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Stop Furniture Scratching, Counter Surfing, and Litter Box Issues

Most cat behavior problems can be treated using behavior modification strategies and verbal cueing.

Most bad feline habits take approximately three weeks to break with the right strategies. However, there are specific feline problems such as pulling out fur, aggression, and litter box issues that medical conditions may cause. In such cases, consulting a veterinarian is necessary to rule out medical problems before attempting training and other remedies to correct bad habits. If the cat is healthy, the following behavioral treatments can be used.

Try Safe Aversive Conditioning Methods for Furniture Scratching and Counter Surfing

Punishment is ineffective with cats and often generates more lousy behavior rather than reducing it due to the anxiety it causes. There are far more effective aversive conditioning strategies for undesirable cat behaviors, such as walking on kitchen counters (also known as “counter surfing”) and furniture scratching. These include:

  • Making forbidden surfaces such as kitchen counters or regularly scratched furniture unappealing by temporarily covering them with aluminum foil or double-sided sticky tape (use only non-toxic tape)
  • Creating noisemakers using soda cans with pennies inside and stacking them precariously on the forbidden surface so that when the cat jumps up, he’ll encounter unpleasant noise and falling cans (tape over any sharp edges on the tops of opened cans for safety)
  • Squirting the cat with water when catching him in the act (don’t use a Super Soaker, as the spray is too forceful—a small squirt gun is powerful enough)

There are also commercially available non-toxic products such as Sticky Paws that can be used to keep cats off kitchen counters, furniture, and plants. In addition, aversive items such as sticky tape, foil, or cans can be removed once the cat has stopped attempting to walk on or scratch the forbidden surfaces.

Use Verbal Cuing Rather Than Scolding

Yelling at a cat will confuse or frighten him and probably do little to change the bad behavior. Instead, owners should use a consistent word or phrase that they wouldn’t usually use in conversation (i.e., a nonsense phrase or one word repeated several times) whenever the cat misbehaves. This phrase should be spoken in an unusual tone of voice so that it becomes a cue to signal displeasure. This verbal cue should only be used when the owner catches the cat engaging in undesirable behavior.

Provide Alternatives for Natural Behaviours

Cats need to scratch, and each cat should have his scratch post. The same goes for litter boxes. Experts agree that each cat needs one litter box plus a spare. Cats may urinate or defecate on the floor or furniture because they view a single litter box as the property of another household cat. Cats are also less likely to chew on houseplants when they have access to indoor-growing cat grass. In addition, providing active cats with plenty of toys to practice hunting behaviors can reduce the tendency to hunt live animals.

Don’t Reward Bad Behaviour with Attention.

Cats sometimes engage in certain undesirable behaviors such as counter surfing or furniture scratching to get attention, so providing positive or negative attention in response to those behaviors will reinforce them. Getting up and leaving the room when an attention-seeking cat misbehaves is more effective.

Reduce Stress, Particularly When Dealing with Litter Box Issues, Aggression, or Fur Pulling

Like children, pets may act up due to stress and generalized anxiety. Identifying stressors in a cat’s life and eliminating as many as possible can be beneficial, and providing some extra quality time and affection also helps. Unfortunately, some unavoidable stressors, such as moving to a new home, may cause a temporary flare-up of bad behavior in an otherwise well-behaved cat. Still, such lapses should not last long with love, attention, and gentle corrective measures.

Make Use of Pheromones and Enzymatic Cleaners for Litter Box Problems

Behavior problems such as spraying, urinating on the floor, or scratching furniture often occur after moving to a new home. The cat feels a need to claim the new territory, mainly if other animals have lived there previously. Commercially available products such as Feliway that contain cat pheromones can reduce or eliminate this behavior. Cats will also tend to mark spots where scents are leftover from previous animals. Scrubbing areas where the cat sprays or urinates with an enzymatic cleaner such as Nature’s Miracle reduces the likelihood that the cat will continue marking those spots.

Seek Advice from the Experts if Necessary

Cat behavior experts can advise on behavior problems that are resistant to training. Many animal shelters and colleges of veterinary medicine offer free hotlines that owners can call to speak to animal behavior specialists. These specialists can discuss options and provide additional tips and ideas. Certain cat-fancy and animal-protection associations offer help by phone or online as well. One such service is the Dumb Friends League’s Online Counsel Request Form. Pet owners can fill out an e-mail to receive free advice within 2-4 days.