National Pet Month: Interact with your cat...in a way they like!

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Week two of National Pet Month is all about pet behaviour. Here, we focus on behaviour your cat will show to you

We’re celebrating National Pet Month! We’ve got loads of great content to share, as well as loads of fun including competitions exclusive to Your Cat. You can enter here!

Week two focuses on behaviour. Here, expert behaviourist Clare Hemington shares top tips to help you interact with your cat in a way they will like...

In my many years consulting with cat owners, I’ve always found this a sensitive subject to raise. Some owners can be very touchy (excuse the pun) when I mention that their cat might not exactly appreciate the ‘daily scooping him up in their arms and giving him a good squeeze’ routine. But, while you might feel compelled to cuddle your furry baby as much as possible or focus on him often, he would likely prefer a more hands-off and less focused approach.

This is because cats don’t have a very sophisticated sense of social relationships. Their African Wildcat ancestor was a solitary predator. Although cats have indeed evolved to enjoy some physical contact from us, they nevertheless probably find our social interactions and the intentions behind them a bit perplexing.

As a very sociable species, we humans enjoy physical contact and use touch all the time, whether it’s a handshake, holding hands, a light touch on the arm, or cuddling up on the sofa together. So, when it comes to our cats, not only does touching their silky and fluffy fur feel nice, but it’s also good for our health because it can help reduce stress and improve our mood. In addition, physical contact is also our way of demonstrating our love for them. And we’d like them to show it in a similar fashion without realising that we’re inadvertently attributing to them what is a very human behaviour.

So, how do you interact with your cat in an enjoyable way for you and your cat? Here are my tips:

  • Get to know your cat’s preferences for interaction. Some cats prefer physical contact, such as petting and grooming, while others prefer social interactions with their owners, such as play. And for those that don’t appear to want any interaction, ensure you have enough high perches and hiding places to allow your cat to avoid unwanted interactions and will enable him to do his own thing.
  • Respect your cat's personal space, and don't force your cat to interact with you. Instead, let him come to you when he’s ready.
  • If your cat is a new addition to the household, be patient. Cats can be slow to warm up to new people, so don't get discouraged if your cat doesn't initially seem interested in you. Just keep being patient and gentle; eventually, he’ll come around. You can also use positive reinforcement, such as treats and mild praise, to help your new cat learn that interacting with you is good.
  • Cats generally appreciate calm and quiet environments, so gently speak to your cat. This will help him feel relaxed and comfortable around you.
  • Cats are sensitive to body language, so when you interact with your cat, make sure your body language is relaxed and inviting. Avoid sudden movements or loud noises; this can startle your cat and make him feel insecure. Always try and get down to his level.
  • Avoid staring at your cat. For many species, including ours, the stare is a hostile behaviour. Instead, when looking at your cat, slowly blink your eyes. This shows that you are not a threat; if you’re fortunate, you might get a slow blink back!

 

When it comes to touch, human interaction can be highly stressful for some cats, so you must understand your cat’s requirements for physical contact. Avoid touching him entirely if he’s in the ‘take it or leave it’ or ‘run a mile’ camps. If he’s a cat that enjoys getting up close and personal, waiting until he initiates contact with you is still advisable before going in for the cuddle.

As a general rule, I suggest you avoid picking your cat up. Even cats that enjoy being touched this type of contact might not be as high up on their preferred interactions as, say, a pleasant tickle behind the ears. This is because cats like to maintain a sense of control, which includes being able to escape from any situation. When we pick cats up, we effectively contain them in our arms and restrict their movement.

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If your cat approaches you and appears to want contact, focus your stroking on his forehead, cheeks, chin and ears and keep it brief, seconds only. He will ask you for more if he wants it. And avoid the tummy no matter how tempting it is!

Keep a close eye on your cat's body language during interactions. This will help you to understand how he is feeling and what he is communicating to you. In particular, look out for signs that he’s no longer happy with the interaction, for example:

  • Thrashing/twitching his tail
  • Tensing his body

Grooming is a type of physical contact that is necessary for the cat world's shaggy monsters. It can also be a great way to bond with your cat, so making it as enjoyable as possible is important. If you have a cat that needs frequent grooming, you must introduce him slowly to his comb or brush before attempting any actual grooming. I would experiment with different tools to find one he is happy with. Once grooming begins, make sure the sessions are concise and increase their length over time. If your cat shows signs that he is not happy, stop the session and try another day.

Playing with your cat is a beautiful way of enjoying social interaction. There are many ways to play with your cat, so find something he enjoys. Some popular options include chasing toys, batting with varying types of balls, or playing hide-and-seek. Some cats even ‘fetch’ items thrown for them and bring them back. One of my cats, Jimmy, used to do this with old socks… each to their own! If possible, avoid rough play, as this can make for a tense interaction that can turn into something less friendly. And if you have a kitten, I suggest not using your hands as toys. When he is big and strong with sharp teeth and claws, his inevitable bites might not be relatively so innocuous!

Always be consistent in your interactions with your cat. This will help him learn what to expect from you and, as a result, help him feel more secure around you.

For cats that are anxious, either generally or in specific contexts, you must allow them to initiate all physical interactions. For some cats, you might even need to go as far as to enable them to move around your house ‘unseen’; in other words, pretend they aren’t there. A past client told me that one of her cats seemed frightened of her. I told her to completely ignore him and continue her daily routine as if he wasn’t in the house. Two days of ignoring them later, she delightedly said to me that he had started sleeping on her bed. This happened much more quickly than I could have anticipated.

Cats aren’t born knowing how to interact with humans; they need to learn how to adjust to being our pets. To accommodate this, it’s wise to remember that when it comes to any interaction, it’s good practice to put our cats in the driving seat, respect their needs and boundaries and understand that it should be about the benefit and pleasure for them and us.