Squirt Bottles, Punishment and Cat Behavior

squirt bottles and punishment for cats

Guest post 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 SSSCat or  Tattle Tale Alarm. These are small, battery-operated devices 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 an SSSCcat or 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 Training Formula 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.

23 Comments on Squirt Bottles, Punishment and Cat Behavior

  1. Otto
    June 1, 2016 at 4:43 pm (1 year ago)

    “Don’t use a squirt bottle because that makes the cat afraid of you.”
    Are you freaking joking? First off, cats are extremely intelligent animals.
    They know the difference between discipline and abuse. Example: I’ve accidentally stepped on my cat’s paw a dozen times over the years. He cries and I’m sure it hurts….but he KNOWS it wasn’t intentional and he completely forgives me a minute later.
    Second point: when he jumps on the kitchen counter he KNOWS that he’s not allowed to do that (but he does it anyway). If caught, he gets squirted with the water bottle. Does that make him fear me? Or course not…because he KNOWS that he’s breaking the rules. Guess who taught him about rules? That’s right…his mommy. She would slap him upside the head for anything that she didn’t like. His mommy laid down the laws of kittyhood when he was just a kitten.
    Cats in general are stubborn, aloof and ill-mannered but they quickly learn what you like and what you don’t. They also know what time you wake-up and when you’re going on a trip. They are creatures of habit and routines. They either accept you or they don’t and a lowly squirt bottle isn’t going to change that.

    Reply
  2. Laura
    December 8, 2015 at 4:14 pm (2 years ago)

    I sleep from 10 pm – 630 am every morning. My cat (typically) sleeps with me from 10 pm – 600 am. And then at 600 am she starts playing and I lock her out of my room. Same routine almost every day. And then at 610 am she starts whining at the door. On weekends, when I am sleeping until 8 am she does not stop. I have bought a cat house and put it next to the door, I have tried calming music and videos, I have tried saying “no”, and I have tried a thunder shirt for cats. I am so frustrated! She is a tortise shell and exhibits huge amounts tortitude. Any recommendations? I am about to go crazy!

    Reply
  3. Joy
    May 24, 2015 at 12:21 am (2 years ago)

    We have had 2 female cats for 7 years. Recently one cat, Mia, has gone into hiding. She used to sleep on the couch. We got a new TV and had to rearrange furniture a little. Ever since then Mia will run right through the living room and never stop. She hasn’t slept on the couch for 2 weeks. She stays in a closet or in another room. Sometimes sleeps under our bed. Why is she doing this? What should we do?

    Reply
  4. Tom Randall
    May 15, 2013 at 9:58 am (5 years ago)

    We have used squirt bottles over the years with mostly pretty good results, but this article is definitely food for thought and will make me seriously consider whether to use them much. I can definitely see where he is coming from, it makes a lot of sense if you think about it. The point that most cats are not stupid and will figure out that the bottle is only nasty if the humans are around makes sense.

    Little Saul is absolutely terrible about the counters and he is a food fiend so we have had to try the squirt bottles with him. They are only somewhat effective since he isn’t very afraid of water probably because we had to bathe him a lot when he was littler. Like you Ingrid we don’t care so much if he gets up there but the gods help me if I have any food, doesn’t make a difference if it’s for me or them he’s right there and I can’t get anything done. Anyhow, I really like this article and it definitely has made me think about this whole thing.

    Tom Mary Beth and the furries.

    Reply
  5. Alyssa
    May 3, 2013 at 12:10 pm (5 years ago)

    My cat is weird. She’s not afraid of the water bottle or whomever carries it. Spraying water at her doesn’t effect her. Instead she challenges my husband to a “who can move the fastest” game. I shouldn’t laugh, but she only does that with him. He also shoots nerf gun thingys and they can plays fetch and runs after them. Keeping her out of the blinds?? Now that’s a challenge.

    Reply
  6. Julia Williams
    March 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm (6 years ago)

    Well…I do see his point and it makes me think about them a bit differently now. However, I have also found nothing else really works on Rocky. He’s just ornery and stubborn…born to make trouble, LOL. I like to watch TV while I eat my dinner, and he will get up on the adjoining love seat or right on the couch beside me, and swipe at my plate trying to snag things. If I tell him no sternly or clap my hands, I can see him laughing at me. And he never gets down until I grab the bottle. Sometimes, I just need to have it right beside me without squirting him,and that is the only way I can eat in peace. I would love to try another way if I knew of any. Suggestions??

