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Scare tactics break cat of bad habits
Dr. Spiegel: I have a two-year-old neutered male cat. How can I teach him not to get into and on things he is not supposed to be on? He generally stays off the kitchen table and counters, etc., and if he's caught on them he realizes that he isn't supposed to be there. He is very bad, however, about getting on certain other obstacles and, in particular, digging up houseplants. His liking for dirt and plants is so great that he will get up on things he normally wouldn't to get to them. I have tried scolding, light smacking, seclusion, and water bottles, but the only thing he has learned is to break the rules when I'm not looking. Thank You. C.D., Dover
C.D.: Cats will invariably do what they want when they want to; but you can have a tremendous influence on what your cat will do and won't do by learning "what your cat likes to do/wants to do" and "what your cat does not like or is afraid to do" and influencing those two primary factors. The only truly effective way to affect the behaviors of your cat when you're not around, with the exception of pharmacodynamic agents, is through the imaginative and highly logical art of booby-trapping. You can also affect the occurrence of some cat behaviors through nutritional and energy-level management modifications as well as environmental changes. But to work on an animal's motivation to engage in a behavior directly, you must attack it head on, confronting the animal with the situation and letting him see for himself that he does not like to do it. Through booby-trapping, whenever he tries to do it, something happens which scares him so much that he does not want to attempt to do it again. For a long established behavior, he will likely need to experience this fright a few times to fully absorb the lesson. So how do you spook a cat? Cats rely very heavily on their sense of sight. It is their vision which tells them where things are and what those things are doing. And that information lets them know whether what is going on out there affects them or is of interest to them. Cats are seldom startled; but when they are, they usually have a quick and sudden reaction... that is, to flee. They will really only fight back if they see or have seen the object that is a clear target to attack. So if there is no visual target... that is, if we just utilize a sound to startle them, they will have nothing against which to mount an attack (which would be a rare action anyway), and they will just flee, or run for cover if they become nervous/anxious after being spooked. They will hide for a length of time that directly parallels their level of anxiety. Don't expect that they'll venture out before they feel safe and secure enough to. What makes a sound that will scare a cat? You have probably seen for yourself that falling pots clanging against one another will do it, as will the sudden sharp hiss of an unseen snake, or the loud burst of an overinflated balloon. Just like when you hear a sudden bomb burst or someone creeps up behind you and shouts, "Boo!", a cat experiences a rush of fear and will flee. The idea is to make them think they are about to lose one of their nine lives. Timing is critical. Providing the scare when the cat is about to or just beginning to engage in the troublesome behavior is essential for eliminating that particular behavior. Photoelectric beams can be utilized in these situations with very good outcomes. They can be rigged up in many settings to emit a loud sharp alarm that will scare cats into not wanted to jump up on counters or mess with houseplants when they trip the beam protecting these areas. Other imaginative schemes can certainly be arranged depending on the set up of your home. Physical barriers and deterrents can be utilized too. Putting a few layers of rough 3/4-1 inch rocks on the dirt surface of houseplants will usually deter the behavior you have described, and certain odors can repel cats from areas. Providing a positive outlet for the behavior is a very healthy accompaniment to the above scare tactics. Consider putting some dirt (firmly packed) in a covered litterbox, so that he can scratch and dig there to his heart's content without disrupting your plants or getting up on the counters.