Why You Should Stop Spraying Your Cat With Water
Cats and water don’t mix 💦😿
You see it all the time: A pet parent tries to train their cat out of a problem behavior by squirting her with a spray bottle.
But is spraying your cat with water really effective, or just kind of mean?
The Dodo spoke with Dr. Vanessa Spano, a veterinarian at Behavior Vets in New York City, who explained why using a spray bottle on your cat is actually a big no-no.
Spraying your cat with water can make her uncomfortable
For one, spraying your cat with water is straight up not nice.
It might seem hard to believe that a few drops of water could be all that uncomfortable, but your cat really could perceive it that way.
“A cat’s tactile and olfactory sensations are relatively more sensitive than a human’s,” Dr. Spano explained. “[So] equating the discomfort a human feels upon being spritzed with water to the discomfort a cat feels upon being spritzed with water is unfair and not rational.”
And if you’re doing something to her that makes her feel uncomfortable — especially if you’re doing it regularly — that could seriously jeopardize your bond because she’ll start feeling like she can’t trust you, or even be scared of you.
Spraying your cat with water can have long-term negative effects
On top of the physical discomfort, spraying your cat with water doesn’t actually teach your cat better behaviors and could end up seriously confusing her.
What you think is just a bad behavior, like hissing, is actually something she’s doing because she’s afraid or stressed.
And when you spray her with water, it’s because you assume she knows that she’s doing something wrong — but she actually doesn’t. She just knows she’s reacting naturally to something scary or stressful and getting punished for it.
So, you’re essentially disciplining your cat for being afraid.
“Let’s say a cat is fearful [of] guests entering into the home. A guest may approach the cat, and because the cat is fearful, she may swat at the guest,” Dr. Spano said. “The owner then spritzes the cat with water because of the undesirable swat. The act of spraying water, through association, taught the cat what not to do, but it did not teach the cat a coping mechanism or what to do instead.”
Basically, spraying your cat with water when she’s already afraid just compounds that fear.
It doesn’t alleviate the fear she has about guests, and it makes her afraid to then defend herself when she’s scared (which is really all she’s doing when she’s swatting).
“It’s not only suppressing fear, but also increasing discomfort,” Dr. Spano said.
That compounding fear can mess her up psychologically — which can lead to more undesirable behaviors in the future.
“Let’s say someone who made you uncomfortable was approaching you without consent,” Dr. Spano explained. “You feel backed into a corner, so you scream and reach out to push them away. You are then met with pepper spray.”
That’d be pretty confusing and scary, right?
That’s basically how your cat feels when you spray her with water for doing something “bad,” especially when the original behavior was just a natural reaction to a situation.
In fact, whipping out that spray bottle on the regular could have some pretty negative effects on your BFF, like:
- Suppressing fear and anxiety
- Putting a strain on your cat’s bond with you
- Causing discomfort and annoyance
Why do people spray their cats with water, anyway?
“This is a simple, aversive training technique used to stop a cat from performing an undesirable behavior,” Dr. Spano told The Dodo.
It’s an example of punishing your cat, which isn’t exactly the nicest way to get your cat to stop doing something.
But some pet parents choose this tactic because it feels effective — after all, if you spray your cat when she’s on the couch, she’ll probably get down right away!
“Theoretically, the cat should associate the undesirable behavior with an unpleasant consequence [like] being sprayed with water,” Dr. Spano explained. “To avoid experiencing this unpleasant consequence, the cat will avoid performing the inciting action.”
But that doesn’t mean she’s actually learning how she should behave instead — she’s just learning that she doesn’t like the spray bottle!
Keeping cat behavior problems in check without spraying water
The first step to addressing any behavior issue with your cat is to first figure out what’s triggering it.
“Is it being approached by someone without consent? Is it being handled in an area that may be painful or uncomfortable? Is it because she can’t access something that she wants?” Dr. Spano said. “Upon figuring out what the trigger is, AVOID IT!”
There are definitely some triggers that can’t be avoided. For example, if she can’t access something she wants (that you’re intentionally trying to keep out of her reach, like the treat jar), you might catch her jumping up on the counter to do it.
But that doesn’t give you the green light to get out that spray bottle. Instead, this is when you’d need to call in reinforcements.
“If, for some reason, it is unavoidable, such as jumping on the counter, work with an experienced, reputable trainer and veterinary behaviorist on teaching her happy, alternative behaviors,” Dr. Spano said.
These alternative behaviors can be as simple as redirection.
For example, if you see your cat make her way over to your kitchen, looking like she’s ready to spring up on the counter, distract her before she makes the jump by throwing a treat or a toy in the opposite direction.
This way, when your cat chases that treat or toy, she’ll get used to the idea of not jumping on the counter because she’ll associate a fun reward with the fact that she didn’t jump.
Positive reinforcement is a much more humane way to train your cat out of bad behaviors, but don’t get discouraged if the change isn’t immediate — you’re investing in long-term, sustainable behavior changes, not short-term fixes.
“Please remember this takes time,” Dr. Spano said. “Any therapy that is worth it, for human animals and nonhuman animals alike, takes time because it requires the learning theory.”
Your cat might not behave differently overnight, but she’ll get there eventually!
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