The first time my sister spent the night at my house and left the guest bedroom door open, she came downstairs with circles under her eyes and a disheveled head.
“Was the bed uncomfortable?” I asked nervously.
“No,” she said. “Apollo slept on my head and I was scared to move.”
For context, Apollo was my all-black cat who had, by all accounts, a tremendously gentle personality. He loved to cuddle.
“You can put him down if he does that, you know,” I said.
“He was growling at me,” she insisted.
“That was purring,” I said. My sister was heavily traumatized by one of my mom’s cats as a kid. Clearly I am the only veterinarian in the family.
Apollo spent the entirety of my sister’s visit following her around the house, sitting on her lap, drooling on her in happiness, rubbing between her legs. To her eyes he was stalking, planning to eat her, and trying to trip her down the stairs.
“Why is he doing this?” she asked. “He’s freaking me out.”
“He likes you, I think,” I said. He was used to my loud and exuberant children and the Golden Retrievers who bounced all over the place, as well as a mother (me) who would regularly trim his nails with no warning. To have this quiet, meek person who slinked around the house and avoided eye contact with him was a breath of fresh air, and Apollo wanted to reward my sister for her gentle nature by being with her as much as possible.
I always thought the “cats are attracted to people who despise them” adage was an old wives’ tale, until I observed it for myself. Apollo would be pleasant enough to cat lovers, but he thrived on being with ailurophobes. The more they were threatened by him, the more allergic they were to cat dander or grossed out by the sight of a feline licking his hind end, the more Apollo was determined to do that on their lap.
Science attempts to explain this contrarian attitude through evaluating typical feline behavior. When a cat lover like me sees a beautiful Persian lounging on the couch, what do we do? Make a beeline over to them with hands stretched out and staring them in their beautiful green eyes. In short, we jump on them like a lion jumping a gazelle.
On the other hand, someone who doesn’t like cats will try not to look at them, touch them, or even acknowledge their existence. In short, they make themselves the most attractive, least threatening person in the room.
I told my sister the best way to chase Apollo off was to feign interest in him, but I’m not sure she ever got the memo. Eventually she learned that Apollo was not going to devour her in the middle of the night, and they went on to have a beautiful détente. The last time she came to visit and met my new cat Penelope for the first time, Penelope spent the night in her armpit. And so the circle continues.
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang