4 min.

Put down that spray bottle!

If cats were like kids and wanted to scare people at Halloween, they wouldn’t put on monster costumes. Instead they’d dress up as spray bottles or vacuum cleaners. The spray bottle has become the go-to weapon that owners use to correct bad behaviour. Several books recommend it and it’s the first advice that comes up when you go to “Dr. Google.” And yet, it may be the most ineffective method when you’re exasperated with your cat’s less-than-stellar behaviour.

Is he really afraid of the spray bottle?

In many people’s minds, the spray bottle is a perfectly acceptable way of ramping up the punishment when verbal reprimands fail to deliver. After all, it doesn’t hurt the cat. However, pet training approaches have come a long way in the last decade, and this method, which was mostly used to train dogs back in the day, has now become outdated. Cats are a lot trickier to punish and don’t fall in line as easily as dogs do. The classic cat response to punishment is simple: “You are being unpleasant right now, and if you keep this up I’m going to avoid you altogether or start fighting back.”

Because you aren’t the one directly inflicting the physical punishment, you may think that your cat doesn’t connect you to the spray bottle. Alas, you are mistaken! Because spray bottles don’t chase your cat around in your absence, your cat understands perfectly well that you’re the one dishing out the punishment—making you unpleasant in the cat’s eyes. What’s more, spray bottles aren’t an effective form of punishment with cats, even if a lot of people claim that they work because they bring the bad behaviour to an immediate halt. But the real question is: Does your cat repeat the same offense later on? If the answer is yes, then your cat hasn’t properly understood the punishment.

Does the punishment really work?

And why not? Well, first of all, the type of punishment isn’t very precise. For a cat to understand that it’s being punished for a specific behaviour, the correction must occur within 0.25 seconds of the cat acting out. Because cats live in the moment, punishing them 4 or 5 seconds after the fact will make them think they’re being punished for whatever they’re doing at that specific moment, like cleaning themselves. They won’t understand why they’re being corrected, and they’ll also become more and more nervous, thinking that they’re being punished for something different each time. This creates anxiety and often triggers behavioural problems.

And that’s not all. For a cat to understand that it must stop a specific behaviour, the punishment must be administered every time the behaviour occurs. And the reality is that so many misdeeds that require correcting will inevitably happen in your absence. Jumping up on the table is a great example. If the cat isn’t punished for being on the table because you’re not there, you don’t see it or you’re too comfortable on the sofa to act quickly enough, how will the cat understand that the table is off limits? The only thing it will understand is that it shouldn’t jump up on the table when you’re there—with the spray bottle at your side. Nothing more.

Now you might be thinking, “Okay, so if I effectively punish my cat within 0.25 seconds of the bad behaviour every single time it happens, then we’re good to go!” Not so fast. There are other factors that must also be in place for the punishment to be perfectly understood by the cat. So, in a nutshell, using a form of punishment—a spray bottle, a verbal command or a physical correction—is a highly ineffective strategy. It conveys what not to do without making it clear to your cat what it should do. It would be like taking a taxi, not giving the address to the driver and then reprimanding them when you don’t arrive at the right destination—and then repeating that process until you magically get where you need to go. You could spend your whole life in the taxi—just like you could spend your whole life punishing your cat.

What if we tried to reward him instead…

The advent of positive reinforcement methods has made it possible to train animals of all species without having to punish them. An approach like this is definitely the way to go with cats. By providing an acceptable alternative (like getting a cat tree that’s higher than the table) or reinforcing good behaviour rather than punishing poor behaviour (like rewarding them when they stay on the floor), your cat will have a better chance of understanding the rules, and you’ll both be happier for it.