When Using a Water Pistol on Your Cat Is Not Punishing Your Cat

The title to this article sounds improbable but I’d like to explain what I mean. We should all know by now that punishing your cat as an act of training is very wrong. It does not work. I think that’s commonsense. If you punish your cat he/she will see you as strange creature to be avoided. You don’t want that. You want the opposite, in fact.

Water pistol used on cat

Please note that in this post I am not advocating cat punishment. I hate that idea. What I am discussing here is something entirely different. I hope I have explained it clearly enough.

Some people recommend using a water pistol on their cat to train them. The idea is that if your cat does something that you don’t like (which by the way will be natural behavior for your cat) then you can spray a jet of water onto your cat to stop him doing it. This is negative reinforcement – a form of punishment and wrong.

However, if your cat encounters something mildly unpleasant when he’s doing something that you don’t wish to do and if he does not associate that mildly unpleasant experience with you, the cat’s owner, then it is not a form of punishment. It is simply creating, in the cat’s mind, an association between something mildly unpleasant and a certain form of behaviour which he wishes to do.

So, if for example, your cat receives an unexpected squirt of water from a soaker water pistol with a long-range (so that he does not associate the water with you) then he will have learned to associate that particular action with something that’s unpleasant.

I think it is difficult to argue against that. I have to accept this as a method of preventing your cat doing something which you dislike. However, the unpleasant experience must not be something which is frightening; it must be mildly unpleasant.

Another example might be that your cat likes to jump up onto the kitchen counter and you don’t like it. I actually like to have my cat on the kitchen counter but that’s just me. If you don’t like this you might place some double sided sticky tape on the work surface which will be unpleasant for your cat to walk on. This should encourage him to jump off and it should make him think twice about jumping up onto the counter in the future.

Dr Fogle, a well-known veterinarian/author and expert on the domestic cat, calls this “divine intervention”. He stresses that this sort of mildly unpleasant experience is not, in the cat’s eyes, coming from the cat’s owner but is simply a direct result of what the cat just did.

He makes the point that from the cat’s perspective these are acts of God and not punishment. It’s about the cat making associations between certain events and places and a negative experience.

It is important to be kind when using this form of training. The objective is to train your cat to stop doing what he wants to do because it is unpleasant to do it but it must never be remotely painful as that would be cruel.

You can see that this is a delicate subject to discuss. It is one which I have difficulty with but, as mentioned, it does make sense provided great care is taken in utilising the procedure. It should be used in a very limited way. I would expect, too, that it would be suitable for a small number of behavioral situations – i.e. unsuited to litter box training.

What you think about this form of training? Do you think it is too near the idea of punishment as training? Or have you tried this sort of thing?

P.S. – it is probably tiresome to say it but so-called bad cat behaviour is in fact natural cat behaviour which some humans don’t like.

Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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11 Responses

  1. Sarah Hartwell says:

    Some cats regard water pistols as fun toys. I tried to use one as a last resort at training Affy (not the brightest of cats) out of a potentially dangerous behaviour …. only to find that Affy thought this was the most fun thing ever.

  2. Eva DR Force says:

    Dear Michael_ I am well aware that you do not advocate cat punishment. I was simply covering the subject in general terms. Have a nice weekend and God Bless-

  3. Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

    Squirting water, or even worse, any other liquid at a cat is cruel and unnecessary, it does not work. This has been proved by those who say it does, but have to keep their squirter handy to reinforce the message they think they are giving their cat.
    Cats do not understand punishment, the only result from punishing a cat in any way is that he/she becomes nervous and lives in fear of being punished simply for doing what cats do.
    A squirt of water going accidentally in a cats eye, ear or mouth can set up an infection.
    If anyone can’t teach a cat ‘acceptable to humans behaviour’ by patience, kindness and reward for ‘good’ behaviour then it’s their fault, not the cats!

    • Michael Broad says:

      I know Ruth but the nuanced argument here is that this is not punishment but making an experience less pleasant as a way of changing habits. You know I hate cat punishment. I wrote about this years ago.

      The article is about the difference between cat punishment and “divine intervention”.

      • Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

        Sorry Michael, but you know me, I will never under any circumstances agree that squirting liquid at a cat is not punishment. Even some cat ‘experts’ who condoned it are seeing the error of their ways, just as, thankfully some vets are giving up declawing because they are admitting it’s cruel. Divine intervention is from God not from man/woman who are just the same as every other living creature on this earth but in a different form, but who think we are superior! We do not own any animal, we are simply their caretakers

  4. M E King says:

    Sorry it just goes against my principals and what I have learned about cats and their behaviors. I know that it is frustrating when you redirect for the 50th time that day ( we have two in training ) but the end result are happy well adjusted cats. And there is that sublime moment when you go eh and they stop and listen.
    I did have a squirt bottle for a while. It proved very effective on training my husband.

  5. Dee (Florida) says:

    Cats have no understanding of punishment. But, they understand fear.

  6. Albert Schepis says:

    I’ve accidental unpleasant happenings where a cat makes a general association to the situation. We might not do that, or notice it, but they do. Example: I’m trying to train one that it’s okay to eat in a particular spot, but more than once something startles her when she’s there, hence it becomes more and more difficult each time. She has no idea why something happened, but she makes a connection and might even associate me with the bad experience, in addition to the location, the kind of food served, whether another cat is close by, they heard you say a phrase, etc. Another example is when I turn to wash a dish and inadvertently splash her when she’s near, and thinks I did it to her on purpose. I’ve seen many instances like this where they jump to a conclusion that wasn’t intended and we’re not only back to square one, we’re in the negative. I think cats have evolved to be this extremely sensitive and tend to do that just to be on the safe side, then filter and narrow it down in time. They don’t always make fine distinctions at first or know why something happens, only that it’s unpleasant, and all these factors are present. Therefore it’s not only unproductive to punish them, we can and often do get the wrong idea when they don’t respond, or over react. I think people really have a problem with this, which is why it’s difficult to explain or implement training. In the beginning I read and thought water squirts were a valid means, but I finally figured out that they’re way sensitive and we’re just not, or too cerebral and too used to how dogs think.

  7. Eva DR Force says:

    Thank you Michael_this is a delicate subject_
    and the pet owner must know their feline friend very well and have the up-most respect for their well being. Any form of action or interaction between us and our pets does affect their behavior with rather positive or negative results.
    Cats are extremely intelligent and Do Not forget. they form habits at the blink of an eye that we often times miss. this is a fact. If a situation within their environment makes them a little leery, then will steer clear of them and that includes us as humans too.
    I can’t criticize the use of a simple squirt now and then, this action on our part could save our babies life one day* for example if a dog is in the yard and your cat will not come in when you call.

    The only drawback would be if the cat has viewed this as undesirable thru out it’s life but in later years may sustain injury or other heath problems; whereby we are forced to bath them on a regular basis for hygienic reasons.

    Eva say’s this is a tough call to make.

    • Michael Broad says:

      I agree Eva that I am discussing a nuanced difference but they are different things. I am not, as you realise, advocating cat punishment – quite the opposite. I hate cat punishment as it is ridiculous but this is not cat punishment.

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