Image via David Lade/Shutterstock
By Nancy Dunham
Many people who do not consider themselves to be cat people see cat behavior as random and unpredictable. But for those paying attention, understanding cats’ reactions and behaviors isn’t all that mysterious.
Problems arise when people unfamiliar with cat language do not pay attention to the messages a cat is trying to communicate. The result is an unpleasant experience for everyone involved.
The key for preventing these negative experiences is through educating people who are not versed in cat language—especially your cat’s—about what is appropriate and what makes your kitty uncomfortable.
This is especially important if you plan to have houseguests over who may want to interact with your kitty. Your cat may see your guests as invaders of their space, and thus act accordingly.
To make sure that your feline, your friends and your family members get along without a scratch, consider the following tips for helping visitors get better at understanding cats.
A Cat’s Curiosity Is Not an Invitation for Contact
Cats may approach guests without any desire to interact. And many guests refuse to accept this fact.
“If the cat gets up and then approaches, but with a stiff tail or quivering tail, it may be just investigating, not being friendly,” explains Pamela Uncles, M.Ed., CDBC, Companion Animal Behavior, who practices in the Washington, D.C. Metro area. If the cat is receptive—as shown through slowly blinking eyes, head bumps, and other similar behavior—“ask the person to sit down and simply reach out a hand with a finger extended gently, or with hand closed, fingers facing the floor, and allow the cat to approach to sniff or touch the middle knuckle with its nose. “
A guest may allow the receptive cat to rub its face against their hand or even scratch the cat under the chin or behind the ears. But guests shouldn’t go overboard, and neither should pet parents. “Don’t rub the fur or pet vigorously,” says Uncles. “Gently stroke the cat.”
When a cat has its ears back, twitches its tail or has dilated pupils, it likely has had enough interaction and would like to be left alone. Remember that cats need to be easily able to escape any situations that are making them uncomfortable.
It is smart to offer cats a variety of vertical and other hiding places throughout the home, like cat trees or a cat perch. “This can be very helpful when young children are visiting. Say ‘Leave kitty alone when she is in her tree—that's her safe place.’”
Be Proactive and Communicate Your Cat’s Needs Clearly
Russell Hartstein, pet behaviorist and CEO of FunPawCare in Los Angeles, explains that cat owners and their guests should examine how they interact with the cat and try to understand what their cat might be trying to communicate through cat language.
“People tend to go on autopilot around pets. They stop thinking and listening,” says Hartstein. “People express themselves from their own vantage point, thinking, ‘I love cats. I’ll show them I love them by engaging with them.’”
It’s essential to tell guests that it is best not to approach your cat. In fact, Hartstein tells guests to ignore his cats. That’s the best way to get a cat to like you. “I tell them, ‘If they come to you, I will instruct you what to do,’” he says. “I tell them to pretend the cat is not there.”
Don’t be surprised if guests ignore your warning, says Hartstein.
“Oftentimes, I say pet parents need to look at themselves as conductors of orchestras,” says Hartstein. “That can mean physically grabbing someone’s wrist and pulling it away if they don’t listen to you. They won’t like that, but you need to do it.”
It’s especially crucial for cat parents to establish firm boundaries when it comes to children interacting with cats. Nearly one-third of cat scratch disease cases in the US occurs in children ages 14 and younger, reports the CDC. This can be attributed to the fact that children do not understand cat language and need to be taught how to respect a cat’s space.
Case Study: Prudence the Cat
Consider Prudence, a 5-year old tabby rescue cat that looks sweet and acts sweet until she starts to feel threatened. For her, threats may emerge when strangers approach her, and when she is pet for too long.
Once she perceives a threat, there is a serious shift in the cat behaviors she exhibits. She goes on the defensive and uses every evasion tactic she has to end the interaction. She may even sink her needle-like teeth into the unsuspecting person’s hand, arm or other body part.
Does this make Prudence a bad cat? Does it make her a candidate for “My Cat From Hell?”
No, says Uncles, who consulted on Prudence’s behavior. She explains that Prudence’s parents didn’t understand her cat language and that was what was leading to the aggressive cat behaviors. If they had, they would have noticed warning signs.
Bottom line: the aggression they were witnessing was more their fault than hers. Prudence had told her people that she was “done” several times, to no effect. Of course she’s going to increase the consequences if she continues to be ignored.
Those who wonder how to change a cat’s behavior should first seek to understand the root of the problematic behavior. Many times cat parents and their guests do not see that some of their own behaviors can be a part of the problem.
“If a cat rests in a common area of the house, people who like cats may think they can reach out and touch the cat because they are part of the environment,” says Uncles. “It can be a serious problem if the cat sees this as an invasion of territory and strikes out with claws (or teeth) to defend itself.”
The best way to get the point across is to be as blunt as possible, says Uncles.
“Be specific. Say ‘When you follow Prudence and then reach into her space, she will grab your hand with her claws and scratch or bite you, so please stay out of her space for your own safety.’"
So, next time you have guests over, remember that the best way to create positive interactions between guests and your cat is to communicate your cat’s boundaries clearly so that they don’t feel threatened in their own space.