Many of us cat owners make jokes about our homes belonging to our cats. We humans just pay the rent, right? In some ways, this seems true; for many of us, our cats spend more time in our homes than we do. It’s no wonder Felix thinks he can go anywhere he wants — sometimes we are not there to keep him off furniture or surfaces where we don’t want him.
Climbing For A Cause
With any unwanted behavior, we have to look first at the motivation for that behavior.
If the sun hits your fancy new couch between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day, Felix may find it the perfect spot for napping while you are at work, leaving behind his fur. If we store the cat food in a cupboard beside the stove, Felix may jump up to see if he can find a way to paw open the door for a snack.
Wherever he is climbing that you don’t want him to, there is a purpose behind his actions. If we can figure out the bigger picture, we can make changes that will reduce the unwanted behavior. Or, perhaps we make changes in the environment to avoid the problem.
For instance, if the cat hair on the couch is the problem, adding a cozy washable fleece throw that can be laundered once a week may take care of the problem. If the problem is the pawing at the cupboard, relocating the cat’s food to another spot might be a quick fix. Don’t forget to think like the species with the bigger, more creative brain!
If that idea doesn’t seem plausible for your concern, the next best thing is to teach your cat to do something else instead of the problem behavior.
I can hear some of you right now: “Does she mean train a cat??” Yes, I do! And, yes, it is possible. You might even find it fun and entertaining.
Let’s say you have a cat that wants to jump up on countertops when you are in the kitchen. He’s athletic enough to do it readily, and he possibly has been accidentally rewarded for it — maybe you talked to him, said his name, patted his head, or maybe he grabbed a bit of food that was on the counter. Darn. Now he has the idea in his little head that jumping up on the counter pays off. What can a good cat person do? Teach him an alternative behavior and then reward the heck out of it.
Find a yard sale or discount store bar chair with a stable seat. We’re going to teach your feline prince to jump up on his new “throne” instead of the counter.
Choose a time when you are not trying to cook or get other things done in the kitchen, and when you can devote about 15 minutes per session to this activity. Start with a hungry cat and some treats he likes. Put the chair in a place where Felix can see you, but out of the general path of traffic. If he’s the typical curious cat, he may come in, check out the seat and jump up to investigate. If he does, tell him he’s a good kitty and offer a treat on the seat. If he stays, offer him another. And another.
If he doesn’t jump up right away, that’s OK. You can give him a treat anytime he walks close to the chair, or sniffs it or looks up like he’s thinking about checking it out. What we are doing is building value for that bar chair. If the chair is attractive, comfortable AND treats happen around it, it can quickly become more interesting to him than the countertop. If he’s the type that doesn’t mind being picked up and placed somewhere, you can put him in the chair. But, if that bothers him, go with the tact of shaping his behavior through your use of treats as rewards. If he has a favorite toy, you might wiggle it on the chair. If he has a favorite fleece blanket or soft bed, try using it there. Catnip is another possibility.
Once you get Felix up on the seat and looking around, be wildly generous with the treats, praise, petting or anything he really values. If he loves to be brushed, this can become his brushing chair. Don’t ever try to trap him there or intimidate him to stay there. We want him to think this is a special and safe place.
If he gets down from his perch, ignore him. If he jumps onto the countertop, simply pick up him and place him on the floor.
Consistency Is Key
Because we cannot explain to him with language that jumping on the countertop is unwanted and jumping on the chair is preferred, we must use consistent consequences for jumping on each location to make clear to him what will happen when he does. Countertop jumping = a quick trip to the floor. New chair jumping = good stuff. Be ready to repeat as many times as is necessary to help him understand. No yelling, no scolding, no harsh treatment — just a clockwork-like response each time.
Being harsh might hamper your relationship with Felix, and we don’t want that. There’s no reason to make him scared of you; in fact, that’s counterproductive. Instead let’s help him to understand that the quick trips to the floor are not a fluke, they are the new reality. But, so is the other option of getting treats or other perks from jumping on the chair. By the time you have repeated this 15 to 20 times, the pattern will become clear to Felix.
If you have experience in training dogs to do things like this, do remember that cats tend to work a little differently. Cats often walk away from training after only a few minutes. It is not necessary for any working session to go longer than a few repetitions. Felix may walk away to take a nap, and he may be “processing” what he just experienced while he does.