An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Only On My Terms - The Aloof Cat and The Cuddly Human

Dear Greyce, I am a four-year old, female tabby and have been adopted by a purrson about two months ago. My home is quite fine except for one thing: My purrson is a cuddler and I am not! My prefurrence is to keep to myself and seek attention on my own terms. My purrson, however, has always had cuddly pets and expects me to submit to all sorts of handling. Case in point: I will let her pet me but she overdoes it and I have to snap at her or run away. Even worse, she took me to the vet for nail clipping and the fur really flew! Greyce, I like my new home - even my new purrson, but her habits are getting me down. What do you advise? An Anonymous Tabby

Dear Tabby, You have a challenging situation - a good home but one in which your expectations of service and your purrson's expectations of companionship are at odds. As you well know every cat is different. Some are real cuddle buckets, others want nothing to do with humans. While you are on neither end of the spectrum, you will have to admit that human handling is just not your cup of tea. The more your purrson pursues you, the more you will want to get away from her.

Unless you wish to leave home, there are three things you can do to improve this situation: 1) engage in forms of interaction that are more suited to your catsonality so that the both of you can start to build a bond; 2) learn to accept more petting (and handling); and 3) make sure you are getting rewarded for more affectionate behaviour, to make it worth your while. Let me describe what each of these entails.

Improvement #1 - Interaction Suited to Your Catsonality

A cat such as yourself, who prefers a hands-off approach to human contact, would find interactive games to be a good vehicle for building a bond. Many people miss the opportunity to bond with their cats because they think that cats should just keep themselves amused. This is fine for kittens but we adults often prefurr some human interaction. So the point is to engage in interactive games (that is, games that require both you and your purrson to participate).

Interactive means that you play with your purrson in the following way. Your purrson controls an interactive toy (more about that later) but in a manner that simulates prey behaviour. This gets you interested. And the hunt is on. So now to the details.

String Games - These are especially good for the shy cat who may be intimidated by play or the elderly or arthritic cat who can't leap or run much.

The worm - that is, any long, thin thing that can be pulled along the ground. I have several models: a) a thick, long shoelace (the kind that is for hiking boots) with the aglets cut off and the ends made into knots. Mine is about 60" long (long enough for Herself to keep the end far enough away from me that I won't pounce on her by mistake).

The fishing pole - basically a long string attached to a pole (to keep the human our of harm's way while you play. Herself made mine using a 30" strand of fleece (from the remnant section of a fabric store) attached to a 30" piece of fake bamboo (sold in the garden section of our local hardward store) with some electrical tape (sometimes, she has used duct tape instead).
The fat fleece which is a fatter, store-bought version of my home-made fishing pole toy and has detachable feathers at the end, to add interest. Pole is kitten-sized (17") but the length of the fleece (40" + 7" feathers) makes up for it. While it is similar to many such toys, it's strong point is that it is well-made and will not easily come apart (except for the feather bit - but even without the feathers I find it quite entertaining). I bought this from the local pet supply store using my catnip allowance.

To use these toys, have your purrson drag it along the floor. You can watch it and then pounce on it. But it gets more interesting if your purrson drags it behind her as she walks through your home. I like when it goes around the corner into another room, or behind a piece of furniture. And it is very entertaining when it starts to crawl up on the sofa and over the cushions.

Bug Games. These are for those of us who prefurr to hunt small bugs, rather than long thin things. Cat Dancer While there is nothing like a fresh grasshopper to give you some get up and go, Herself prefurrs to use the Cat Dancer (available from pet supply stores for around $4.00 Canadian). It is very simple: a coiled wire with some cardboard bits on the end. In fact it looks so simple that many people are not impressed by it in the package. But in action, it is another matter. Herself holds the wire and it goes erratically in the air. Sometimes she gets the bug to go into an open paper bag (or my brand new cat tent) so I can hunt for it there. Sometimes the bug goes between layers of tissue paper on the floor and rustles about to attract my interest.

Bird Games. Ah, the flash of feathers! While I had tried several feather toys on poles, my very favourite is called Da Bird.
It has been rated as one of the best cat toys ever, for many years. Herself couldn't understand what all the fuss is about because it looks so much like every other fishing pole toy. But the proof is in the action! It is a long pole ( 3' to keep the human from getting hurt when I pounce), a three-foot piece of string on which the toy dangles, and a clump of feathers that resemble the size and profile of the real thing; those feathers are attached in such a way that they whir through the air, just like a real bird!

Herself makes it go through the room in the air and I watch it intently. When she lets it land that really gets me interested. From time to time, she lets the feathers rest on the sofa or the ground. She is patient enough to let them rest for some time, and then I get into my special crouch position and wait for the right moment before I rush up to it and pounce. Once I've released my prey, she sends it up in the air for another round. I am grateful that the manufacturers of this particular toy sell replacement feathers, because I'm sure mine will get a good workout.

