Squirt Bottles, Punishment, and Cat Behavior

By Jackson Galaxy

The scenario plays out with cat guardians everywhere: the cat is always getting into something, like jumping onto counters, climbing up screen doors or drapes…and the list goes on. It seems like everyone these days is armed with a handy squirt bottle or squirt gun; sometimes, as I’ve seen in clients’ homes, in every room of the house. Somewhere along the line, this punishing tool has become as prevalent and acceptable as just saying a loud “NO!” In response, we’ve had many queries, both on line and in consultations, about the efficacy of this method.

I believe that the squirt bottle is NOT an effective way of changing a cat’s behavior. When I say this, often I’m met with quizzical or defensive looks. The guardian might say, “But, I’ve seen it work. I squirt, and Tigger jumps off the counter. Nowadays, he just has to see the bottle in my hands, and he runs away.” Yes, exactly my point. Tigger is responding, but is it for the right reasons? No.

What is the cat actually learning in this scenario? Is he learning that the counter is a bad place to be be? No. What Tigger is learning is that, first, the counter is a bad place to be when you are present and holding the squirt bottle, and second, he is learning to be afraid of you. The bottle appears to him as an extension of your arm, and it is you, not the bottle, that is getting him wet.

Does he get anxious and run when he sees the bottle sitting neutral on the end table? No. He only reacts when he sees you holding it and pointing it in his direction. In my opinion, this doesn’t make for a trusting relationship. In fact, it can cause more behavior problems, fears and phobias that you hadn’t considered. Depending on your cat’s background, this may be a bigger Pandora’s box than with other cats. Specifically, I believe the risk of developing secondary behavior problems is greater in rescued cats, since they may have been subject to unknown abuses, so that something as “mild” as the squirt gun can trigger response to latent trauma.

In a perfect world, we could shape the behavior of cats in terms of all undesired behaviors with 100% positively reinforced training. That is to say, with reward, the cat will want to repeat the desired action. That works in many cases, if not most. In my experience, unfortunately, it’s not a guarantee. I do occasionally recommend the use of negative reinforcers, but in limited circumstances, and with some very important facts in mind:

1. Punishment must occur within three seconds (maximum) of the action occurring or else it will have absolutely no effect.

2. Punishment must also happen around the clock, meaning every single time the behavior occurs – whether you are home or not, asleep or not, paying attention or not.

3. The punishment must be consistent in its effect so that the possibility for abuse is nullified.

4. Punishment in itself is not the answer. There must be a positive alternative for the cat, or else a sense of frustration will develop, and the behavior one seeks to eradicate will be redirected elsewhere in the living environment.

Let’s address some of these points in more detail. The upshot of numbers 1-3 is that interactive punishment, or punishment involving person to cat, cannot work. There’s no way that the cat’s guardian can always grab that water bottle within three seconds, or with the same amount of intensity. Most importantly, there’s no way you can follow your cat around 24/7. For anyone who tells me that they’ve solved the problem with the water gun, I tell them that they may have solved it while they’re home, but they are seriously underestimating their cat’s intelligence. The cat knows that when the guardian is gone, the negative reinforcer is also gone. That’s why, in these cases, the only thing that will work is remote punishment, or punishment that employs a device that is always present. Take, for instance, the Tattle Tale Alarm. It is a small, battery-operated device that you place on the counter. It is motion sensitive, and when activated, lets out a sound that will scare the cat off the counter. It then resets itself. There are many other such devices that use heat and motion detectors, for example, like Scraminal, which can prevent a cat from entering an entire room if you want. On the do-it-yourself side, you can even use double-sided sticky tape, or an upside-down vinyl carpet runner. You can use anything that will consistently send the message that “this is not a friendly place to be!” At the same time, I am strongly opposed to anything that shocks or otherwise causes strong bodily discomfort. For instance, I object to The Scat Mat because it produces an electric shock that can seriously frighten and hurt a cat.

Point #4 is equally important. Putting up a Tattle Tale, or any other remote punisher and thinking, “job well done!” is a big mistake. I’ve visited clients, frustrated by the climbing antics of their cats, who put tape on their drapes, Snappy Trainers (harmless mousetraps fitted with large paddles to make a noise) on the mantles and counters, but then new problems crop up. The cats start attacking ankles out of play aggression, for instance, or fight with one another. The whole time, the message was loud and clear; “Give me something acceptable to climb on!” So, spend the money. Cat furniture, condos, scratching posts and such, as many as possible, will give your cats a place to climb and scratch where you can praise them for doing what is, after all, natural to them. This way, for every “NO!” there’s a “YES” associated with it.

Also, consider employing flower essence therapy during the time of frustrating re-learning. Spirit Essences’ “Feline Training”  is ideal for this purpose.

In the end, the most important reason I can give for tossing that squirt bottle is to protect the bond between you and your feline companion. Let a strip of tape do the dirty work. The points outlined above make it a hard case for us to continue to fill roles as disciplinarians when, in the long run, we know it will not bear fruit. We are fallible; we have emotions and can overstep that line from discipline to abuse, all of us. At the very least, with every shot of water, we are eroding trust. There’s no reason to let it get to that point.

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