Some cat owners believe squirting water from a handheld bottle can be an effective and harmless way to teach a cat to avoid certain behaviors. The truth is that using the water bottle as a tool for disciplining cats is not a good idea. Yes, in some cases it may teach a cat to avoid certain areas in your home or even certain behaviors, but that comes with a potential price tag that you really want to avoid.
How is disciplining a cat with a water bottle supposed to work?
The concept is simple enough. Kitty does something "bad" and immediately experiences a negative outcome in the form of a harmless spray of water. That should teach her not to scratch the sofa or climb the kitchen counter again, right? And after all, what's the harm in getting some water sprayed around you? Hey, that's how theme parks keep people cool in the summer, so it can't be that bad?
When the topic comes up on our cat forums we often have members who say that spraying their cat with a water bottle did work for them. It helped them teach the cat to stop an unwanted behavior. Proponents of this method explain that you should avoid spraying the cat's face, aim for the back and try to hide the fact that you're the one operating the water bottle. While these measures could potentially help minimize the downside of water spraying, they are difficult to implement and may not work.
Why squirting Kitty with water isn't a good idea
1. It turns you into an obnoxious clown
Are you familiar with the classic water-squirting flower trick? The idea is to ask unsuspecting friends to smell that wonderful flower that's pinned on your shirt. Once anyone gets his or her face close enough, you squeeze a hidden pump with your hand which sends a squirt of water right out of the flower and into your victim's face.
How would you feel if your best friend were to pull that trick on you? In all likelihood, having water sprayed into your face without warning won't be very welcome. Chances are you will be keeping your distance from that "friend" in the future.
For your cat, that spray of water is as surprising as a squirt from a fake flower. Kitty was just being a cat, scratching to sharpen his or her claws or perhaps making good use of vertical space in your home by jumping on the counter tops. There's nothing wrong with these behaviors in the mind of a cat. From the feline point of view, you just decided to launch a very stupid sneak attack with no provocation.
2. It can hard for your cat to make the connection
Consider this from the cat's point of view. Kitty was doing something, in a certain location, and got sprayed by you. Which should be avoided in the future? The location? The act? The person who sprayed?
If you're very lucky, the cat may successfully make the association between the water spray and his or her undesirable behavior. However, many cats realize it wasn't the couch or the kitchen counter that soaked them. All they know is that their dear and (formerly) trusted owner did. They are more likely to avoid you than to avoid whatever object you were trying to deter them from touching.
3. Your cat can get away with the crime - when you're not around
Using the water spray method depends on you being around to operate the bottle. If Kitty jumps on the counter while you're away at work, nothing happens. This means the association you tried to create - jumping on counters causes bad things to happen - doesn't work anymore. That's one reason why this method is often ineffective.
4. It's stressful for your cat
Imagine living your life knowing that something unpleasant is going to surprise you in the safety of your own home. For example, let's say you're afraid of bugs. How would you feel if you knew there were giant roaches somewhere within your home? You may encounter them at any point in your daily routine and you just never know when or where that might happen. Can you imagine how stressful that would be? That's how your cat would feel with the water bottle lurking around.
Kitty needs to feel safe and secure in your home, living free of fear of mysterious unexpected sprays of water. The heightened stress level could lead to health and behavior problems. If there are already other causes for stress in your cat's life, adding the threat of a water spray may just be the straw that will break the proverbial camel's back and lead to things like Feline Idiopathic Cystitis in cats that are prone to the condition.
5. It doesn't address the root of the unwanted behavior
Many owners use the water bottle to deter the cat from what is in fact a perfectly natural feline behavior. For example, cats jump on counters because they have an innate need to explore high places in their territory; they scratch furniture because they need to claw at large stable objects in their territory for various reasons; they may attack other cats or even humans due to a variety of reasons, and they may even urinate or defecate outside the litterbox for other reasons.
The point is, there is a reason for Kitty's "problem" behavior. That behavior fulfills a need in your cat's life which you shouldn't just ignore. If you want to teach your cat to avoid the kitchen counters, you have to first provide her or him with alternative vertical spaces to climb on. If you want to protect your couch from being scratched, the first step must be getting the right kind of scratching post and placing it in the right spot that meets the cat's needs. If Kitty is peeing on the carpet, you have to figure out why that is happening and address the root of the problem. Simply trying to deter your cat from any unwanted behavior without providing a suitable solution to his or her needs is an exercise in futility.
"But it worked for my cat!"
When the topic comes up in the cat behavior forum, there's often a member who shares a success story where the water bottle method seemed to have worked. The truth is that sometimes it really does. If you understand the behavior problem, provide good alternatives first and then use the water squirt to deter Kitty from the unwanted behavior, it could work. Especially if you're around all day to create a strong association between action and outcome. Moreover, if you're very good about masking the fact that you're the one operating the water bottle, it's theoretically possible not to undermine the bond between you and your cat. And if Kitty happens to be one of those stress-resistant cats and lives in an otherwise stress-free environment, then you may just luck out and avoid negative consequences.
There's one problem though: There are way too many "if's" in the previous paragraph. Which is why recommending this method is always a bad idea. Just because you managed to apply it without noticing any negative effects does not mean someone else can. You cannot assume that the owner understands the nature of the problem and knows how to provide good alternatives for the cat. Perhaps more importantly, you have no way of knowing how resistant that cat may be to the high level of stress involved in applying this kind of deterrent. On top of that, unfortunately most people perceive spraying water as a form of punishment, using it as a way to discipline through exercising imagined authority over the cat. That's a recipe for undermining the delicate human-feline bond.
For every success story, we hear many other stories where using the water bottle method failed. Unfortunately, in many cases, not only did it not solve the problem, it created new ones. Compared to the original problem, the damage caused by the constant stress and the blow delivered to the bond between owner and cat can be much harder to fix.
So, what to use instead?
We hope that by now you're convinced not to spray water on your cat. However, the behavior problem is still there, so how can you teach your cat to play by the rules?
In a nutshell, if you're faced with any unwanted cat behavior, you should follow these steps -
1. Understand why your cat is behaving this way and what natural needs the behavior addresses.
2. Provide your cat with an appropriate and non-destructive way to address these needs.
3. Use positive reinforcement or passive deterrent systems to teach your cat to stop the unwanted behavior.
You can read more about these methods here:
Sounds vague? Don't worry, we have you covered with very detailed guides about common cat behavior problems. These guides take you through the three above-mentioned steps and show you how to solve cat behavior problems without ever using the water bottle or any other form of punishment:
Article: Cat Aggression Toward People
Article: How To Stop Problem Chewing In Cats
Still having problems? Post your questions in the Cat Behavior Forum where our members can help out with advice!