How to make a cat people friendly (part 6)

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Many cats find meeting new people a challenge. Train your cat to relax when friends and family come to your home.

Over the last two articles, we have been focusing on helping our cats to learn that the cat carrier can be a safe, comfortable and relaxing place within the home, and that travelling inside the cat carrier need not be something to fear.

With this practice in place, our cats are now able to travel comfortably to locations which will inevitably lead them to meet new people. These may be vet nurses and vets in the vet practice or staff at the boarding cattery. Often our cats do not meet the same people on such trips, and encounters with strangers are therefore common. Even in our homes, we may invite people to visit and our cats may also meet people they do not know when exploring outdoors.

Thus, meeting new people can be a common occurrence for our cats and something that we want them to be able to cope well with. Both the genetic make-up of a cat and his social experiences with people, particularly during early kittenhood, influence how sociable he is towards people as an adult. While we cannot influence the genetic make-up of our cats, we can give kittens the best start in life by ensuring that they have appropriate social interactions with people, thereby setting them up to be able to cope with meeting new people in later life.

Early socialisation is key

Three main components of handling during the sensitive period in kittenhood (approximately two to seven weeks), where the brain is most adaptable to learning, have been shown to have a positive and lasting effect on human/cat interactions. These comprise the following:

  • Type of handling - gentle touch and voice, avoiding rough play and handling
  • Number and type of people handling the cat - it has been suggested that a minimum of four different people should handle the kittens between the ages of two and seven weeks
  • Time spent being handled - up to a certain limit (approximately one hour daily), the more positive handling a kitten receives during the sensitive period, the friendlier he is likely to be.

For anyone with young kittens in the home, ensuring these three components of handling are met during the sensitive period will greatly aid the cat's ability to view new people as positive and friendly throughout their lives. 

However, for many of us, our cats are at least eight to 12 weeks old when we obtain them as kittens, or we have acquired them as adults. So what can be done in these situations to help a cat meet new people in a relaxed and comfortable manner instead of him heading up the stairs to take refuge under the bed? The first thing to do is train (or educate) your visitors!

For many cat lovers, the opportunity to meet a new cat is a super thing to look forward to. However, as we know, all cats are different and where some may welcome our enthusiasm with purring, rubbing your legs and jumping on your lap, others may find the attention overbearing and somewhat daunting. Making sure your visitors know the least confrontational way of greeting a cat is the first step in ensuring your cat can cope with the experience.

Fearful cat meets visitor

If your cat is very nervous of strangers and/or people in general, the most important advice to give to a visitor is to ignore your cat completely. This means no attempts to touch or talk to the cat - and even avoid looking at him. While we are often good at not making direct contact when we are asked to ignore something, subconsciously we often look at it despite ourselves! However, if the cat is feeling fearful or anxious, being looked at can feel threatening.

Cats generally use fixed stares between each other in confrontational situations. So asking our visitors to kindly avert their gaze can greatly help the cat to learn that this new person will not interact with him in any way and therefore it is safe for him to remain in the room with the visitor. This begins the process of the cat learning that the newcomer is not a threat.

For such cats, after several visits where he is completely ignored by the visitor, he or she can begin to drop high-value treats (such as a small piece of chicken or ham) near the cat. It's important the visitor does not go up to the cat to give him the treat as this could be too confrontational for the cat but instead, the person should simply toss the food near the cat, rather than aim it directly at him. The cat should then gradually begin to come slightly closer in anticipation of the food.

Friendly and confident cats

Even cats that are generally friendly and confident around people they know can find new people a little unnerving. To ensure your cat copes well in these situations, there are a number of things you can ask your visitor to do:

  • Sit on a chair or on the floor before attempting to interact with the cat. Being in a lower position is less threatening to a cat
  • Avoid direct eye contact. This can be done by averting the gaze or blinking slowly. Cats will slow-blink at one another as well as to humans to show they are not threatening and also during positive communication
  • Positioning your body side-on to the cat can again appear less confrontational
  • If you are comfortable with your visitor calling your cat, ask them to call the cat's name gently or to mimic the chirrup sound cats use when greeting one another positively (it sounds like 'prrrrrp'!)
  • Offering a closed fist or pointing a finger outstretched from the body can allow the cat to investigate the hand safely without having to come too close to your body. Presenting the hand in this manner gives the cat the opportunity to sniff and facial-rub against your hand if he wishes to. It also helps the visitor to resist the urge to stroke the cat at their initial meeting.

If your cat actively seeks physical contact with your visitor by rubbing himself on his or her body, then you can invite them to touch your cat.

Each individual cat will have his own preferences as to where he likes to be touched and whether he prefers being scratched or stroked, and these should be noted and communicated to your visitor. However, as a general rule, the best place to touch a cat is on the forehead, above the eyes, on the cheeks behind the whiskers and under the chin. These areas contain many of the facial scent glands that deposit chemical signals used in communication, and research has shown that cats give more positive responses to being touched in these areas in comparison to other areas on the body.

Stress-free meetings

As well as ensuring our visitors behave appropriately around our cats, we can reinforce appropriate behaviour from our cats in the presence of visitors.

For a cat that is nervous or wary of visitors, appropriate behaviour may simply be a case of entering the room with the person there or beginning to relax at a distance from them. An appropriate positive reinforcer (a reward to reinforce the behaviour) may be a tasty treat from you or the opportunity to play with a toy with you.

As your cat becomes more comfortable around them, your visitor could try giving your cat the treat as a positive reinforcer.

If at any time he appears to be anxious in the presence of the visitor, do not try to reassure your cat by touching as such reassurance may reinforce the fear behaviour and make it more likely to occur again. Instead you should ignore the cat and allow him to retreat or hide if he wishes.

If yours is a confident cat who likes to initiate contact with visitors, ask them to give him a food treat. These are best delivered on the floor rather than straight from the hand as cats often find it physically difficult to eat in this way.

There are certain times of year that the numbers of visitors to your home is likely to increase (for example, at Christmas). If this is the case, you can spend some time now gently introducing your cat to greater numbers of visitors so that Christmas won't be a negative experience for him.

It is vital that he always has places he can feel safe and concealed if he wishes to retreat from view of the visitors. These could be hiding boxes, a cat carrier, another room, perches and shelves.