How to train a cat for companionship

Some people with cats seem to regard them as a sort of mobile item of decor that occasionally deigns to be interacted with; they’re OK with aloofness. My wife and I, on the other hand, like to have cats who are genuinely companionable, follow us around when they’re not doing anything important like eating or sleeping, purr at the sight of us, and greet us at the door when we come home.

My wife and I had a cat like that for nearly twenty years. Sugar died in April, and we’ve been developing an understanding with a new cat for a bit over two weeks. We’re doing the same things to establish trust with Zola that we did with Sugar. They seem to be working; Zola gets a little more present and interactive and nicer to us every day.

Accordingly, here are our rules for training a cat to be companionable. You may find some of these obvious, but I suspect that the ‘obvious’ set is widely variable between people, so they’re all worth writing down.

A general point is that cats respond as well as people do to (a) being treated affectionately, and (b) having a clear sense of what people expect from them. Kindness and consistent signaling make for a friendly and well-mannered cat.

1. Choose a breed or genetic line that is predisposed to be people-friendly.

Maine Coons are a good bet for this. I’ve read that Sphinxes are too, but a lot of people find hairless cats sufficiently weird that the choice wouldn’t work for them. Siameses are in my experience a particularly bad bet. In general be wary of purebred cats other than Coons, as they are likely to have been selected for breed traits that don’t include sociability; thus, your second best genetic bet after a Coon or Coon mix is probably a mongrel.

UPDATE: A comment after I first posted this raised the possibility that older ‘natural’ breeds other than Maine Coons – Turkish Angoras are the example that came up – may be better bets than modern show breeds.

(Sugar we believed to be a shorthaired Coon mix. Zola is a purebred Coon or as near as makes no difference.)

2. Let the cat choose you

It helps a lot if the cat likes you on first sight and smell. My wife and I are strong believers in interviewing a lot of cats and paying close attention to which one is friendliest. A cat from a generally people-friendly breed that seems to like you right off is the best choice.

Note: if you’re so new with cats that you don’t know how to introduce yourself, offer it the back of your hand to sniff (moving slowly so as not to startle it). If it doesn’t back away after taking your scent, lightly stroke its head and back, paying close attention to how it reacts.

(Sugar chose us under unusual circumstances involving the death of her previous humans and the nasty stormy night we brought her home for what might have been a temporary stay. Zola chose us at the rescue center.)

3. Be kind from the beginning, and respect the new cat’s boundaries

If you chose a cat who is either generally twitchy and fearful or specifically nervous around you, you screwed up the previous steps and should start over. Otherwise, the cat should be OK with being gently touched and petted – but don’t try to love-bomb it right way. Let it get its bearings in your house and re-approach you. This will happen naturally at feeding times, if at no other.

Cats vary in the amount of time they take to orient themselves in a new environment and gain some confidence. Sugar was very extroverted and landed on her feet instantly once she got over being panicked by the bad circumstances under which we brought her home. Zola hid for about three hours before emerging to head-bump us. If it takes much longer than that you have the option of luring the cat out of hiding with food.

4. Know basic cat-speak.

Googling for “cat body language” will turn up good hits on basic cat kinesics. I’ll add here a couple of things I think are generally underemphasized.

One is that some human imitations of cat signals actually work pretty well. You can slow-blink at your cat to convey affection and reassurance. You can imitate a purring noise and the cat will interpret that correctly as a desire to be social with it. If your cat likes to rub its face on you to show affection and possessive feelings, you can rub your face on it right back to return the message. Sometimes you have to compensate for the differences in scale; I find, for example, that gently rubbing a cat’s forehead with the tip of my nose works well.

Cats are generally most receptive to being touched on the back and upper flanks, and on top of the head. Less so on the lower flanks and belly; it’s a sign of trust and relaxation when a belly touch doesn’t make them tense at least a little. Trust your intuition; the vulnerable zones on a cat are analogous to those on a human and should be treated with similar respect.