Laser Pointer: I have loved a good workout with a laser pointer which is every humans' dream because it requires so little work on their part. They just sit, turn it on and point. The only thing they have to make sure is NOT TO POINT IT IN YOUR EYES because the light is intense and could cause blindness. Herself went all out and bought one from a stationery and office supply store (about $20!) because she wanted one that would take inexpensive replacement batteries. But I know you can also get them from a dollar store (sometimes for $1.00 and sometimes for $2.00 Canadian); just know that when the batteries wear out, you'll need to get a new pointer because the replacement batteries will cost more than the toy itself. I have particularly enjoyed watching and then chasing the red point up and down the stairs. And I have friends who literally can climb the walls after it!

The Wand - I love my three-foot feather wand. In fact I loved it to death, so Herself had to go out and purchase several more. (Here I am with the new one on the left and the old one on the right.) A wand costs about $5.00. Every night before my folks get into bed, we have a special game. I hop on the bed and Herself messes up the duvet and spreads the pillows around to make an interesting hunting ground. Then the wand comes out. It goes in the air, hits the bed and flops about. It hides under the folds of the duvet. No matter where it is, I watch carefully and pounce. From time to time the feathers fly off. After a while, either I start to lose interest or the toy starts to move more and more slowly, like I've actually maimed it. And after a final pounce, it's dead. And then Herself puts it away for the night. I'm then ready for a snack.

The Rules of the Game

People make the mistake of thinking that games are purely for entertainment. They don't realize that they are a necessary part of our daily predatory cycle without which we can become quite anxious and uptight. We are hunters; so we need to stalk, chase, pounce and kill several times a day. That is why I recommend two, 15-minute interactive play sessions. Interactive means that you play with your purrson: Your purrson controls the toy in a manner that simulates prey behaviour. This gets you interested. And the hunt is on.

Here are the details your purrson needs to know, in order to follow the rules of the game.

Prey never come out when you are in the open. You need to be at least somewhat hidden from them (or they from you). Unfortunately many people think you should play in the middle of the room where there is no cover. Now how many hunters go out in the open rather than hiding under a bush or behind a tree? No I'm not suggesting that your purrson bring in some dirt and a ten-foot tree to add some realism. However a cardboard box with cutouts can serve as an excellent blind (think duck hunter here). A cushion on the floor can be a barrier (or something behind which prey can hide). A tablecloth or low bench can serve to partially hide you while in hunting pose.

Prey never just walk right up to you. They may wander across your line of vision. They will go away from you. But no prey invites himself to be your dinner. A common mistake most people make with interactive play is to just dangle the toy in front of you, so you stand on your haunches and box. This is a defensive move and does NOT simulate hunting. It entertains the human but has zippo value to you. No prey would behave so stupidly; so no wonder you are NOT amused.

Prey follow a path of some sort, either on the ground (in and around things too) or in the air. And from time to time they stop and rest. For example while birds fly a lot, they also walk on the ground (looking for worms and bugs) and this is the more likely time when they are caught by hunting cats. And after prey has been caught, it will try to get away. Over time of course, it will get more and more tired and become more and more still. Still prey is dead prey - of not much interest. Some people make another common mistake: To make the toy go off in a dozen different directions at top speed so that you exhaust yourself chasing it and NEVER catch it! Again, this may be human entertainment but only serves to frustrate you. So you need to insist that they mimic proper prey behaviour.

Prey eventually get caught and die. The game should not continue at a high speed on and on or your 15 minutes will be up and you'll be wound up tighter than a drum! To help you wind down, the prey needs to get exhausted during the last few minutes of the game, getting slower and slower, and finally be dispatched for the very last time.

Some things humans should NEVER do.
Shine a laser pointer in your eyes (it can blind you).
Use their hands (even gloved! even those gloves with toys dangling from the fingers!) instead of a toy. This is dangerous to them because your will pounce, swat, claw and bite them by accident. And it is dangerous for you, because they will think you are vicious when you decide to bite their hand when they put it under the sheets at night, thinking it's another game.
Leave these toys out when the human has gone. Cats have been known to strangle themselves or bite and swallow the strings, when unsupervised. Such toys should be kept in a drawer or closet when not in use. Besides they are more interesting if saved for special occasions.

Improvement #2 - Handling (Petting; Nail Clipping)

All About Petting

Okay let's get off the game stuff and on to something that will surely interest your purrson: petting. From the way you describe what happens when you are petted, it sounds like petting aggression to me. Simply put, you are fine with a few strokes but soon it gets to be too much of a good thing. You give out a warning but it is subtle and your purrson doesn't pay very close attention (or know what to look for) so when she doesn't heed your warning and continues to stroke you, you have no choice but to retaliate. For instructions about what to do, have your purrson consult the blog entry from October 19, 2009 called Biting the Hand That Feeds You.

Once she has read that, she needs to know two more things:
1) A good substitute for the Fogle book (if she can't get it), is Trevor Warner's Cat Body Language Phrasebook (available at some pet supply stores, many bookstores, and likelys your library). That will help her identify the signals you are giving her that are telling her to stop.
2) She needs a watch or clock with a second hand on it. It should be in full view when you are having a petting session. She needs to keep an eye on the clock and time how long it is before you give her your first warning that petting it getting to be too much; this will tell her when she should stop; it teaches her to respect your limits. Now she could also time how long it is between that warning your give and your getting rough (or leaving the session) and this will tell her how much "give" you have. Based on this knowledge, she can help you learn to like longer petting sessions.

