Enforcing No-Cat Zones

Top tips for keeping kitty happy -- and off your furniture, counters, bladder, and bed.

From the WebMD Archives

Your kitchen counter, dining room table, your bladder in the middle of the night: There's lots of places you'd rather your cat didn't go.

Yet cats don't respond well to "stay off, because I said so." Does that mean you're doomed to kitty fur in your quiche or 2 a.m. wake-up calls each night?

It doesn't. WebMD turned to cat behaviorists, veterinarians, and cat-loving members of WebMD’s pet message board and gathered their tips for enforcing your no-cat zones.

Create No-Cat Zones Positively

Sure, we said NO-cat zones, but when training your kitty you really need to come from a place of "yes."

Positive reinforcement "is the only way to go," writes feline behavior consultant Pam Johnson in her book Twisted Whiskers: Solving Your Cat's Behavior Problems. Positive reinforcement will help your cat get what she needs -- but in the way you want.

That means never hitting your cat, which is "worse than meaningless," say Paul D. Pion, DVM, and Gina Spadafori in their pet article "Changing Behavior." Hitting your cat just makes a bad situation worse "by making your cat stressed out and afraid of you."

Along with positive reinforcement, you'll probably also need remote control training tools (also called adverse training) to enforce no-cat zones. This might mean putting hot pepper sauce on those electrical wires kitty likes to chew, or placing foil on the couch corner kitty claws. At its heart this is negative training, but it's a kind your cat won't connect with you, the person she loves and trusts.

Now, armed with time, patience, and the following tips, you should be all able to train kitty to respect your no-cat zones and to live in closer harmony with you.

5 Tips for Creating No-Cat Zones

First, check for obvious causes. If a normally compliant cat has recently started urinating on the bed -- despite a clean box -- kitty could have a urinary tract problem or bladder stones. If you've started finding kitty snoozing atop a basket of clean, dryer-warmed laundry, your cat might be cold or dealing with arthritis pain. Before going through the effort of enforcing no-cat zones, be sure your kitty isn't trying to tell you something. Have your cat checked out by her vet, then start training with a clean slate.

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Then, be reasonable.Some temptations are too great for any cat -- just like that chocolate cake in the fridge is a temptation for you. If your usually well-behaved feline drags defrosting steaks off the kitchen counter, find another place to defrost those steaks. If kitty keeps rejecting a dirty litter box, commit to keeping it clean. Being reasonable helps your cat help you.

Give kitty alternatives, also called redirection. Cats need to scratch, climb, and curl up; it's in their nature. So let them, but on your terms.

  • Scratching .Fluffy scratches things to expend energy, mark her territory, even manicure her claws, things she needs to do. So let her, but give her own special places for it, like scratching posts covered in carpet or sisal, and cardboard scratch pads. Then get a quick lesson from your vet in how to trim kitty's claws -- it's not as hard as you think and can be done in less than a minute once you know how. You can also look into getting nail caps (also called claw caps) for kitty. These colorful plastic sleeves fit easily over your cat's claws and prevent damage when kitty scratches.
  • Climbing. Not all cats are climbers, but some scale curtains as if they were catnip mountains. The answer for these thrill-seekers might be more play time with you to expend some of that pent up energy, tall cat trees, and sisal-wrapped kitty poles (easy to construct yourself).
  • Curling up where you don't want them. If you don't want kitty snoozing on your warm laptop or on your pillow, give her other toasty spots to while away the day. Think of cat trees with multiple levels, kitty beds, and window perches placed in sunny spots or tucked away in warm, quiet places.

Be consistent. If kitty is allowed on the dining room table when no one's eating there, but that spot is verboten during dinner time, guess what? Your cat has no way of grasping the difference. So be consistent. If you want a place to be a no-cat zone, it must be a no-cat zone all the time, writes feline behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett in her book, Think Like a Cat.