Cats like to be gently scratched around the sides and back of the neck, under the chin, and on the tops of their heads. These are the places they have trouble reaching when they groom themselves.

When moving your hand towards a cat to touch it, don’t rush. Slow and smooth is best. Stopping the approach motion for a moment just before contact is a way of asking permission that gives the cat a chance to politely decline, which will improve the quality of the interaction when you do make contact.

Even aloof cats often like to be touched if you negotiate with them properly. If you always give a cat the option to politely refuse contact, it will never have to do so emphatically with nipping or clawing. With Sugar and Zola I can count the number of times this has happened to me in twenty years on the fingers of one hand and still have fingers left over.

Mammalian body language for affection is very strongly conserved across phyletic lines, so trust your instincts.

5. Hand training.

Never, ever swat a cat with your hand; if you have to discipline it, yell at it loudly and immediately or spritz it with a squirt bottle. You want your cat to strongly associate human hands with petting and good things. If you do this, and always reward a cat for coming towards a waggling hand with gentle petting, you’ll be able to get it to follow you around with hand motions. If you get this really right, the cat will probably develop a habit of expressing affection by licking your hands.

Advanced hand training includes teaching the cat that when you repeatedly pat a chair or bedclothes it should jump up to where the hand is. Again, reward correct behavior with petting. Cats can catch on fast this way; Zola has already learned this response in only two weeks, though he’s not 100% reliable at it yet. That will come.

6. Positive reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement doesn’t work well on cats; they seem to have trouble connecting the aversive stimulus to the behavior you want them to avoid. This is why if you’re going to yell at your cat, or squirt-bottle it, you have to do that immediately – after even a second or two of delay they are unable to causally connect the punishment with the misbehavior.

Positive reinforcement works much better – and not just on housecats; people who train the big felines report the same thing. If you reward behaviors that you like, your cat will get the message. A cat that knows what you like and knows it can get positive attention reliably will be a secure and happy cat that holds its tail high; training by reward is good for its peace of mind as well as yours.

7. Do cats love?

Some people think cats are mercenary creatures who aren’t really capable of love but engage in affectionate behavior solely to get what they want from humans. I think that attitude is a sign of failure to notice that human “love” can be reductively analyzed that way with almost equal justice, but doing so is not helpful to being happy. So it is with cats.

You get into philosophical territory here: what is love, anyway? I think it is the condition in which some other being’s happiness becomes necessary to your own. Some cats behave as though the happiness of their humans is necessary to their own; Sugar was definitely one, and Zola shows clear signs of becoming another. Doubtless this is a recruitment of very old circuitry for pack bonding and rewarding parental investment that is common to all mammalian lineages.

I knew Sugar loved me, in whatever sense the verb is meaningful for either cats or humans, when she wrapped herself around my feet and rested her face on my instep while I programmed. Cats are less complicated than humans; if you treat them with kindness and can make them feel secure and happy, love generally follows.

36 thoughts on “How to train a cat for companionship

  1. I’ll second that Siamese cats are a bad bet for companionship. They might bond with one human, much as Chihuahuas will, but that’s about the limit. Otherwise, they are living examples of all of the bad stereotypes of cat behavior and attitude.

    I attribute my roommate’s dislike for cats to the fact that the only ones he interacted with as a kid were Siamese belonging to one grandmother. He gets along fine with more sociable ones, in the short term. Longer term…no idea; not enough data.

  2. Excellent article. Eric, perhaps you could team up with the Lion Whisperer to write a book? I bet it would blow Cesar Milan “the Dog Whisperer” out of the water. Lions and hyenas are cooler than dogs. Cesar Milan has sold millions of his books.

    http://www.lionwhisperer.co.za/

  3. And for the win, bring in Temple Grandin as co-author or editor or something, so this could be a follow-up to her recent book on dog training too.

    If you like this idea, I’ll contact the Lion Whisperer and Temple Grandin about the project.

  4. Siamese may be a generally bad bet, but in my case, I’ve had good luck with them. Once they bond, they are very affectionate. Vocal too.

