Should I use a spray bottle to train my cat?
Your cat, who hates to get wet, will jump down from the counter and be wary of ever leaping up there ever again. The worst thing that happened to your cat (you tell yourself), is that he got a little damp.
Problem solved, right?
Spray bottle “training” doesn’t work, even if it appears to work some of the time. I’ll clarify why, in a minute.
Worse, using a spray bottle is not as humane as you think it is. In fact, this form of training, called “positive punishment” by psychologists and animal trainers, can actually have all kinds of unintended negative side effects.
Let me explain.
Yes, cats can be trained
The question of the spray bottle has to start with how cats are trained, which some people say can’t be done.
I don’t know where people got the idea that cats can’t be trained. This video of the Savitsky Cats on America’s Got Talent should put that fallacy to rest.
Cats can be trained, but they're not dogs
I think the problem is that dogs are so easily trained, that cats seem impossible to train by comparison.
But it has nothing to do with how smart cats are, or how much they wish to please us.
Dogs and cats are just wired differently, and this affects their participation in the training game.
It’s in a dog’s nature to work really hard for food. A dog will track prey for hours, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. So, they’re quick to “sit pretty” for a dog cookie, once they understand that’s all they have to do for a bit of food.
It’s in a cat’s nature, on the other hand, to conserve energy. Cats sleep all day, briefly exerting themselves for short hunts. Considering that a mouse only has about 30 calories, it doesn’t make good biological sense to burn 300 calories in the pursuit of 30.
So, it’s not that cats aren’t smart or agreeable. It’s just that working really hard for food just isn’t their lifestyle.
Cats are being trained all the time
In fact, cats are so smart, they’re being “trained” all the time, whether we realize it or not. They are learning from us and about us in almost every interaction. Unfortunately, when it comes to the squirt bottle, we’re not teaching them what we think we’re teaching them.
When your cat hears your alarm go off in the morning and jumps on your face, it might be because he’s been “trained” that the alarm means you’re heading into the bathroom, his favorite place.
When your cat comes running when you open the kitchen cabinet next to the fridge (where you keep the cat treats), it’s probably because you’ve inadvertently “trained” her that the squeak from the cabinet hinge means snack time.
You’re getting trained, too
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Before you get too smug about it, you’re getting trained, too.
(Try an automatic cat feeder if this a problem, like this one by PETLIBRO.)
But mutual “training” is a good thing
But it’s all good, because “training” is a kind of communication. It says, “I want you to do this, but not this.”
When it flows in both directions, cat and guardian understand each other better, enjoy living with each other better, and have a deeper bond.
What does a spray bottle really teach?
The problem with “training” cats, is that sometimes what we think we are training, is not what we’re training.
But the spray bottle works like a charm!
Let’s say your cat is on the kitchen counter, and you don’t want her to be. Or let’s say she’s scratching your brand-new sofa, and you’d like her to stop. Or maybe she’s meowing non-stop for her breakfast, and you’d like to sleep another hour.
People who use spray bottles think they are training a cat that something unpleasant happens when they jump on the counter, claw the furniture, meow early in the morning, or perform whatever behavior their humans find objectionable.
They say things like, “The spray bottle worked like a charm! I’ve never seen the cat on the counter since that time I sprayed him!”
Or they say, “She knows what the spray bottle means! All I have to do is grab the spray bottle, and she goes flying off the counter.”
What you are really training, when you use a squirt bottle
When you use a spray bottle to squirt water on your cat, what you are really teaching your cat is that you are not a safe person to be around when you have a spray bottle in your hand.
Read that again, if you’re still not sure that using a spray bottle isn’t a great idea.
You are teaching your cat that you are not a trustworthy person. You do unpleasant, unexpected things. You are the reason why he is now wet and uncomfortable. You can be mean.
Not the spray bottle. Not the walking on the counter, or the scratching, or the meowing. YOU.
What does spraying water on your cat really accomplish?
First, let me tell you what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t stop the behavior you are trying to stop.
It doesn’t, for example, keep a cat off the kitchen counter. It may keep the cat off the counter when you are in the room and holding a spray bottle. But unless you stand near the counter with a spray bottle in your hand 24/7 for the rest of your life, you will not keep your cat off the counter with a spray bottle.
The minute you leave the house, or the room, or you leave the spray bottle somewhere else, your cat will probably hop right back on the counter.
Here’s what spraying your cat with water will actually do:
- It will make your cat wet.
- It will cause your cat to become afraid of you.
- It will damage your bond with your cat.
- It will prevent your cat from trusting you in the future.
- It may cause your cat to double down on whatever behavior you are trying to prevent, when you are not around.
- For some cats, it will start a perverse game of “what else can I do to get myself sprayed?”
- It will cause some cats to transfer the behavior, i.e. scratch a different piece of furniture.
Why “positive punishment” doesn’t work with cats
Psychologists and animal trainers use a variety of terms to describe methods of influencing behavior in another living thing.
