To Spray Or Not To Spray?

updated on 17 January 2023

Spoiler: The Answer is Not To Spray

Ahhh, the spray bottle. I remember when I first got Z, 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. I didn't really like making my cat upset and he would just go right back to doing whatever it was I was trying to stop. If only there was another way...

Another spoiler: There is!

First off, let's establish one thing: I don't think any cat parents that use spray bottles are bad people. It's a very commonly suggested tactic and it does somewhat work (or at least it appears to, anyway). Plus, it makes 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. They're just doing the best they can! None of this post is meant to make anyone feel ashamed of having tired a squirt bottle.

Because it's such a commonly used tactic, during my behavior consultant course I researched it as part of a project. While there may be some limited situations where it could be used with caution, the squirt bottle shouldn't be the first thing you reach to when your cat is doing something naughty.

Why isn't the squirt bottle a great first line behavior modification tool? Many reasons!

Using a squirt bottle is a form of punishment. In behavior modification, we think of punishment as anything that decreases a behavior. Oftentimes punishments are not particularly pleasant so cats will avoid anything that they associate with the punishment. In the case of the squirt bottle, it could be the behavior you want to stop. It could also become associated with the squirt bottle itself. If the squirt bottle isn't present, they may go right back to doing the behavior. In order to get it to stop, you'd have to be there to squirt them every single time the cat does the behavior. You also have to time it right to get the cat to associate the squirt with the action. This is much harder than you'd think! 

The Biggest Risk

While concerns about efficacy and using the squirt bottle correctly are important, I'd argue that they aren't the main reason to avoid using the squirt bottle.

Cats can pretty easily associate being squirted with the PERSON doing the squirting. This is a great way to make your cat afraid of you and damage your relationship with your cat. Once cats are afraid of something, it can be pretty tough to remove the fearful association. Unless you want your cat to run and hide whenever you're around, this likely isn't the outcome you're hoping for. 

There are ways to use a squirt bottle that can lessen the risk that the cat would associate it with you. However, why would you risk it? The chances of it working compared to the risk of it ruining your relationship with you cat just doesn't make it worthwhile.

Z isn't afraid of me or the squirt bottle! Image: A lynx point cat sniffing a blue squirt bottle. The cat is very calm.
Z isn't afraid of me or the squirt bottle! Image: A lynx point cat sniffing a blue squirt bottle. The cat is very calm.

What Can You Do Instead?

Now the good news: There are better ways! Much, much better ways that can actually IMPROVE your relationship with your cat.

The specifics of what to do are complex and depend on what behavior you are trying to modify. The solution may involve changes to the environment, providing your cat with enrichment, or training your cat. I generally recommend people focus on using positive reinforcement techniques. This means looking at the behaviors you want your cat to be doing instead of those you don't want them to be doing and encouraging those behaviors.

Sometimes you can direct your cat to do another behavior they are trained to do. You can also use clicker training to teach them to do a behavior that is less disruptive or alter their environment so they don't even want to do the unwanted behavior anymore. Class Act Cats is here to help you figure out what behaviors may be a better alternative to direct your cat toward and teach you all about the joys of positive reinforcement. We offer consultations about specific behavior problems and will come up with a plan for your cat focused on positive reinforcement. If you cat is mostly well behaved, you can prevent problem behaviors (and learn how to correct them should they arise) with our Clicker Training package. You'll be putting the squirt bottle away and instead reaching for the clicker! Check out our services and get in touch so we can find a better way to help YOUR cat!

And save the squirt bottle for baby cacti, not cats. Image: Tiny cactus buds are being squirted by a blue squirt bottle.
And save the squirt bottle for baby cacti, not cats. Image: Tiny cactus buds are being squirted by a blue squirt bottle.

About the author: Joey Lusvardi CCBC is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. He is available for consultation in the Twin Cities or virtually wherever you are located.

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