  5. > I find, for example, that gently rubbing a cat’s forehead with the tip of my nose works well.

    The Nose of Peace?

  6. We are si am ese if you pl ease. +1 on the siamese issue.

    Cats ARE trainable if you get them young enough. I had one (a burmese mutt) trained to shake hands, open doors by hanging on the door handle (but not close them), and sit on my shoulder while walking around. This latter behavior was very cute as a kitten, as he could basically leap to my shoulder with a single bound. After he got bigger and older he’d miss regularly, and have to claw his way up my back, which was painful (but still cute when he got up there)

  7. Nice to know that my instincts around cats are correct. But I’m not surprised, as cats generally like me on first meeting. I’ve successfully befriended some cats that their ‘owners’ warned would probably not come up to a stranger. I suspect Eric has this trait too, based on comments he’s made.

    I had not heard this about Siamese, but my brother’s Siamese fits the picture you’ve described. Not exactly averse to humans, but not very much inclined to play with them. I always wondered if it was because she was the runt of her litter, but after reading the above I think it may just have been the breed. (She was the only Siamese I’ve ever known well, over a period of years.)

    I’ve interacted with cats who would come up to a human and roll over their backs, demanding a belly rub, but it’s true that they knew the human in question well. And even when they like it, you have to be sensitive to signals that they are done and want you to stop.

    “I had one (a burmese mutt) trained to…sit on my shoulder while walking around.”

    Yes, I had a kitten that liked to do that. He would dig his claws into my heavy winter jacket to hang on, and I would walk leaning forward just enough to give him a stable spot. Sadly, he passed away very young due to an accident. The other two cats I had growing up were not quite as affectionate.

  8. None of this is foolproof. Both my parents and I have had cats known to the neighborhood for being people-loving cats, and until now, none of our cats have been shy with people. Mom recently adopted from a shelter where the cats roam free. Teenie chose Mom by tapping her on the shoulder…but even after several years barely tolerates Mom, and does not tolerate anyone else.

  9. Several years ago, I met a couple through dog obedience school who owned a pair of siamese cats. They’d recently bought a chihuahua puppy and left it at home with the cats unsupervised. They came back to find the cats had killed and partially devoured the pup.

    Their new dog was significantly larger.

  10. They might bond with one human, much as Chihuahuas will, but that’s about the limit.

    I’ve known several Siamese very well, and I don’t think the limit is always one human, but I agree it’s a small number. In terms of the (probably apocryphal) story that some human tribes have only a few number words, basically “one”, “two”, “three”, and “more than three”, I would say the limit is certainly not “more than three”. :-)

  11. >I’ve successfully befriended some cats that their ‘owners’ warned would probably not come up to a stranger. I suspect Eric has this trait too, based on comments he’s made.

    Good guess. Yes, I do; it’s pretty reliable.

  12. If I may chime in with regard to breeds, I’ve had the extraordinary good fortune to have raised a literal family, a mother and her kittens, of Turkish Angoras – playful, highly intelligent, expressive, and social critters, in addition to being extremely handsome furballs. Mine are all pure white, one green eyed, one blue eyed, and their mother odd-eyed. They have never, in ten years, reacted to a new human in any way other than loud purring and demands for affection.

  13. >They have never, in ten years, reacted to a new human in any way other than loud purring and demands for affection.

    Interesting. Do you think this is a breed trait of Angoras or just of the one genetic line?

    The Wikipedia article describes Turkish Angoras as friendly, intelligent, and highly trainable.

  14. My cat is a Ragdoll — looks like a Himalayan, but with softer fur that doesn’t mat — and the breed characteristic is that they are exceptionally people-oriented. Hotel-lobby cats, or bookstore cats, are often Ragdolls because they quite like being petted by a large number of total strangers every day.

  15. Regarding belly-petting: A lying-down cat (lying on its side or back) typically has a grab reflex – if you put something near their belly or touch their belly they are likely to want to grab that thing, including if it’s your hand. BUT a cat also has another relevant reflex which is: if you scratch their head or rub their back they are likely to raise their head or stretch out to lean into and increase/prolong the contact.

