It’s rare that a YouTube video entertains and informs in under a minute, but that’s what animal trainer Jose Gomes (Facebook, Twitter) achieves here:

We learn: a) plants benefit from water (but be Goldilocks about it — not too much and not too little!), and b) companion animals do not benefit from being spritz-spritzed with water. 

But why? Watering plants the Goldilocks way you can probably get behind, but why not spray companion animals with water? And what was that puzzle feeder thing? 

Dr. Sarah Ellis and Dr. Suzanne Hetts are experts in animal learning, training, welfare and behavior, and they are well-prepared to address these ‘Why?’ questions. Ellis (Facebook, Twitter) is a Feline Behaviour Specialist at International Cat Care, co-author of The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat, Visiting Fellow at the University of Lincoln, UK and she holds a PhD in feline welfare. Hetts (Facebook, Twitter) is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist behind the Behavior Education Network for dog specialists, and she co-hosts monthly online CAAB Chats for companion animal lovers. She holds a PhD in zoology with a specialization in animal behavior. Her latest book is 12 Terrible Dog Training Mistakes Owners Make That Ruin Their Dog's Behavior...And How To Avoid Them.  

Food puzzles?

First up, let's talk about the food puzzles the trainer gave the cats. Food puzzles are contraptions that allow cats work to access food, something that as predators cats were built to do.

Here’s Ellis: “That video was hilarious (and it's rare I say that about a YouTube video featuring cats). But beyond hilarity, it actually had so many good messages. Puzzle feeding teaches the cat to work for rewards moving towards incentives.”

'Food puzzles for cats: feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing,' is a recent publication in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. Leticia Dantas and colleagues found that cats experienced behavior and health benefits after being exposed to food puzzles and other behavior modification techniques: “Benefits we have observed include weight loss, decreased aggression toward humans and other cats, reduced anxiety and fear, cessation of attention-seeking behaviors and resolution of litter box avoidance." Whether you’re a cat or living with a cat, these are happy developments.

The paper also describes how to make food puzzles, with cats-in-action photos to boot. The paper is open access; download it here. I’ll wait. Also, Food Puzzles for Cats, created by Ingrid Johnson and Mikel Delgado, two of the paper’s authors, is “a one stop resource for information about feeding your cat using foraging toys!” (Facebook, Twitter). Many dogs (and dog lovers) are already well-versed in food puzzles that provide much-needed stimulation for dogs, our favorite scavenger.

Why no squirt?

Why point a spray bottle at plants and not animals? Ellis and Hetts explain: 

Ellis: “If puzzle feeding teaches the cat to work for rewards — moving towards incentives — the spray bottle teaches the cat to move away from aversive. Why is that so bad? Well cats, who as a species evolved from a solitary ancestor, do not cope well with any form of punishment (or aversive). And when that aversive is connected to a person or another animal, its consequences can be even more severe. Cats don't tend to 'make up' — reconciliation seems to be something lacking in their behavioural repertoire, unlike dogs and other social animals which are pretty good at it. Thus, if the cat associates the spray bottle — which is pretty aversive because a) it produces water which cats generally dislike and b) it makes a sound like a cat hissing — with the hand holding it, it is likely the cat will associate the negative event of water with that particular person. No one wants to ruin their relationship with their cat that they've built up over years just for the sake of stopping them jumping on their work-top counter. Instead, why not teach them that good things happen when their feet are on the ground, e.g. food rewards, play, stroking — work towards rewards, not away from aversives!”

Hetts: “The biggest problems I see with the use of squirt bottles is that they rarely meet the criteria for the effective use of punishment. For example — punishment should immediately follow the behavior. Most pet owners don't walk around with a squirt bottle in their hands, so by the time they hunt one down it's too late. The pet has either stopped the behavior, is now doing something else, or has been engaging in the unwanted behavior for minutes. 

"Second, punishment should be consistent. Same problem — it's rare that a pet owner would or could use a squirt bottle, say every single time the dog engaged in the unwanted behavior. 

"Finally, owner delivered punishment of any sort often results in pets who engage in unwanted behaviors when owners are not present — they simply learn to discriminate when "punishment" will be forthcoming and when it won't. And of course some dogs don't mind being squirted with water. I absolutely don't think lemon juice or vinegar should be used — those were common recommendations in the past.

"I've seen videos online of caretakers in day cares walking around with squirt bottles in their hands and squirting dogs inconsistently. That's about the worst possible example I can think of because it's inconsistent and unpredictable, so the dogs never are sure what to not to do to avoid being squirted.

"If I could grab a squirt bottle in an 'emergency' situation, to break up a conflict between pets when I thought one might be injured — absolutely. I'd probably dump the whole bottle if I thought it would work! But I think they have limited use in a behavior modification plan for the reasons I mentioned.”

‘How to Use a Squirt Bottle with Your Dog or Cat’ is a rare YouTube gem that captures two of the best things in communication: new information presented with humor. Take two seemingly known things — watering plants and spraying pets with water — and play with the expectation. Entertaining and informative. Might there be a time when a squirt bottle could come in handy? Possibly. But should it be the go-to, default way to interact with our four-legged friends — without considering potential consequences? No.

More reading

Bradshaw, J. and Ellis, S. 2016. The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat. Basic Books

Benal, J. 2011. Should You Use a Squirt Bottle to Train Your Dog? Quick and Dirty Tips

Hetts, S. 2014. 12 Terrible Dog Training Mistakes Owners Make That Ruin Their Dog's Behavior...And How To Avoid Them. Kindle Books

Todd, Z. 2016. Your Cat Would Like Food Puzzle Toys. Companion Animal Psychology blog


Dantas, L., Delgado, M., Johnson, I., and Buffington, C. 2016. Food puzzles for cats: feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery OPEN ACCESS