Interactions with your cat

The modern owner/cat relationship is a complex one. Many people see their pets as members of the family and decisions about holidays and moving house have the cat's wellbeing at their very centre. As far back as 1985 a survey revealed that 99% of both dog and cat owners considered their pets to be members of the family and 97% talked to their pet at least once a day. 

Substitute children?

Many studies over the years have also classified pet cats and dogs as 'substitute children'. Some owners describe their relationship with their cat as being closest to 'mother', some occasionally talked to their cat in the same way as they would talk to a child, others talk to it exclusively in this way.

However, to describe the relationship as substituting for a child simply on these grounds overlooks many other important factors and is a gross over-simplification. Owners are merely stating how their cat fulfils particular needs for them. To be 'a child' to its owner means that a cat satisfies a need in that owner to look after a dependent. Dogs and cats are perhaps more commonly seen by their owners as 'close friends' and most of us would say that they are aware of our moods. 

While it isn't a bad thing that owners should care so greatly it is important to maintain a healthy balance. Pet ownership should be about benefit and pleasure for both parties – it shouldn’t be about fulfilling an emotional need in the owner. Factors which contribute to very high levels of owner attachment to cats are many and varied, but being single or childless or being in need of emotional support are significant ones. Usually, the greater a person's state of anxiety and conflict, the greater will be their demands of the relationship. If, under these circumstances, the cat's emotional needs are suppressed or ignored, in favour of the emotional requirements of the owner, then this tends to produce a less satisfactory relationship for human and cat. Expecting the cat to be able to fulfil human psychological demands lies at the heart of many feline behaviour problems.

How does your cat see you?

When it comes to viewing the relationship from a cat's perspective it is probably right to assume that cats see us as equals, socially, rather than anything to be revered or obeyed! Your cat's behaviour however will change depending on its mood or the circumstances and it will oscillate between kitten, juvenile and adult responses during interaction with you. You may also observe, if you have more than one cat, that they can be competitive over you and view you more as a resource than a companion when it comes to allowing other cats to have access.

Unfortunately not all cats respond to emotional demands as robustly as others. Too much attention and too much time in each other's company can create a dependency where a cat feels unable to do anything without the emotional support of the owner. These cats can become deeply distressed when their owners are absent and this kind of intensity doesn't make anyone truly happy. 

Put your cat in the driving seat

Cats should be allowed to be cats and, to a great extent, to dictate the quality and quantity of interaction with their owners. Spending at least part of the day in normal cat activity keeps the feline spirit alive so encouraging your cat to play, explore, patrol, climb and jump on a daily basis is a great routine to adopt.

Do you speak ‘cat’?

We all feel we have a special insight into our own cat's mind but are we really communicating with them? Do they understand what we are saying to them and vice versa?

The beauty of the owner/cat relationship is that it can function fairly well without a common language. Cats may signal a specific demand and the owner will misinterpret the communication as a request for something completely different and respond accordingly, yet it never really seems to matter. If owners appear compliant then the cats will keep trying until they get their message across. They are very tolerant of our lack of understanding! 

Cats will also learn new behaviour in this 'trial and error' sort of way when they communicate with their owners. Learning takes place when certain actions have positive consequences, for example, if a cat miaows when it enter the kitchen (with the true intent of alerting the owner to an intruder in the garden) the owner may think that the cat wants to be fed. If this happens a few times then the cat will learn that if it miaows in the kitchen, it receives food and this then becomes a regular demand. The risk then is overfeeding and weight gain with all the ensuing health implications.

So, the moral of this story is, every miaow is not a cry for food . . . at the beginning anyway!

Don’t fake it!

When cats watch us they appear to be very adept at reading non-verbal cues, particularly if they represent a change in our normal behaviour or in any way signal danger. As solitary survivalists cats need to be ahead of the game when it comes to identifying a threat in close proximity.

Somehow, if you communicate something to your cat and you don't, in your heart of hearts, really mean it then your cat will know when you are faking it. Cats will always know when you are scared or angry no matter how hard you try to hide it, because subtle changes in your body language will give your true feelings away. 

