Ahhh, the spray bottles and cats. I remember when I first got Zoloft, people were suggesting I get one to correct all sorts of things I didn’t want him doing. I’ll admit that I tried it about three times until something about it just felt wrong and I never used it again. The poor guy looked scared and he would just go right back to doing whatever it was I was trying to stop. If only there was another way to address unwanted behaviors in cats…
Well, good news: there are many, many better ways out there! Best of all, other methods are much more effective, don’t create fear in your cat, and are much less likely to backfire.
A common but problematic suggestion
First off, let’s establish one thing: I don’t think most cat parents that use spray bottles are bad people. It’s a very commonly suggested tactic and it can appear to work by temporarily interrupting a behavior. Plus, it makes intuitive sense: if I followed you around with a squirt gun and sprayed you every time you did something, you’d probably knock it the heck off.
Because it’s such a commonly used tactic, it seems that whenever a cat behavior problem is brought up that the squirt bottle is suggested right away. It being common doesn’t mean you should or even will want to use the squirt bottle once you understand the many problems it can cause.
What are the problems with using a squirt bottle?
Let’s start with the most obvious problem with using a squirt bottle: it causes your cat to be afraid. I’d like to think most cat parents don’t want their cat to exist in a state of fear so I hope that’s a decent amount of motivation to stop using it, but I also recognize how frustrating behavior problems in cats can be. One can become desperate to stop them so causing a bit of fear may not be that big of a deal, right?
Stress is bad
Unfortunately, cats often develop a fearful response to the source of their fear. While that may be the squirt bottle, your cat will pretty quickly realize that you are the one behind the squirt bottle and become fearful of you. That will not only damage your bond with your cat, but as fear is associated with many behavior problems in cats it may lead to a bigger problem.
Another layer to this problem comes if your cat doesn’t associate the squirt with you but with something or someone else. For example, if your squirt your cat when they are fighting with another cat or even looking at another cat, they may develop a fearful association with the other cat. That’s going to make the problem much, much worse or create an even bigger problem.
Squirt bottles don’t work
Looking at squirt bottles from a different perspective besides your cat’s wellbeing is reflecting on if they actually get results. People on the internet will swear that a squirt bottle works to stop a behavior. I actually disagree because what people usually describe is the behavior being temporarily interrupted.
Your cat may be stunned or stop the behavior while you’re there, but people who claim the spray bottle works typically only note it working while they’re there. If you aren’t home, chances are your cat is likely right back on the counter. You can easily test this by setting up a camera to watch your cat when you’re away. That isn’t actually working as far as I’m concerned!
While in the moment it may seem helpful, in order for it to continue to work, you have to be there with the squirt bottle to squirt them. You’ll likely to continue to notice your cat doing the behavior. For many behaviors, such as scratching your furniture, your cat is exhibiting a natural cat behavior. Your cat is going to try to scratch things so you’re not actually addressing the underlying cause. You’re just creating a frustration response in your cat and the behavior will continue. Getting a high quality scratching post is much more likely to address the underlying problem. For other behavior problems, looking for the underlying function of the behavior is much more likely to work.
Spray bottles can make behavior worse
As if the above weren’t reason enough to ditch the spray bottle for more effective ways of modifying behavior, squirt bottles have another downside: you may actually reinforce the unwanted behavior.
While your cat may not enjoy the water jet itself (and keep in mind some cats like playing with water), they may like the attention they’re getting from you. If the enjoyment of the attention outweighs the discomfort or fear that comes with the squirt bottle (or if your cat enjoys playing with water), this is actually going to increase the behavior. You are doing the exact opposite of what you want.
Besides the attention itself, your cat may think the spray bottle is a fun game. Kittens, young adult cats, and especially energetic cats may misinterpret the spray as an attempt at play. This becomes a game to them and they’ll start doing the unwanted behavior more and more in order to start the fun game. It doesn’t really matter if you intend it to be a game or not as it’s your cat’s interpretation of it that matters.
Even if your cat doesn’t like the spray bottle and doesn’t think it’s a game, using it can increase arousal in the cat. For many unwanted behaviors, including cats biting or cats fighting, you may actually increase the chances of a more serious injury. If you make your cat becomes more energized, they’re going to be more likely to escalate from a situation where they would have just scratched to biting or may feel more of a need to defend themselves. This is especially true in the case of young cats that are experiencing play aggression as using a spray bottle will worsen the biting.
What can you do instead of using a spray bottle?
I’ve already hinted at this, but the key to addressing unwanted behaviors is to reframe your thinking. To quote Pam Johnson-Bennett, think like a cat and try to figure out what need your cat is trying to meet with the behavior. It could be looking for a stylish place to climb or for you to play with a fun toy with them. Addressing the underlying need is much more likely to get you the results you want, maintain your bond with your cat, and not create additional problems.
My favorite strategy involves changing your focus on what you are trying to do as it will give you much better results than using a squirt bottle on your cat: focus on what you want your cat to be doing. Work on encouraging an acceptable behavior rather than just trying to discipline them for doing something you don’t want. You could use silver vine powder to draw them into a scratching post or use clicker training to teach them what behaviors you want the cat to be doing. You’ll ultimately like the results much better!
If you aren’t able to figure out the problem, working with your veterinarian or a qualified cat behavior consultant like myself can help you figure out what to do.