cause them to topple over as they jump onto the counter and cause them to leap back onto the floor. "Your cat shouldn't be harmed by this experience, but she'll be unlikely to risk jumping on the counter again," says the Humane Society of Huron Valley.
Placing double-sided tape, aluminum foil or bubble wrap on the counter can also create an unpleasant texture on the surface that may deter cats from climbing onto it.
The Humane Society of Huron Valley explains: "The main advantage to using an environmental aversive is that it happens whether you're present or not." Your cat will learn it's never safe to go on counters, rather than learning it's safe when you're not there and waiting until you're not around to get on the counter.
"Since you won't always be there when the aversive works, she won't associate the incident with you. You don't want her to decide that you're the scary thing," the shelter explains.