    That second reflex cancels out the first one. So if you want to rub your cat’s belly, use TWO hands for the job. Start rubbing/scratching the head or upper back with one hand, then WHILE you are doing that, rub the belly lightly with the other hand. You will find this surprisingly pain-free – the distraction of a good head-scratch seems to makes attacking the other hand too much trouble to bother with.

    (My primary test subject was a Bombay mix, but I’ve checked this with other cats and it seems to bear out as a general thing.)

  16. > This is why if you’re going to yell at your cat, or squirt-bottle it, you have to do that immediately.

    You don’t want to actually yell at the cat, since that’s likely to just scare it off, with generally bad results. My cat reacts much better if you say something like “oh, no, no no nohhhh, ohhhh, no, no no no” at him, with slow and consistent intonation. He instantly becomes much better behaved. AIUI, cats will actually make this sound when they’re upset by a conspecific, and they understand it the same way.

  17. >Interesting. Do you think this is a breed trait of Angoras or just of the one genetic line?

    I think it’s a combination of genetic and environmental factors – Angoras favour friendliness to begin with, but when you hand-raise them literally from the moment they are born, those tendencies are strengthened. That gregarious nature can be a good or bad thing – in an inside-only housecat, it’s great, but if what you want is something to go out into your yard and terminate your mole problem, my fuzzballs would be worse than useless. Thor, the large (understatement of the year – he’s around 25-30 pounds of muscle and fuzz!) male of the litter, is more likely to try to adopt a mole than eat it, and he freaks out if he can’t see ceiling. His one attempt at bird-hunting (at least, I think that’s what he was doing. Maybe he wanted to make friends…) ended with him swan diving off a fourth-story balcony chasing a pigeon, and bouncing off a cedar bush. He was completely unharmed, but scared out of his hairy gourd for days after.

  18. Ot, (though cats are great – we had a Russian Blue who tried to feed our newborn daughter half-dead mice, and then as a toddler tried to lure her out into the forest for further education.)

    Swedish SciFi from the 18th century predicting, aside from flying bicycles, scent pianos and other good things, the complete mechanical automatization of government.

    Note the bankers are in complete control.

    Oxygen and Aromasia
    by Claes Lundin
    translated by Bertil Falk
    http://www.bewilderingstories.com/issue266/oxygen12.4.html
    Chapter 12: New Joint Stock Companies
    Part 4: Bureaucracy

    “I fear that I have to go home and see to it that the machines of my department are properly greased,” said the chief machinist. “We have a cabinet meeting tomorrow. The chief traffic director is very particular and won’t tolerate that one single gear-wheel squeaks when the Government machinery starts up.”

    “Oh, have another glass of water,” the polite host invited. “The engine-men can see to it that everything is well greased.”

    The traffic director, or as he was called in the past, the prime minister or state minister, was a fairly rigorous superior. He kept a tight hand on the chief machinists, who on their part kept a close check on the machinists or, as they were once called, the deputy assistants and head of divisions.

    “I think that’s an insufferably bureaucratic machinery,” the bank director said. “It could undoubtedly be much simplified.”

    “True, true,” many agreed. “The reorganization of the civil service departments has been needed.”

    The traffic machinist was not at all of that opinion. He did not want any other change than a cost-of-living allowance every year, or rather every half year.

  19. I’m not much of a cat person, but ended up playing stepfather to a trio of itty-bitty feral kittens about a year and a half ago. Momcat looked to be a Main Coon, or more likely a mix. One of the kittens (OK, so cats now. Big cats.) is obviously part Siamese, and who knows what else (mountain lion, demon, etc.).
    None of them will go walkies on a leash, nor bark at the postman, but starting with very young Coon-mixes and treating them more or less like unofficial puppies seems to have worked fairly well; they follow me around, solicit belly rubs, and generally act like real pets, if not exactly dogs nor parrots.
    The process probably would have gone better had I followed your guidelines, but, starting right out violating the first two rules (by nabbing random kittens, only one of whom was initially friendly), and not knowing much about cats (but a moderate amount about critter behavior in general) doesn’t really make for doing it right. Sometimes one gets lucky, though, and I guess I did this time.
    I haven’t used a spray bottle for discouragement, mainly because early on the critters needed occasional baths and I didn’t want them being any more water-averse than necessary.
    Now, if I could just teach Huckleberry not to play EOD Tech with my prototypes, nor to summon Cthulhu from his perch above my desk, all would be well. (Any suggestions on teaching cats not to summon Cthulhu? Short of soaking the Great Old One in sriracha sauce?)

