After adopting a feral cat 3 years ago, I am still struggling with cats on the counter. Gus spent most of his wild life dumpster diving, and hunting mice and bugs for food. He certainly would have availed himself of any food a good samaritan left out for the community cats. Understandably, the kitchen counter is a cornucopia of food as far as he is concerned.
Counter-surfing cats – Why do they do it?
- Cats are looking for food.
- Cats are curious and keen observers of other species and their activities.
- Cats like high places and may feel safer on the counter, out of reach of the family dog and children.
Strategies for Counter-Surfing Cats
The Foodie Cat
- Have food on the counters only when you are preparing it.
- If you need to leave during food prep, be sure and secure the food in a cabinet or unused oven.
- Train your cat to a mat.
The Curious Cat
- Offer your cat a place where she can monitor counter activities.
- Train her to stay at that place while you are at the counter.
The Trapped Cat
- Offer your cat a place where he can get away from the children and/or dog.
- If he still prefers the counter, train him to stay in the place you offered.
Mat (aka station) training is popular with dog trainers. Ideally, when you tell your dog to go to the mat, he goes there and waits on the mat until you tell him he can leave. Mat training can be very handy because the “place” the dog must go to can move around – it is wherever the mat is.
Cats can also be mat trained. Here is how it works.
Choose a mat for your cat to sit on.
Encourage the cat to go to the mat by, say, throwing a treat on it.
Reward the cat once she interacts with the mat.
If she gets off the mat before you tell her to, encourage her to return to the mat.
“Shape” the behavior by having her stay on the mat for increasingly longer periods of time.
Establish a cue to let her know she can leave the mat.
Counter Control – Other Aids
Aversives – things cats don’t like
- A non-toxic citrus spray on the counter (cats don’t like citrus)
- An upside-down carpet runner (with the “spikes” facing up)
- Water guns are a traditional solution to deter counter-surfing cats…for these to really work you must spray the cat as she is jumping on the counter.
- Motion-activated spray systems (SSSCAT) may discourage counter-surfing cats as long as the device works…but these devices can startle and frighten some cats.
- See “How Does Clicker Training Your Cat Work?”
Counter-Surfing Cats – a Hard Case
Having been a feral cat, food is Gus’s major priority in life. He inevitably jumps on the counter if there is any suggestion of food preparation. He is always willing to get down from the counter when I point my finger to the floor but he returns to the countertop in a few minutes. He is undeterred by water guns, citrus sprays, and upside down carpet runners.
Gus easily mastered the idea of station training – sitting and staying on the mat is not problem until you start food preparation. He is fine as long as the treats keep coming. However, if I fall behind dispensing treats (when breading cutlets or some other involved culinary task), he returns to the counter again. I feel he cannot “dial back” his emotions enough to recall his training.
- If the cooking is so complicated that I can’t pay attention to Gus, I will put him in his “safe place” (the master bedroom) with his resources and some food.
- If things are not too hectic, I will give him a lickimat with some baby food on it. This seems to keep him happy and contented for 15- 20 minutes.
Counter-surfing cats are often looking for food, a good place to monitor activity in the house, or a way to escape the family dog or a busy toddler. Decide where you want your cat to be and see if you can train her to go to a mat in this place. If all else fails, put your cat in her “safe place” while you fix meals, work on projects, or entertain guests.
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