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Use water, loud noises, and other aversive training tools. If kitty won't stay off your desk or keeps cruising the counters, it's time to bring out your averse training toolkit, say the pros at the Humane Society of the United States, including bad smells and tastes, unpleasant textures, and surprises like loud sounds or water.

  • Bad smells like cologne, perfume, or citrus scents

Some cats just don't care for strong smells, so use their natural aversion to aid your no-cat zone cause. To help keep your feline friend from scratching the couch or jumping on counters, squeeze a little lemon or orange zest on these spots, or sprinkle coarsely chopped citrus around the area. You can also dip a few cotton balls in something strong-smelling, poke some holes in a margarine container, and place that container where you don't want kitty to be.

Be careful which strong-smelling products you use as deterrents; some citrus oil extracts, for example, can be fatal to cats.

  • Bad tastes like hot sauce or one of the nontoxic sprays or ointment you can find at pet supply stores

To keep kitty's pearly whites where they belong -- on the food, catnip, and toys -- and away from electric cords and other no-nos, try dabbing these areas with a little hot sauce, peppermint oil (not extract), or Bitter Apple. Your cat's senses are sharp, so you don't need to use much.

  • Unpleasant textures like nubby vinyl carpet runner, duct tape, rocks, sticky-backed shelf paper, aluminum foil, anything that won't feel good to your cat's paws

It's not the most elegant solution in the short term, but you can also enforce no-cat zones by covering surfaces with textures cats don't like. Try mounting foil or shelf paper (sticky-side out) onto the corners of kitty's favorite furniture. When your furry friend no longer claws there, remove the deterrent. Not everyone is a fan of foil or plastic as a way to create no-cat zones, however. Johnson sites the possibility of a cat swallowing these, resulting in serious intestinal damage. Use caution if you know your cat likes to chew on such items.

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Sometimes textures can actually be the source of your problem. If your cat wakes you nightly by jumping on your bed (or bladder), for example, it could be the nubby softness of your comforter that kitty adores. If that's the case, try another comforter, or just give kitty yours -- preferably somewhere else!

  • Surprises: Loud sounds and water: Think whistles, a can of pennies or pebbles, pot lids, a book dropped on the floor, hand clapping, or a blast of canned air. Not all feline behaviorists are fans of enforcing no-cat-zones with surprise tactics, but for some cats these stronger tools work well.

If your cat is a counter cruiser, you can surprise her the next time she starts leaping by confronting her with a bunch of noisy pot lids unevenly balanced over the counter on their handles. You can also lie in wait for her next leap and startle her with a blast from an air horn, a dropped book, a squirt of water, or a vigorous shake of a pebble- or penny-filled can. Be sly, you don't want kitty associating these unpleasant surprises with you.

Note: Never spray water in kitty's face or ears. And it goes without saying that if you've got a nervous cat, surprises aren't a good way to deter unwanted behavior. In the end, a skittish cat can become so nervous he may not only steer clear of your no-cat zones, but of entire rooms of the house.

When you tempt your feline friend with great smells, ask kitty to stop being a cat, or are inconsistent, your cat is going to misunderstand your intentions. But armed with kindness and persistence, you can clear up these misunderstandings and get back to coexisting in harmony.

WebMD Pet Health Feature Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on February 26, 2010

Sources

SOURCES:

Johnson-Bennett, P. Think Like a Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat, NOT a Sour Puss, Penguin Books, 2000.

Veterinary Partner: "The Root of Unwanted Behavior," "Changing Behavior," "Flea Control for Ferrets."

ASPCA: "Keeping Your Cat Off Countertops and Tables," "Cat Behavior Q&A: June 20, 2008."

Humane Society of the United States: "Just Say No: Aversive Training Your Cat."

Johnson, P. Twisted Whiskers: Solving Your Cat's Behavior Problems, The Crossing Press, 1994.

Pet Education: "Citrus Oil Toxicity in Dogs and Cats."

HealthyPet.com: "Flea Control Products."

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