Hang Ten: countering cat surfing

Hi, I’m Dr. Lauren! Read my presentation to learn more about me and my two adventurous cats, Pancake and Tiller.

Do you have a Kelly Slater at home? A feline Kelly Slater?

Cats on the counters. It’s such a common phenomenon in the feline world that it’s even been given its own term: counter-surfing. And it’s apparently so attractive that even some dogs join in the party

If you own a cat, counter-surfing is often all too common. After all, cats are still considered recently domesticated and retain many of their natural instincts. These instincts include retreating to different heights for sleeping and playing, which can provide a feeling of security, while allowing a better vantage point and increasing active behaviors.

Studies on scratching post preference show that cats prefer vertical posts over horizontal scratching posts.1 And current environmental enrichment trends favor vertical spaces because they effectively increase a cat’s territory, especially in limited spaces, such as for pet cats who live primarily indoors.2 This may include raised bedsshelves, ropes, cat trees and climbing poles.

But such feline behavior is not necessarily consistent with our modern lifestyles in terms of coexistence. For example, none of my cats are allowed on the kitchen counters or table, which stems from early training when they were kittens. (It really took me a week and a lot of convincing to get a photo of Tiller on the table specifically for this article – maybe why she looks so bored!) So why is this not advisable, and where is the happy medium?

Tiller sitting on the table
Tiller is not happy to be sitting at the table…

Counter-surfing: why not?

Personally, I firmly believe that (1) cats will be cats and you cannot change their inherent nature; (2) regardless, cats shouldn’t put their feet where I don’t put mine; (3) cats absolutely should not put their butts where I wouldn’t put my feet (e.g. my toast for breakfast).

This may sound pedantic, but as much as I love cats, I don’t want ANYONE ending up on my toast at breakfast. And there are zoonotic risks. Zoonoses are diseases that humans can contract from animals, just as reverse zoonoses are diseases that animals can contract from humans.

For humans, parasitic diseases such as tapeworms, cryptosporidium, and salmonella are all potential concerns linked to items found on the counter by well-meaning cats. It is true that counter-surfing is not a well-known form of zoonotic transmission. But the risks don’t stop there.

Cats themselves are at risk on counters. Hot stoves, which curious cats walk on, can cause serious paw burns, with subsequent ulcerations and significant pain. I see him at least a few times a year, when I work in clinics. Cats jump on a stove, burn two or four feet and then suffer for a few weeks, requiring treatment. Likewise, candles on countertops often attract heat-seeking felines and lead to melting whiskers, hair, or even burns. If it’s a cooking surface, sharp objects like knives and breakable objects like glasses can also be dangerous to curious kittens.

Tiller jumps off the table
Luckily, there are other ways to snag ten!

Alternative Ways for Cats to Hang Ten

So how do you keep a cat away from a counter? Or stop them from Kelly Slater-ing?

Tips for keeping cats away from the counter:

  • Start young! Don’t wait until your cat is an adult to impose cat-free zones and offer him alternative places to replace what he is looking for. Kittens are more flexible in learning limits and good (and bad!) habits, especially before the age of one.
  • Teach your cat the command “No” and be consistent with it
  • Add vertical spaces to your home: cat shelves, cat trees, cardboard towers
  • Noise aversion techniques DO NOT work on cats (e.g. clapping, shaking keys, coins in a tin can)
  • Squirting water is also a behavioral no-no!
  • I personally found Seems like a good deterrent: Spicy objects floating under a finicky cat’s nose (e.g. chili flakes or Frank’s Red Hot) immediately after she jumps can help enforce a no-go zone
  • Substrates (such as foil or double-sided tape) may also deter some cats from entering areas where they are not welcome.
  • Give them their own dedicated outdoor viewing area to enrich their environment: a suction bed by the window, a chair by a window, etc. Many counter-surfers are simply interested in a better vantage point, not so much the counter itself!
  • Add vertical shelves or cat trees for active play and jumping behaviors, to replace jumping on a table or counter
  • Don’t leave tasty food on the counter, as this may encourage curious cats to investigate.

It is therefore entirely possible to go out with your cat, while offering them alternatives to “hanging at ten”. Tiller and Pancake are living proof! Even if these toe beans are adorable, they belong anywhere except on the table or counter!


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