Spraying a cat with water is considered “positive punishment,” which is a funny term, because it almost makes it sound like it’s a good thing. It only means that you are introducing something – in this case the spray bottle – as a way of discouraging a behavior. Spanking a child for misbehavior is another example of positive punishment.
This is different from “positive reinforcement,” which means you are introducing something – say, a delicious cat treat – as a way of encouraging a behavior. Promising to take a child out for an ice cream cone if they sit quietly in the cart at the grocery store is an example of positive reinforcement.
Cats, as a rule, do NOT respond well to punishment in any form. Punishment is not an effective way to train a cat.
Also, positive punishment requires consistency. If your cat can perform the behavior some of the time without a punishment – say, scratching the couch when you’re at work, or asleep – then your cat will not learn the desired behavior.
Punishment can cause other behavior problems
Cats are sensitive beings who easily become stressed or anxious. Spraying a cat, who does not like to be surprised, or who does not like to get wet, with water, can cause her to become stressed or anxious.
Stress and anxiety not only make for a miserable life for a cat, but they can cause the cat to start engaging in behaviors that might be even more objectionable than the original behavior you were trying to stop.
So, if you start off with one cat problem, and you use a spray bottle to try to “fix” it, you may very well end up with one or two far more difficult-to-live-with problems.
You might actually need to use a spray bottle one day
The final problem with using a spray bottle is that you might actually need to use one on your cat one day!
Some cat medications actually need to be sprayed on. The last thing you need is a cat who becomes terrified of you with a spray bottle in your hand.
Habituating your cat to the idea that getting wet is a punishment is also a bad idea. You may actually need to bathe your cat one day, too.
What to do instead of using a spray bottle
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. It makes me wonder if the simplicity of the spray bottle has something to do with its appeal. Is your cat doing something you don’t like? Just spritz him with water! Problem solved!
Cats have their own biological and personal imperatives that are very different from ours. You don’t have a need to scratch furniture, but your cat might. You don’t have a need to perch on high places, but your cat might. You go to work all day, so you’re rarely bored, but your indoor cat might be very bored.
Understand your cat. Job #1 is attempting to understand your cat, and what she is getting from the behavior you don’t like.
Is he jumping on the counter because he likes a bird’s-eye view? Or because he’s hungry, and he’s looking for crumbs? Or because he’s bored, and searching for crumbs is a little like hunting? Or because he needs attention and he knows jumping on the counter gets a rise out of you?
The exact same behavior may be performed by different cats, for different reasons.
The “why” of any cat behavior may take a little sleuthing, but no one knows your cat as well as you do.
Consider ways to meet your cat’s needs. Think about how you can meet your cat’s needs in a way that works for you, too.
Is there a cat scratcher that you can buy that is comprised of a similar material to the sofa your cat loves to scratch so much? Can you provide an extra-tall cat tree for your cat to climb instead of the counter? Can you find fun, interesting puzzle feeders for a cat who is bored or hungry?
Some products to consider:
Reinforce the preferred behavior. Leave special treats on the new cat tree. Play with a favorite toy with a cat AFTER he has jumped off the counter.
I’ve heard this beautifully described as attaching a “yes” to every “no.”
Humanely discourage an unwanted behavior. Find humane ways to make the unwanted cat behavior less appealing to the cat. Put carpet runner nubby-side-up on the counters. Put sticky tape on sofa leg your cat loves to scratch. Cover a favorite pee-spot on the carpeting with a heavy bowl or box.
Some products to consider:
A final word on living with cats
Living with cats can be deeply gratifying. Their silly antics can lighten any mood, and their affections can soften the hardest hearts.
But living with another person, let alone a member of another species, can, at times, be deeply frustrating. Sometimes, they just want to do what they want to do, and it's completely at odds with what is important to you.
Whatever steps you take to solve a problem with your cat, should respect two basic tenets of cat guardianship:
1. Protecting the health and safety, and mental and emotional well-being of this creature you've been entrusted with, and
2. Protecting the precious bond between you.
If you find your frustration spiraling out of control, or if you feel unable to "fix" a problem you just can't live with, reach out to a professional. It's the responsible, loving thing to do.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 Munkevica, Signe, and Maris Munkevics. “Is Training a Cat Harder than Training a Dog?” Pet, 21 June 2023, pet-happy.com/why-cat-training-is-harder-than-dog-training/.
 Bradshaw J. Normal feline behaviour: … and why problem behaviours develop. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2018;20(5):411-421. doi:10.1177/1098612X18771203. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1098612X18771203
 Kristina A. O’Hanley, David L. Pearl, Lee Niel, Risk factors for aggression in adult cats that were fostered through a shelter program as kittens, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 236. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168159121000381
 King, Ingrid. “Squirt Bottles, Punishment and Cat Behavior.” Conscious Cat, 26 June 2023, consciouscat.net/squirt-bottles-punishment-and-cat-behavior/.
 “It’s Time to Stop Spraying Cats with Water!” Feline Behavior Solutions - Cat Behavior Consultant, 11 Mar. 2023, felinebehaviorsolutions.com/stop-spraying-cats-with-water/.