By Kate Hughes
Cats are mercurial, finicky creatures, but the people who love them want to snuggle them anyway.
Cat owners work hard to form a bond with their feline friends. This is easier with some cats than others, but there are methods that can help owners lay the foundation for a successful human-cat relationship. If you’re bringing a kitty home for the first time or looking to improve your relationship with an existing feline tenant, here are some tips and tricks to forming a long-lasting and genuine bond with your pet.
When it comes to bonding with your cat, take it slow and give them space. “The most important thing is to observe before jumping right in,” says Dr. Ryane E. Englar, assistant professor and clinical education coordinator at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. “Playing it cool can be very difficult. We usually want to engage with cats right away—pet them, scoop them up, and see how they interact with us. But that’s the human way of doing things. Cats see the world differently than we do.”
Dr. Nicholas Dodman, an animal behavior expert and professor emeritus at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, agrees. “You can't force cats to do anything. You just can't make them love you, and you can't run over to a cat that you’ve never met before without causing issues.”
Englar recommends giving cats a space that is somewhat out of the way where they can hide. “They’re going to want a place to process what’s happening, especially if they’re new to your home,” she explains. This out-of-the-way place should also include what Englar calls “safety spaces,” such as vertical spots like cat trees or something as simple as a cardboard box with an entrance and exit cut into it. “You want to be sure the cat has an escape route from the box,” she adds.
As a general rule, cats are creatures of habit. Moving to a new environment is tough, so owners should do everything they can to make that transition go as easily as possible. This includes getting the lowdown on what your kitty was being fed. “Suddenly switching their food can be very jarring,” Englar says. “You can’t expect a cat to adapt to a new environment, new smells, new sounds, new people, and new food all at once. You should be aiming to keep as many things the same as possible until they can acclimate to the new environment. Cats take comfort in consistency.”
That’s not to say you can never transition to a different food or new surroundings, just that your cat will be more comfortable with incremental changes rather than a bunch all at once.
As your cat becomes more comfortable, she’ll likely start exploring her new home and getting to know her new people. Some cats jump right in, while others may take weeks to warm up. The key is letting the cat choose when it’s time to start bonding. “Cat’s decide when it’s OK to start making friends,” Englar notes.
When a cat is ready, she’ll start exhibiting bonding behaviors, like kneading and bunting. “Bunting is when the cat walks right up to you and starts rubbing you with her forehead,” Dodman describes. “This often comes with other friendly behaviors like purring and sitting on your lap or right next to you.”
“Kneading is good behavior to look for as well,” adds Englar. “Kittens do it all the time, but in adult cats, it means they’re very comfortable and relaxed around you.”
There’s no real time frame for this part of the bonding process, explains Dodman. “Some cats [warm up] to you right off the bat, but others may need a little more encouragement. It all depends on their personality,” he says.
Being able to read your cat’s body language is key to avoiding bonding setbacks. Englar says to look for a number of body language clues that indicate a cat might not be comfortable and you need to take a step back. “These signs include flattened ears, an aggressively twitching tail, and super dilated pupils. If you see any of these, it’s probably not a good time to reach out and pet them,” she explains.
Englar adds that purring can also sometimes indicate that a cat is agitated. “It’s confusing, because purring usually means a cat is happy, but sometimes they’ll use it as a self-soothing mechanism.” If a cat is purring but still seems agitated, it’s best to give him some space.
While Englar and Dodman are adamant that you shouldn’t force interaction on your new kitty, they do mention that owners can take steps to encourage it. “Make sure good things happen when you’re around. Treats should appear. Food should be in your general vicinity,” Dodman describes. “You could also try playing with some hands-off toys like a laser pointer. The cat won’t recognize that you have the laser’s remote, but he’ll be playing and chasing while you’re in the room, making your presence welcome.”
This can be particularly beneficial if you have a skittish or shy cat. Dodman calls the process counter-conditioning. “You’re having fun together. They’re expecting fear, and they’re getting fun.”
Englar adds that many cats are very food motivated, which you can use to your advantage when trying to spend time with them. “You can even take treats and put them on your lap. That might be all the motivation a cat needs to come over and settle in for a nap.”
Bonding with your cat is a process, and chances are you won’t be best buds immediately. “You might not even always be moving in a positive direction,” Dodman says. “You could be doing quite well and then have a setback. You just have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep trying. It’s like a game of ‘Chutes and Ladders’—but hopefully it’ll be three steps forward and only one step back.”