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm (6 years ago)

      I’m not the best person to ask for advice on this, Julia…lol… Allegra and Ruby are allowed on the counters, and on the dining room table… However, they’ve never shown much interest in either. Maybe because I don’t try to stop them from being up there – after all, what fun is it if the human doesn’t care?

      Reply
  7. Caren Gittleman
    March 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm (6 years ago)

    I have always thought that using a squirt bottle is cruel. Don’t and won’t do it!

    I find a resounding “No” sometimes accompanied by clapping my hands has ALWAYS done the trick and I never had significant behavior problems with either of my cats.

    Reply
    • Erin E.
      February 17, 2014 at 6:17 am (4 years ago)

      That’s all you have to do- cats and dogs. YOU are the master – they will respect and love you if you always think on their level – water bottles? Seriously? Never.

      Reply
  8. catherine turley
    March 29, 2012 at 1:37 pm (6 years ago)

    i will try the other solutions for some, but the squirt bottle has worked to my satisfaction for a couple of cats. like punishments for children, what works for one may not work for another. it’s all about trial and error.

    Reply
  9. Debbie Becker
    March 29, 2012 at 9:32 am (6 years ago)

    Sorry! Anyway in conjunction with a stern “no chew” seems to work. Squirt bottles just seem to frustrate me and my cat more. I threw them all out.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 29, 2012 at 10:09 am (6 years ago)

      Good for you, Debbie. I’m not familiar with No Chew, but all of these products work on the same principle: they taste nasty to the cat. Of course, some cats, like Allegra, just get a taste, wrinkle their noses, and keep on chewing anyway (she did as a kitten).

      Reply
  10. Debbie Becker
    March 29, 2012 at 9:29 am (6 years ago)

    I have a cat that chews everything. I have found using a product called No Chew works pretty good in conjunction with a stern “n

    Reply
  11. Deborah Julian
    March 29, 2012 at 8:34 am (6 years ago)

    We tried the squirt bottle with our cat Billy when he was a kitten. He was so food crazy (he’d been abandoned), he would jump onto the stove while I was cooking! As Jackson said, we realized he learned not to do this while we were looking. Fortunately, he outgrew that behavior.

    Now we have another problem with our cat Sammy, who likes to chew through electrical cords. When we first adopted him we had to replace phone chargers, back up hard drives–all kinds of things whose cords had been destroyed by Sam. I started putting bitter apple on cords and it stopped for several years so that I no longer apply the bitter apple. But this morning my husband discovered his laptop cord was chewed through. Here we go again! And this is a cat who doesn’t like chunky canned food-but cords no problem! I think I know why he was acting out. I was sick for a few days and didn’t play with the cats as much as usual. Also our cat Billy had some health issues and got a bit more attention from us. Do I apply bitter apple forever?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 29, 2012 at 10:08 am (6 years ago)

      I think you already answered your own question, Debbie: Sammy probably didn’t get enough play time while you were sick and focused on Billy. I hope you’re both feeling better!

      I’ve become a firm believer in play therapy: structured playtime, a couple of times a day. Try it with Sammy and see if it helps. Most likely, the chewing is just a way for him to get rid of excess energy.

      Reply
  12. maru
    March 29, 2012 at 7:22 am (6 years ago)

    Actually I used it once at home, a situation involving a caged bird and three cats, and it worked. The bird is still alive and the cats still talk to me. I don’t think my black prince thought of me worse then than when I have to give him his antacid, but I have tried it just once, surprise was part of the effect, me thinks.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 29, 2012 at 10:05 am (6 years ago)

      I think you’re right – the surprise effect worked in your favor. I’m glad the bird survived!

      Reply
  13. Max the Quilt Cat
    March 29, 2012 at 6:27 am (6 years ago)

    So true…. HH tried the squirt bottle with Knuckles one time. He loved it. He came running toward if as if to say, “Meeeee…. Squirt me!” Obviously the squirt bottle doesn’t work here for other reasons. Thanks for a great post.

    pawhugs, Max

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 29, 2012 at 10:05 am (6 years ago)

      How interesting – two pro-squirt bottle votes from cats. Of course, that pretty much rules them out as a deterrent for that reason, and not the ones Jackson mentioned!

      Reply
  14. Spunky Doodle
    March 29, 2012 at 4:36 am (6 years ago)

    I actually like it! It cools me of a little and it’s fun to see my dad get frustrated as he squirts and squirts at me and I just sit their looking at him.

    Reply

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