  20. I’ve found that the spot between a cat’s shoulder blades has something of a magical quality. Scratching there can induce a bliss state. :-)

  21. I haven’t used a spray bottle for discouragement, mainly because early on the critters needed occasional baths and I didn’t want them being any more water-averse than necessary.

    If they’re part Coon you may not have to worry about that: Maine Coons and their cousins, the Norwegian Forest Cats, are notoriously fond of water and won’t hesitate to dive in and go for a swim.

  22. You don’t want to actually yell at the cat, since that’s likely to just scare it off, with generally bad results. My cat reacts much better if you say something like “oh, no, no no nohhhh, ohhhh, no, no no no” at him, with slow and consistent intonation. He instantly becomes much better behaved. AIUI, cats will actually make this sound when they’re upset by a conspecific, and they understand it the same way.

    Cats respond to Shia LaBeouf impersonations. Will have to keep this in mind.

  23. So many of your points fit what we’ve gone through with Penny. I think one thing that also helps in her case was that she had had kittens just before we adopted her; I often think her mom-cat instincts have taken over, and she sees us as big kittens that she needs to take care of. In any event, I’ve no doubt she loves us; she’ll generally respond to us holding out our hand by nudging it and licking it (“giving kissies”); she’ll also lick my forehead, something which I know is a very high compliment. She appreciates being held, at least some of the time; she’ll often ask to be held by doing something like jumping on the back of my chair and climbing on my shoulder.

  24. Wow. That was uncanny. Your experiences match my own. You’re the first person I’ve ‘known’ that has mentioned the ‘slow blink’. Attempting to mirror cat behavior that they display when clearly in a state of relaxation and comfort was a natural first step.

    When you get your cat to be happy stretched out on its back, lying along the valley between your thighs – head pointing up or down, no matter – while you rub/massage its belly….you have total victory. Unmistakable evidence of a solid bond of trust and affection.

  25. (Any suggestions on teaching cats not to summon Cthulhu? Short of soaking the Great Old One in sriracha sauce?)

    You need sarten signs sech as was used onct by the lost Old Ones, whoever they was. Sorry, it’s the only way.

  26. I have a 12 year old blue persian called Spooky (it’s girl). I got her when she was 8 years old and it has changed my opinion about cats completely. She is extremely affectionate with every human that comes through the door. Quite often, she welcomes us when we arrive home and, surprisingly, lays on her back, stretches and demands a thorough belly rub. She never scratched my two dogs, despite them being quite a nuisance at a young age for her. Instead, she would hit them repeatedly on the nose with her paws, like a tiny furry boxer.

  27. We have a black short fur mutt cat who is VERYfriendly with strangers as well as super affectionate to his family. we got him as s kitten from a litter that was born under a little girl’s (then age 10) bed and socialized by well trained, affectionate children from the time they opened their eyes. He even cuddles up to the dog (a 95 lb German Shepherd-Collie mix), especially on cold winter nights. Everyone who got a kitten from this litter says the same thing about the cat that adopted them.

  28. Look at friendly transactions between cats and the scale of your hand to a cat. You might imagine the standard strokes and scratches pose your hand as a cat. Spatial context is part. You have the language and the tone you present, at least in the mirror they make for our soul, however else you may try or accidentally communicate what a member of the pointy eared crowd manages, or decides, alas, to grasp.

