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.