by Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
For many cats counter-surfing is a fun sport with multiple rewards, however their owners don’t always see it in quite the same light! The most commonly-accessed counters are in the kitchen where there is almost always attention with the possibility of a food snack or a chase game as a bonus.
What prompts individual cats to counter-surf can be different; the main reasons are for reward. Reward can be in the attention – even negative attention – food, safe place to be away from others, option of height, access to a window or a different view of home, or boredom. In some cases the need for food or safety may trigger the action which can then become a habit.
Apart from issues of hygiene there are also safety issues for counter-surfers. Sharp implements, dangerous foods and hot stoves as well as the possibility of slipping and falling awkwardly from a low height with insufficient time to right themselves.
As with all training and behavioural issues, the first step is to decide what new behaviour is acceptable to both you and your cat and to implement that before stopping the surfing. If possible identify the most possible reason for surfing; giving an acceptable substitute will make the change easier for all.
If height, vertical surfaces and a good view are priority, create alternative spaces in other areas of the home that provide the same, or better, opportunities for climbing, resting, height and view. Tall scratch posts with multiple levels, tunnels, and toys are good, or window seats at different heights and windows, even cosy beds placed on bookshelves or on top of wall units can be made cat-friendly. If these places are near the family area it is more likely that the cats will use them and be comfortable. Randomly place a few treats, toys, catnip or Happy Cat to encourage the cats to keep using the spaces.
If the priority is attention and interaction then look for a suitable place in the kitchen that can be easily accessed such as the top of the fridge or cupboards. If nothing is readily available then consider a barstool near the window or a window seat which can be mounted on the side of a cupboard or on a door. Add a few treats, toys or catnip and encourage the cat to use the space. When the cat is in the allocated space she can have attention, talk to her and acknowledge her. When she leaves the space she is immediately put down on the floor and ignored for a minute, then placed back in the acceptable spot with attention. This rewards the good behaviour and ignores unacceptable behaviour which will eventually disappear. However, each time there is any attention outside of the acceptable area, even negative attention, it is a ‘reward’ and the behaviour will continue.
For cats that need attention a good interactive games session before you want to use the kitchen is a good idea, although not always practical. Another option is to use a puzzle feeder for food while you are working. This will distract the cats and leave you to use the kitchen safely. In order for this to work the cats must be hungry enough to want to eat, so leave at least 4-6 hours, depending on the feeding schedule of kittens and elderly cats, between the last meal and the time you want to use the kitchen.
The occasional surfer can often be dissuaded by using the counter as the place for medicating and applying tick, flea and worm tablets, cleaning eyes, ears and teeth. It’s not a good idea to volunteer for this space if something unpleasant happens each time! Keep a few items handy for a quick eye or ear wash and the cats will choose not to jump up.
Cats that are bored or need more stimulation require more involvement and multiple options. Puzzle feeders are a good way to reduce the need for destructive behaviour, as well as training, opportunity to go outdoors, intense interactive game sessions daily. Sometimes a companion cat can help to entertain these cats.
Once a new routine has been started, take away some of the reward for counter-surfing. Clear everything interesting off the counter, put all food away, close the curtains so that the rewards are less. For single-cat households setting up some ‘traps’ may work, piles of plastic or metal dishes are difficult to walk on or that fall with a noise. These must work when you are there or not so the effect is not associated with you. In multi-cat households this may be counter-effective if a timid or non-surfer cat accidentally gets the end result of a trap.
With patience, persistence and time most counter-surfing can be brought under control. The success really depends on the dedication of the owners, the cats will always be looking for an opportunity to get back up.