    I once knew a Siamese named Puchin, a friendly fellow indeed. He thoughtfully brought me a bird I rescued by a maneuver like Heimlich, less focused and more like a quick hug. Had done that before with my own cat, after trying to pry out my parakeet got him punctured by the fangs and dead. But I pointed Puchin the wrong way, for the bird he coughed up flew into my house. So instead of welcoming my Siamese friend in for a visit, I had to shut him out while I went in to catch the bird. The bird flew away fine once outside. Puchin had gone off to find another I guess. Ordinary dealing with cats.

  29. Well, to each their own. I consider it silly to deconstruct solitary predators and try to make pack animals of them. I’ve lived with cats all my life, but I don’t expect them to interact with me much: for one thing, I am mostly diurnal and they are mostly nocturnal. My cats are commensals, period.

    That said, the other people in my households don’t agree with this at all. Significantly, they are dog-and-cat people, whereas I am emphatically not a dog person. I want, and get, affection from members of my own species.

    (Your points 2-6 are basic good animal training, or child training for that matter, and I agree with them completely.)

  30. > I consider it silly to deconstruct solitary predators and try to make pack animals of them.

    Housecats aren’t solitary by nature. A lot of people think they are, but that’s because cat kinesics are, from the viewpoint of humans, much more subtle and harder to read than dog kinesics – thus we tend to think cats are ignoring each other when they’re not. It can be done, though; I think I read cats almost as well as experienced dog owners read dogs, and the evidence for this is that I’m quite good at making friends not just with human-friendly breeds like Coons but with cats who have a rep for being shy, hostile, or one-person-only.

    Housecats are not exactly pack animals either, if your model for “pack animal” is canids; their dominance hierarchies are subtler and more fluid than that. But they are social. Unrelated housecats routinely form friendships – the rescue people told me Zola was buddies with another Maine Coon tom I met there hight Sir Fluffalot (who on first meeting climbed on my shoulder, purred in my ear, and clearly liked me quite a lot). While friendly peer bonding is probably more common in housecats due to neotenization it has been observed in the wildcats genetically closest to felis domesticus as well (felis silvestris lybica, felis sylvestris sylvestris).

    You can communicate with cats in a very basic way by emulating the signals mothers and kittens use to each other – most humans can learn this quickly, and do so half-instinctively because they’re fairly similar in all mammals. The next step up is observing and emulating the peer-to-peer signaling that adults use, which is more divergent. Knowing a couple of different ways to say “I am not hostile” in adult cat-speak will take you a long, long way even with difficult animals.

  31. Of course there are exceptions to everything.

    We seem to have gotten the one social and friendly Siamese. Into a sort of old-time care home (since we have someone in the house at almost all times) when his old family had difficult circumstances for animals, he was 17 when we got him.

    And he’s friendly with everyone and everything, even the herbivorous smaller pets and our occasional distant relative who only comes to our town once in 20 years. And their dog.

    He’s also completely hopeless with hunting, and won’t even touch meat unless it’s cooked. We’re half-convinced that these are somehow connected…

  32. I owned a number of cats across the years, most of them were of no particular breed, and I always had very sociable cats. One of the first was a big gray/black striped cat, he was literally roarring when we brought it hom. After twleve hours it was the best cat one could ever hope to have.

    Now I have a 9 years old fat Siamese and he’s the best cat I ever had. He always seeks for the affection to all the members of my family, including my girlfriend, that moved to my place after 4-5 years he lived with us. Now he literally adores her and follows her anywhere.

    I don’t really think it is a matter of breed, even with dogs I always had pleasant experiences, even with dogs I saw for the first time. In time I came to think it’s a matter of bonding and physical language. Of course every pet will respond slightly differently from each other, but not that much.

  33. 7. Do cats love?

    For anyone who has ever observed a beloved cat around their owner, the answer to me can only be an unreserved yes.

    When I watch this video of a lion greeting his previous owners after he was set free in the wild for a year, I can see only one thing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvCjyWp3rEk Am I anthropomorphisizing? Maybe, but I think not.

    What do you see?

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