Dear Beast Mode,
I’ve been in a battle with my cats for their entire lives. I try to keep my expectations low: Leave me alone in bed, and stay off the kitchen counters. I’ve succeeded on the first one, but the kitchen counters are proving more difficult. I say, “No! Down!” every time I hear the cats jump up on them. I’ve tried putting aluminum foil on the counters, which I read cats dislike; instead, they crumpled the foil into a ball and batted it around the room. I’ve tried shaking a plastic bottle of loose change every time they take the leap. I’ve tried picking them up and putting them in a closed room for five minutes every time they do so, but they’re extremely social cats and cry whenever this happens. I tried using a citrus-based cleaner because I read that cats dislike the smell. Nothing works, and I’ve been doing all of this since they were big enough to get atop the counters in the first place, more than eight years ago.
Short of inventing force-field technology, what can I do to keep my cats off the counters?
—Fighting Off a Feline Counterstrike
Dear Fighting Off a Feline Counterstrike,
Surely there must be a more productive outlet for your superhuman levels of perseverance than this campaign to keep your cats off the kitchen counters. Have you considered leading an overland expedition of Antarctica?
Kudos to you for not giving up, but the cats are probably unaware that you have spent close to a decade trying to teach them about boundaries. “The cats’ motivation to get on the kitchen counter is usually one of two things,” certified feline behavior consultant Ingrid Johnson tells me. “They’re seeking either food or attention.” Keeping the area clear of scraps will help with the former, but you’ve unwittingly been feeding them the latter for years. “The cats know that when they get on the counter, they’ll get your attention,” Johnson says. “Honestly, it can be a very fun game.”
You probably should have taken the hint as soon as the cats crumpled up that preventative tinfoil and played ping-pong with it. They’re having a blast, and their “annoy the human” game has outlasted some major sports leagues. (The XFL wishes it had their staying power.) “After eight years of habit, it will take a lot of diligence to undo,” Johnson says.
The most basic step is to stop encouraging the unwanted behavior. You have to untrain yourself from flipping out whenever the cats hop on the kitchen counters. Ignoring them is more effective than shaking a bottle of change, and it’s cheaper too.
The counters have been a fun playing field for years, so you’ll need to give them a worthy alternative. When you put them in a separate room, did you give them anything to do? A food puzzle or automatic toy may not provide the same thrill as moonwalking across your countertops, but these distractions can help keep their focus while you’re preparing your own dinner. If you’d rather keep them nearby, set up stools or a cat condo in the kitchen and reward them handsomely with treats whenever they sit there.
Cats are rather trainable, so long as you have the wherewithal for it (and it sounds as if you might). A popular method is “clicker training,” and it involves combining an audio cue with a reward. There are some good books that are worth reading if you’re serious about pursuing this route, but don’t expect an overnight fix. It’s possible to train cats to sit in specific locations, but Johnson recommends starting small with basic commands to make sure your cats are up for it.
In the meantime, just keep it simple. Reward desired behavior and ignore everything else. Some of history’s greatest empires have crumbled due to their stubborn attachment to a small sliver of land, so please don’t beat yourself up when the cats jump on the countertops. After eight years of confusing conflict, it’s time for a truce.