Just say ‘no’ aversive training your cat

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As much as you love him, it can be hard to maintain warm, fuzzy feelings when your cat scratches the furniture, jumps on the counters, or gnaws on plants. Of course, he’s just doing what comes naturally. Yelling or hitting won’t deter the bad behaviour, but it will make your cat fearful of you, which is certainly not your goal. So what can you do?

Remote control

Aversive training uses textures, odours, tastes, sounds, and other methods to correct your cat’s behaviour in a way that’s unpleasant for him, but has nothing to do with you. Let’s say your cat tends to chew on electrical cords, a very dangerous habit. Smear hot sauce on the cords. He’ll quickly learn that chewing on them is no fun at all, and you’re still the good guy. In addition to deterring him from undesired behaviour, you’ll need to provide an acceptable alternative for him to express his needs. Tools of the trade A basic aversive training toolbox contains: Unpleasant textures: Nubby plastic carpet runner, duct tape, rough rocks, anything that won’t feel good to your cat’s paws. Bad tastes: Hot sauce or a non-toxic spray or ointment available at pet supply stores Bad smells: Cologne and citrus scents. Loud sounds: Whistle, can of pennies or pebbles, pot lids, book dropped on floor, hand clapping. Surprises: A squirt from a water bottle, a blast of canned air.

Using your tools

The advantages of having so many training tools are flexibility and creativity. You can pick, choose, and adapt your tools to any situation. If duct tape doesn’t work, try carpet runner. If your cat likes Bitter Apple, use hot sauce. If he ignores a squirt of water, blow a whistle. You can even combine your tools to send a really strong message.

Element of surprise

Aversives such as noises and surprises are effective training tools when you’re home to watch your cat’s movements. If you catch him considering whether or not to jump on the coffee table, kitchen counter, etc, don’t shout at him; instead, interrupt him by squirting him with water, blowing a whistle, or throwing a pillow in his direction (don’t hit him). These actions are intended to startle and distract him from his intended mission. Try to take action from outside his line of sight so he won’t associate it with you. He’ll think the coffee table did it. You can also use noises and surprises if your cat starts scratching or chewing something, tries to run out the front door, or engages in any other type of naughtiness. (Note: Don’t use surprise methods if you have a particularly timid or fearful cat. It’s not good for his nerves.)

Timing is everything

The right timing is crucial to the success of these methods. You have to catch your cat in the act in order for them to be effective. If you squirt him or blow the whistle after he’s finished, he won’t connect the consequence with his behaviour, and your effort will be wasted. But you can’t follow your cat around the house or be home 24×7 to supervise; that’s when your other tools come in handy.

Passive aversive

Passive aversives are training methods that don’t require you to be directly involved—a disagreeable odour, a bad taste, or an uncomfortable texture can make your cat think twice about doing what he’s doing. Here are some of the most common cat habits and ways to reduce or stop them:

Scratching carpet or furniture

  • Cover favoured areas with plastic carpet runner, nubby side up, until the cat stops scratching.
  • Spray areas with cologne or citrus scents, which cats don’t like and usually avoid. Test surfaces for staining by spraying on a hidden area first.

Jumping on tables, counters, etc.

  • Cover with plastic carpet runner, nubby side up.
  • Cover large pieces of cardboard with double-sided tape or loops of duct tape, then place cardboard on surfaces. Your cat won’t like his feet sticking to the tape.
  • Set a few upside-down mousetraps that will snap when he touches them, but won’t hurt him.
  • Tie some soda cans together and set them up on the surface. He’ll knock them over when he jumps up.

Chewing plants, cords, wood, etc.

  • Spray plants with Bitter Apple, cologne or citrus scents
  • Apply hot sauce, Bitter Apple ointment, or aloe gel to cords, wood, other solid surfaces

Digging in plants

  • Cover soil with aluminium foil or small, rough rocks

Feline fun

Your cat’s habits may be incompatible with your lifestyle, but they’re perfectly normal for him. Give him approved outlets for his natural behaviour so he’ll be less tempted to use your stuff. Place scratching posts near his favourite hang-outs so he won’t go for the couch or carpet. Give him a tall cat tree to satisfy his instinct to watch the world from on high. Make sure he has toys of all shapes and materials to keep him from destroying your belongings. And shower him with time and attention as often as time allows.

(This article is contributed by Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Established in 1954, HSUS seeks a humane and sustainable world for all animals; www.hsus.org)