How to Keep Your Cat Off the Counter

By PetMD Editorial on Feb. 16, 2016

By Rachel Semigran

Despite cats’ reputations for being shall we say, “selective” when it comes to their taste for human companionship, any cat parent will tell you cats are incredibly social — when you want them to be and when you don’t want them to be. Though feline affection is often comforting and absolute purr-fection, sometimes their need to be around you at all times isn’t always convenient, especially when you’re trying to cook. Ah yes, a cat’s love of the kitchen countertop is almost as great as its love of a pocket of sunshine on the floor or the sound of a food can opening.

As sweet as their intentions may be in nuzzling up while you’re baking or knocking a roll of foil about while you pack lunch, a cat on the counter can be a nuisance—and sometimes a dangerous one at that. If your cat’s affinity for the countertop is causing you some concern, read ahead:

Why Do Cats Like It Up There So Much, Anyway?

According to a study out of Cornell University that explored unwanted feline behavior, cats naturally seek out high places to rest. 

"You've heard the phrase 'curiosity killed the cat,' right?," asks Dr. Aimee Simpson, Medical Director VCA Cat Hospital of Philadelphia, who explains that, "Cats are natural explorers, always wondering what's on the other side of any closed door or in this case what's up there on the counter. In the wild cats seek out higher points to observe their territory, keep an eye out for prey, and to protect themselves from predators."

Cats’ bodies are also made for jumping. According to Dr. Simpson, "Cats have large muscles in their hind limbs that allow them to extend and lengthen, and a flexible spine with shock-absorbing discs for a graceful landing." Their bodies also make it possible for them to get to that countertop without you ever noticing. According to Simpson, it takes just a fraction of a second (150ms) for a cat to take off. This explains why you go to grab the eggs, and by the time you turn around, the cat has already burrowed its face in basil. It’s endearing, but not the most ideal (or hygienic) cooking conditions.

Naturally, kitchen counters can be tempting because there’s food up there and it plays into a cat’s natural love of the hunt. If your cats are hopping up on the counter to sneak a few nibbles...or gorge themselves on a fresh tray of muffins, be sure to remove the temptation and clean up crumbs. It’s also important that, if your cat scavenges for food, all toxic human food items are put away in safe places. When chopping onion and garlic, be sure scraps or pieces aren't left out for your cat's consumption. Other items that cats need to steer clear of include chocolate, ethanol, and bread dough.

When Is This A Cause for Concern?

A cat’s love of high places is natural, but when it comes to the kitchen counter, it can be dangerous. Kitchen counters are often storage spaces for sharp objects that can harm cats. Burning-hot trays, fresh out of the oven, can also pose potential risks.

In additon, cats on the counter may be a sign of other feline health issues. "Some cats are attracted to running water from faucets. Be aware of any excessive urge for your cat to get to water," says Simpson. "Increased thirst (polydipsia) is a sign of many diseases in cats including diabetes, hyperthyroidism and kidney disease."

How Can I Change Or Train This Behavior?

Simpson says that it’s easier to train a behavior from the start rather than trying to modify, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. You’ll need a little patience and a few handy tools along the way. If your hungry kitty is licking the counter for scraps after you’ve cleaned up and stored food away, then invest in a food puzzle, or make a DIY one — they are an active and fun way to engage a cat’s love of the hunt.

For the more curious cats, there are a few ways to change their feelings toward the countertop. You can give the cats the high vantage points they desire in other parts of the house. "Some people go all out and build walking ledges around the room or install shelves for their cats to explore uncharted territory, but you can more easily provide vertical living space for your cat with a cat tree," says Simpson. "When placed near a window, a cat tree is even more entertaining for your cat."

If the kitty condos and cat trees don’t work for your feline friend, you may need to make your kitchen counter an unpleasant or unattractive place for them to be. Try covering the area with double-sided tape or aluminum foil to make it texturally undesirable. There are some commercially available products that deliver static charges or a loud tones when the cat jumps onto the area you're trying to protect. Some products also deliver a burst of unscented aerosol spray when motion is detected in the area. “After a few experiences jumping onto the modified countertop your cat will develop an avoidance behavior and you can remove the deterrent,” explains Simpson.

Positive reinforcement is key — when your cat jumps on a chair or a cat tree instead of the counter, reward them with a treat or loving pet rather than shooing them away with your hands or using a spray bottle to scare them off. 

At the end of the day, if you STILL can’t get your kitty off the counter, simply do everything you can to make it a safe environment for your cat and your family. Remove any sharp or dangerous objects and give the counter a good disinfecting wipe before and after preparing meals. No one wants cat butt on Taco Tuesday.

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