Starting Point: She is to get to know your limit and stop petting you the moment you give her the warning. If she stops in proper time and you are allowed to leave or just sit on her lap without her touching you, she should immediately give you a treat; she can even give herself a treat, too. This lets you know that she respects your boundaries and that petting is a nice thing to receive from her.

Building from the Start: Once you have both mastered the starting point several times (give yourself lots of time and patience) you are ready for the next step. By now, chances are that you are more relaxed because you know she will stop in time and that she respects you. Now she should continue petting you for a just a few seconds more than she did before. You might even be so much more relaxed that the time before you give a warning is extended. Under no circumstances should she try to increase the petting session by more than five seconds!!

Okay, you are now at a session that lasts your old time (up to warning) plus 5 more seconds. What's next? Well she needs to try an increase the time, but do so slowly. For example, suppose you can stand petting for one minute before you give a warning. Then as you build up your petting sessions, she should start with a session of 65 seconds. And she should keep that length (if all goes well, and it likely will) for at least one week's worth of sessions before she tries to increase it again. The whole point is for her to pay very careful attention to your warnings, to respect them, to reward you for good behaviour, and to proceed with a great deal of patience.

At some point you will reach a new threshold, a time beyond which you will not go. And she must respect that because she will have earned your trust and needs to keep it.

And yes, maybe there will be a session when she over-steps the line, misjudges your tolerance or misses your cue. Mistakes happen. No rewards (we don't was to reinforce unfortunate behaviour). And as important, NO scolding. Remember: There is always next time.

So the bottom line is, with care and patience, she can get you to be comfortable with longer petting sessions though they may not be as long as she likes. My predecessor, Cathryn Twinkletoes, had a very low petting tolerance -- about 30 seconds. Over several months, Herself implemented the same plan as I'm recommending for you. Over several months, Cathryn learned to accept an almost three-minute petting session. Anything over three minutes and she would start to make starfish with her paws, signalling that the session was over. And because Herself respected that signal, Cathryn never had to get rough.

Cathryn also had a rule that pets on the head were always welcome but pets down the back where not. Purrhaps your purrson should also pay attention to where you enjoy petting the most and stick there first. Only later should she venture elsewhere, and then only briefly. And there is another rule that may apply: Some of us are find with the palm of the hand resting gently on our body but no longer in motion.

Nail Clipping

Now this bit about the vet. Well I have a very good vet with excellent staff but I still don't like going there! Luckily I love having my paws handled so my purrsons can give me a pawdicure as needed.

I don't know from your letter if your vet was successful in clipping your claws or just gave up. And I don't know the city in which you live. If you live in a place that has a cats-only clinic, you might want to give it a try. Staff there usually have lots of experience for dealing with situations like yours - even if you don't particularly enjoy it. They know how to wrap you in a towel or zip you up in a restraint suit, and do the deed before you know it has happened. My predecessor Cathryn Twinkletoes hated having her paws handled, but they were able to clip her nails. (And often, if she had to have a veterinary procedure that involve anesthetic, nail clipping was included at the time - easier on both parties.)

Again, depending upon where you live, another option is to have an animal health technician visit your home and do the clipping there. Some cats are happier on their home turf than in the presence of so many strange smells, etc. at a clinic. And some techs do outcall services (including petsitting).

I assume you purrson is worried about claw clipping because you are an indoor cat (whose long nails wouldn't be worn down by dirt and concrete) and because she would like to cuddle you more. In the interim, make sure you have a scratching post you like (very stable and over two feet high) and/or one of those corrugated cardboard scratching pads or ramps that lies on the floor. Have her put it near where you usually sleep, since most of us like a good scratch when we get up. At least this will help you shed your old claws which sometimes catch on fabric. And as a precautionary measure, have her fold over a fleece throw to put on her lap for the times you sit on her -- so your nails don't dig in.

Improvement #3 - Rewards

Rewards are an important reinforcement of desired behaviour. And your will deserve being rewarded.
At the present time, the most suitable reward for you is likely food (assuming you are not obese and that you don't have a medical problem). I don't know how you are fed: anytime dining? set meals? a bit of both? It would enhance your bond if your purrson would feed you purrsonally, by setting your food down at set times and calling you to it; and if she would use food rewards -- reserving a portion of your daily intake to reward desired behaviors. Rewards include a small snack after an interactive play session (to mimic eating after a successful hunt) and a treat or two after a successful petting session.

Reading Material

Because your purrson is interested in building a bond with you and is finding your relationship a challenge, I suggest that she read the following books to help her out - both of which are available at bookstores, on the net, or through the local library:
The Cat Whisperer by Claire Bessant, which has lots of tips about building bonds.
Think Like A Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat NOT a Sour Puss by Pam Johnson-Bennett. This is full of lots of detail and could be a useful reference book throughout your lives together.

Tabby, I look forward to hearing about your progress toward a mutually rewarding bond with your purrson.