It seems cat behavior problems come in bundles tied together with a theme. Last week’s was counter surfing. Saturday’s consultation was particularly memorable. It focused on Jan, Billie, and their three male Abyssinian cats. The couple was frustrated because their cats liked hanging out on the kitchen counters and using them as highways. They tried squirting the boys with water, laying out mats that shock, motion-sensitive hissing cans and yelling loudly. Despite their efforts, the cats continued to favor the counters.
Jan, Billie, and the cats live in a glass tree house perched on a remote mountaintop. Reaching this hidden treasure means climbing 40 steep steps. I know, because I counted them. This house exists for the sole purpose of gazing on a stunning panoramic view of the redwood forest below and the far-away ocean. Everything is about the view. The tallest pieces of furniture in the home are counters and low tables. Ann and Billie like it that way — anything taller would obstruct their view. This is a fascinating house for people — not so great for cats.
The cats are siblings, litter mates — adopted together when they were 12 weeks old. The three Abyssinian brothers are now about 18 months old. According to Jan, the cats have always had the tendency to jump on the counters, but lately, they seem to want to be up there all the time. She also observed that the boys are squabbling and fighting a lot, usually on the counters.
Jan and Billie are frustrated and find it difficult to use their counters. Dishes and knick-knacks invariably end up broken on the floor. Keeping the counters clear of cats, cat fur, and little paw prints is impossible. Lately, the couple is finding it difficult to prepare meals because the cats are very adept at grabbing food and running off with it — usually with Billie in hot pursuit.
Vertical territory is mandatory
The counter-surfing behaviors are understandable. Cats need high places (vertical territory) for a number of reasons. Vertical territory helps keep peace in the household and it provides a secure place to watch the world. Climbing helps keep cats fit, and high places are perfect for hobnobbing with favorite people. The only high places available in Jan and Billie’s home are the counters. And, the brothers are discouraged from hanging out on them.
Cats have a social system that includes a flexible and dynamic hierarchy. One way cats show their status is through positioning. Cats who hang out on the highest spots are typically top-cat at that moment. Cat hierarchies are not fixed in stone. They change for a variety of reasons including changes in the weather, health, food, time of day, and some reasons we are not privy too. Cats also time- and room-share. One cat can be top-cat in one room at a specific time, while another shares the same privilege simultaneously in another area.
Demonstrating status starts to become crucial when cats are about the age of these brothers. The three boys, now adolescents, are becoming socially mature. They are at that age when they are establishing their positions in their flexible, social hierarchy. In human terms, they are rambunctious teenagers. Because there is no vertical territory in the house to help the boys establish their positions on the social ladder, they are fighting and jumping on the counters because those are the highest areas in the home.
Vertical territory is also perfect for helping keep cats fit and mentally stimulated by climbing and jumping. They can also view their world from up high, which helps them feel secure because they can easily identify potential threats. Lounging up high also is ideal for viewing morsels of food that have escaped the plate.
Cats having vertical places is crucial, and the boys have none available to them.
Vertical territory is tall — but it’s not rocket science
Vertical territory comes in a variety of flavors. It can be cat trees, shelves, window perches, architectural elements, or household furniture, and it and needs to have shelves or levels at different heights. Some items are built from real trees, others are modern, and some are mundane. The highest level should be at least five feet from the base. Vertical territory is needed in all of the rooms the cats like to hang out in.
The solution for the Abyssinian brothers
Persuading the three brothers that the counter tops are not their own personal highways will take a combination of management and behavior modification. It also means that Jan and Billie may have to sacrifice some of the view in order to restore harmony to the household.
The couple admits that yelling at the cats and using aversives has not stopped the behavior. The pattern is that as soon as they leave the room or turn around, one or all of the brothers are back up on the counter.
Although aversives can stop the counter surfing in the moment, this method will not teach the cats alternative behaviors, and it does not address the causes for the behavior. A more effective and long-term solution involves addressing the reasons the brothers are counter surfing, making the surfaces uninviting, and providing them more appealing places to hang out.
Making counters unattractive to cats is easy. Jan and Billie should buy inexpensive placemats and cover them with double-sided tape. Cats do not like feeling sticky surfaces with their paws. The placemats are placed, sticky side up, on the counters. Additionally, other objects are positioned on the counters, making the areas uncomfortable and difficult to navigate.
At the same time the counters are blocked, the cats need to have acceptable places to lounge that fulfill their reasons for counter surfing. Cat trees, shelving, and high stools placed next to the counters double as perfect cat hangouts. With the help of clicker training, the new high places will become more appealing than the surfaces that are off limits.
After pairing the sound from the clicker with a treat, the click will become a communication tool, reinforcing the boys when they are favoring the appropriate high places and ignoring the counters. Because the counters become uncomfortable and inconvenient, the Aby boys will naturally gravitate to the uncluttered and available vertical territory. The instant they jump or climb on their new furniture, Jan or Billie should click the clicker and then immediately give the cat a treat he adores. With consistency and repetition, it will not take long for the boys to favor the cat trees, shelves, and stools and ignore the counters. Specific details about how to use clicker training to change behaviors including counter surfing are available in the book Naughty No More!
Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.
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