Keeping Pets off Furniture and Countertops (Feline)
All feline species are accomplished athletes; domestic cats are no exception. Cats possess sharp retractable claws that enable them to climb trees and other vegetation with ease. Climbing ability permits cats to hunt birds and reptiles, and to escape danger. Cats are also able to leap astounding heights; indeed cats are sometimes able to pluck low-flying birds out of the air. Cats seem to enjoy climbing and leaping onto high vantage points when they wish to survey their territory or when they desire a warm, sunny place to rest. Consequently it is not surprising that household cats easily find their way onto furniture, countertops, and shelving, often to the chagrin of pet parents. Cats can be discouraged from encroaching on certain areas in the home but it takes dedication and ingenuity on the part of the pet parent to effectively teach the cat to stay away from these places. In some cases, pet parents may need to adjust their expectations to align with what is normal behavior for cats.
Common name: Getting on the furniture, Counter surfing
Scientific name: None
It is perfectly normal for cats to explore their environment. Most cats are inclined to climb or leap onto furniture, countertops, shelves and windowsills. They like comfortable resting places like fabric sofas and armchairs and they like to rest in high places so they can survey the area. Exploring counter and stovetops often affords cats access to tasty food. Sex and reproductive status are not factors. Age is a factor only to the extent that physically immature kittens are unable to leap and climb as well as mature adults. Breed may be a factor; some cat breeds, specifically the Ragdoll, are reputed to dislike heights and are less inclined to climb.
Climbing and leaping are normal cat behaviors and so most pet cats will explore furniture and countertops unless specifically taught to avoid specific places.
There is no predilection for this behavior based on geography.
Clinical signs (primary, most to least frequent, scientific term, synonyms)
Jumping up on furniture and countertops.
Clinical signs (secondary, most to least frequent, scientific term, synonyms)
Cause (scientific, common term)
Species-typical exploratory behavior, Food searching, counter surfing.
Organ system affected (most to least affected)
None, behavior related.
None, behavior related.
None, behavior related.
Cats are primarily terrestrial, yet they are talented climbers and leapers. Cats climb trees and other forms of vegetation to hunt birds and reptiles. Cats will ascend rapidly up a tree or other summit when chased by a predator such as a dog. Cats also like to occupy high places as they afford a better purview of the area. Consequently it should come as no surprise that household cats are inclined to jump up on tables and countertops, leap onto window sills and shelves, and sleep on comfortable beds and chairs. High places, such as the top of a refrigerator, are desirable resting areas because they are often especially warm. Many cats also learn to monitor kitchen countertops for tasty food. It can be challenging to discourage cats from walking on counters and resting on furniture because it is such a normal component of their behavioral repertoire. Pet parents can, however, teach cats to avoid forbidden places through judicious use of behavior modification.
The first step is to make sure the cat has appropriate outlets for climbing, sleeping, and surveying the environment. Cat trees with natural bark or carpeting are ideal substitutes for real tree climbing. Cats also find kitty condos with abundant comfortable sitting and sleeping areas appealing. Offer plenty of comfortable nesting beds in warm areas or with burrowing material for extra warmth. Cats that like to watch out windows or sleep in the sun appreciate commercially available kitty shelves that affix to window sills. Some even come with heaters built into the cushions.
Cats that cruise kitchen countertops for food should be fed several small meals a day or have free access to food, provided they aren't inclined to gain weight. Make sure to put all desirable food away so the cat is not reinforced when it does get on the counters.
The best method for discouraging a cat from going in banned areas is to use what are termed ‚Äúenvironmental‚Äù or ‚Äúremote‚Äù punishers. Cats are very sensitive creatures so it is never a good idea to shoo a cat away with your hands or threaten it with a spray bottle. Too often the cat just learns to be afraid of you. Instead, the ideal solution is to arrange for the environment to ‚Äúpunish‚Äù the cat directly. For instance, if your cat tends to jump from the floor onto the kitchen counter, balance some light-weight cookie sheets on the edge of the counter. When the cat jumps up, it will land on the sheets; the sheets will move and possibly topple over while the cat leaps back onto the floor. The cat should not be harmed by this experience but it will be unlikely to risk jumping onto the counter again. Commercially-available devices perform a similar function. The Snappy Trainer¬Æ is a large plastic paddle affixed to an upside-down mousetrap ‚Äì any touch will cause the mousetrap to trigger and startle the cat. The device is safe because (a) it is upside-down so the cat can't be caught in it and (b) the large paddle causes the trap to propel up in the air. Ssscat¬Æ is a motion-activated deterrent system that triggers a blast of compressed air when the cat comes within a certain distance. Cats can be deterred from sleeping on furniture by temporarily making the place less attractive. Cover the area with double-sided sticky tape or a section of clear vinyl carpet runner with the knobby feet facing up. Alternatively, the area can be covered with a Scat Mat¬Æ, a sheet of plastic that delivers a mild static charge should the cat step or lay on it. The philosophy behind environmental punishers is that the cat is startled or otherwise discouraged from returning to a particular place by something that occurs when the cat ventures into the prohibited area. The intent is to startle the cat or make the place uncomfortable ‚Äì there should be no chance of physically harming the cat. The unpleasant event occurs whether the pet parent is present or not so the cat cannot associate punishment with the pet parent.
Intractable cases of cats getting on prohibited surfaces should be seen by a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or a board certified Veterinary Behaviorist. The professional can determine how to manage the environment effectively.
The first step in keeping cats off furniture and countertops is to offer appealing substitutes. Indoor cats should have opportunities to climb and jump onto high surfaces. They should have comfortable, warm beds for resting and high places for viewing. Perpetually hungry cats should have free access to food or be fed several small meals during the day. Other foods should be put away so the cat is not reinforced for counter surfing. If necessary, safe ‚Äúenvironmental‚Äù punishers can be used to startle or otherwise discourage the cat from jumping on countertops or getting on banned pieces of furniture.
With planning and ingenuity, pet parents are often successful at keeping cats off countertops and furniture. Realize that it is ill-advised to expect to stifle the cat's normal behavior. Acceptable outlets for climbing, jumping, viewing and resting need to be provided or the cat will persist in getting onto these forbidden surfaces.
Behavioral modification can successfully manage challenges related to cats jumping up on countertops or furniture. In some cases, consultation with a veterinarian or qualified behaviorist may prove beneficial.
Overall, K. Clinical behavioral medicine for small animals. Mosby, 1997.
Thorne, C. The Waltham book of dog and cat behaviour. Butterworth-Heinemann, 1992.
Turner, D.C & Bateson, P. The domestic cat: The biology of its behaviour. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Pamela J. Reid, PhD
Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist
Steven Hansen, DVM, MS, MBA