This leads to, arguably, the first rule of communication with your cat: your cat will always know your true intentions and mood so don’t even bother to pretend. Remember this the next time you approach your cat, just like normal, with a worming pill hidden in your pocket. Your cat will know because you will reveal your intentions in the way you behave. The secret is to convince yourself that all is well and you will appear relaxed and much less threatening.

Cat speak

Cats communicate with each other when they are face to face by using combinations of body posture, movement, ear, head and tail carriage. Some body language is very descriptive but others show such subtle changes that humans can easily miss them, so you need to learn how to recognise and interpret your cat’s behaviour. Cats do everything for a reason; every move and posture is there for a purpose no matter how nonchalant they appear at first sight. Next time your cat approaches you, or draws your attention towards it, try to 'think cat' before you assume you know what’s on its mind.

Cats will use vocalisation for a number of reasons: to greet their owners after a period of absence, communicate mood, alert their owner to danger or to request something. Sound can also be used as a warning to deter owners from doing something that the cat doesn't like. When a cat returns from outdoors then it may use a particular cry to indicate that it has brought prey back to the den. A chirruped greeting is used if the owner has been out or the cat has returned from a garden excursion. If you hear this brief sound it requires an equally short acknowledgement that, depending on your cat’s personality can be anything from a quick verbal 'reply' to a 'pick up and cuddle'. If you are unclear which your cat would choose then a struggling cat that pushes away from you is a good indication it didn't want to be picked up!

The use of vocalisation is a learned behaviour as sound is almost always reinforced by attentive owners so is likely to be repeated. Some cats use very similar sounds for all demands but give some intention of their desires by standing near the object in question, for example a door or food cupboard, whilst staring directly at the owner or the object. An alert to danger, for example, is often accompanied by pacing, particularly from one window to another as the perceived threat has been detected outside.

Rubbing is a marking behaviour that is often performed on the owner’s legs during the process of greeting or awaiting the provision of food. This does not require acknowledgement specifically and owners often find it confusing that their cat appears to solicit attention and then reject it when they bend down to stroke.

If your cat falls over in front of you to expose its belly, you may make a common misinterpretation that your cat wants its stomach rubbed. What this behaviour probably indicates is one of two things: a sense of security in your presence or a signal that is seen in cat to cat communication that means "I want to play fight". Either way, an outstretched hand at this point towards your cat's most vulnerable area will often be greeted with a grab, kick and bite.

Showing love through play

Owners tend to feel that love is only expressed by showing tactile affection through holding and caressing. Unfortunately holding and caressing, for all but the most socialised and tolerant cats, is often perceived as restrictive and controlling. 

If you want to create a positive feeling in your cat when you walk into a room then playtime is a good tool to increase the bond (see playing with your cat). It mimics the behaviour associated with hunting and predatory sequences that are hard-wired in your cat’s brain and naturally rewarding. It is also exercise that seems to have a cumulative effect: the more your cat has, the more it enjoys it and the more it wants!

Busy owners often include play into their schedule at random times when the thought and inclination arise. This will not be the ideal time for the cat as, being creatures that thrive on routine, they will undoubtedly have patterns of activity that span a twenty-four hour period with little major deviation. It is unlikely that your cat will have any desire to play in the mid-afternoon if this period is normally set aside for sleep or rest. However if your cat has a mad-half-hour dashing round the house at nine o’clock at night this would be the time to consider a scheduled game or two.

Playtime doesn’t have to be prolonged and actually has the most beneficial effects if it is provided relatively frequently in short energetic bursts of activity. Six exciting five-minute sessions with a toy on the end of a rod and string is worth much more than a solid half hour waggling a fabric mouse in front of a bored cat’s nose! 

Cat etiquette

Finally, if you want to really please your cat here are a few simple rules:

• Let your cat dictate the pace of the relationship; always let your cat make the first move.

• Don’t disturb your cat when it is asleep or resting.

• Ignore your cat if it is perched on a high place, like a shelf or cupboard; this respects its desire at that time to watch without being seen.

• A private spot for rest isn’t private if you disturb your cat whilst there, so respect these places of sanctuary.

• Less is more in the cat world; don’t overdo the petting.

• Don’t automatically stare at your cat when it comes into the room – most cats like to feel they can move around without always being the centre of attention.

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