Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Rumpleteazer & the Squirt Bottle of God

We all know the mischief cats can get into...scratching the furniture... spraying...jumping up on the kitchen counter while you're making dinner...swiping a porkchop off the buffet...hanging off the birdcage...terrorizing the hamster...chowing down on your houseplants...do I need to go on?

These cat behavior problems are part of what makes being an ailurophile such an adventure...but sometimes we all wish that it weren't quite such an adventure!

You've adjusted your lifestyle to eliminate temptations...your plants give a whole new meaning to "upwardly mobile," dinner stays covered and under close guard until the moment your family's forks and knives go into action...but Rumpleteazer is nothing if not creative!

The question is, when you catch Rump in the act, what can you do about it?

Perhaps you've tried clapping your hands suddenly, or exclaiming "Scoot-scoot-scoot" or "NO!" Or maybe you've tried repellent sprays or sticky tape, and found that Rump's determination was even stickier.

What now?

Now is the time for the "Deus ex machina" - the "god out of a machine" - or more precisely, out of a squirt bottle!

Yes - just a simple squirt bottle, the kind you'd use to spritz your hair or mist your plants. Keep it full of water and easily reachable wherever Rump usually gets into trouble(you may want to get more than one). And when he goes into action, give him a squirt.

The thing is - don't let him know you did it! Cats are very observant and intelligent, and they remember what you do to them. If your cat associates you with the squirt bottle, the lesson that "Bad things happen when I do this" turns into "My devoted servant squirts me when I do this." Instead of changing behavior, you'll wind up with a mistrustful, skittish cat...not the goal!

How can you do this, you may be asking...from behind your back, maybe, or under the tablecloth? And what happens when you're not there to squirt him? Well - there is a product called SSSCAT Spray that can do it for you, day or night, whether you're present or not, using a motion sensor to see when Rump is cruising for trouble. Ssscat Spray loudly directs a harmless, nontoxic spray into the air toward Rump. He's caught and stopped in the act and never associates the noise or the spray with you at all.

There's another side to this, also: effective, long-term behavior modification doesn't just involve positive punishment and negative punishment (what you did when you put the plants out of reach), but it also involves positive reinforcement.

Rita Bruche of Vivace Cattery in Sheidow Park, South Australia, writes in her article Pavlov's Cats - Beyond the spray bottle: Behaviour Modification principles for cat owners on Cat-World.com: We may unwittingly reinforce problem behaviour by lavishing attention after the behaviour, and ignore the cat when it is behaving well, because the good behaviour is unobtrusive. Therefore reinforcing good behaviour is extremely important. If our Aby kitten jumps on the birdcage, he will get a squirt. However, when he sits on the chair in the room with the bird, and pays it little or no attention, he has earned a reward. Shaping this behaviour is very useful. It may be that an Aby kitten cannot be expected to ignore the bird for an hour, so there is no chance of rewarding him. He should then be rewarded for staying put for, say, one minute, then five, then 15, and gradually increase the amount of time he needs to demonstrate the good behaviour.

Does this sound like a lot? Well, think of the time and closeness you'd share with your cat in doing this - resulting in a happy, well-behaved feline companion! That's a payoff worth the investment, I'd say!

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