Many cat owners know the frustration of catching their cat snooping around the kitchen sink or trying to prepare dinner with a cat stepping over the cutting board. Most people agree that cats shouldn’t be on kitchen counters or dining room tables, but the cats seem to disagree. Counters are naturally reinforcing and incredibly interesting to cats. But with an understanding of the cat’s behavior, you can keep your cats away from these restricted areas.
Identify Why Your Cat is Counter Surfing
To address the problem, you first need to understand why your cat is cruising on the counter. Their motivations may include one or more of the following:
- Exploring – There may be crumbs of food, interesting smells, or objects to play with that are enticing them to explore.
- Safety – Cats like counters because they feel safe when their feet are off the ground. On an elevated perch, they have a good view of their territory, resources, friends, and foes. A table or counter might be the best place to escape a bully cat, rambunctious dog, or waddling toddler.
- Attention – High spots are convenient places for cats to receive attention from their favorite humans. Counter-height makes it easier for them to rub on you, and easier for us to show love, too, without having to bend down to reach them on the floor.
Make the Counter Unappealing
Start by making the kitchen counter a really boring place to be so your cat has no reason to explore it. Keep the counter wiped clean after every meal so there are no foods or food scents that will pique their interest. It’s just not fair to leave bits of chicken on the counter and expect your cat to ignore it! Also clear away any objects that might be considered toys like pens, string, or other doodads.
Food and toys are the obvious rewards a cat might find on the counter, but you might be a reward, too! Sometimes we inadvertently reinforce behaviors that we don’t want simply by giving the cat attention. If you pet them while on the counter, they will learn to come back to that spot when they want a cuddle. Even behaviors we intend as punishment can actually be reinforcing to the cat. Telling them to get down or lifting them off the counter are still forms of attention that the cat may be seeking.
Other forms of punishment, like spray bottles, yelling, or bopping their nose, simply don’t work. When your cat is on the counter, ignoring them or walking away is the best way to make sure you are not encouraging the behavior, creating stress, or damaging your relationship.
Encourage Alternative Behaviors
Once you’ve taken away the fun from the counter, make another area of the house super exciting. One way this can be done is through environmental enrichment, essentially “catifying” your home to meet the cat’s physical and mental needs. Make sure there are plenty of hiding, climbing, playing and scratching areas around the home for your cat to use. Elevated perches, like cat trees or shelves, are important to provide an appropriate place they can spend time off the ground. Provide other forms of enrichment like rotating toys, installing a bird feeder outside of their favorite window, or putting food in puzzle feeders to keep them busy so they don’t feel the need to explore the forbidden areas of the kitchen.
If your cat is counter surfing to gain your attention, teach her more appropriate ways to ask for affection. Give her a pet when she meows at your feet or climbs a cat tree. While you prepare a meal in the kitchen, you might move a cat tree or chair near the counter so she has an appropriate high place to rest while still being near you. And generally, make sure you set aside enough quality time with your cat, snuggling or playing, so they can fill their social cup.
You can also train your cat where they should be instead of the counter. Choose a location – a cat tree perch, chair, or floor mat – and reward your cat for staying there while you are working in the kitchen or eating dinner. Use treats as rewards or other things they enjoy like toys or petting. Placing food in puzzle feeders is another way to keep them occupied. Soon they’ll learn that if they stay there, they’ll get good things!
Resolving nuisance behaviors like counter surfing can be difficult, especially if the cat has practiced it for a while and it has become a habit. Remember that these behaviors are your cat’s way of communicating their needs. Once you figure out why your cat is on the counter, you can remove those reinforcers by making the counter a boring place to be while adding fabulous rewards like treats, enrichment, and attention elsewhere in the home.
For personalized help ending counter surfing or other nuisance behaviors in your home, contact a certified cat behavior consultant at Pawsitive Vibes Cat Behavior and Training.