From Scaredy Cat to Party Animal
If your cat isn't a party animal, you are not alone. Many felines shun social events and seem to prefer solitude to human interaction, which they may fear. This behavior might ruffle your fur since all of us at times want our buddies to share in the fun and meaningful aspects of our lives. If your cat's first inclination is to run and hide, help is here from Suzanne Hetts, PhD, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist of Littleton, Colorado's Animal Behavior Associates.
What you see in a shelter -- albeit with its stressful environment -- is likely what you'll get, especially if you choose a "feral-background" kitty. If you adopt this type past the age of ten to twelve weeks, it's probably not going to be a sociable, lap-sitting cat. "Characteristics that help a cat survive in the wild are different from those that make a good companion animal," says Dr. Hetts.
Behaviorists have identified the trait of boldness, which, when linked to paternal parentage and combined with socialization, produces the friendliest cats. Dennis Turner, a Swiss behaviorist, found that the friendliest cats had the same father or sire. Kittens from bold fathers tend to approach unfamiliar objects, but they still need socialization. Heredity and environmental influences are both important.
Good social skills begin early in life. Introduce your kitten to cat-friendly adults and children -- more than one new person once a week -- from a very young age. The sensitive period for socialization is between two and seven weeks. "This critical 'early socialization' should include gentle handling, including being picked up," Dr. Hetts suggests. "Every visitor should dangle your cat's favorite toy for a few minutes, or if your cat enjoys treats, bequeath a few choice morsels."
Safely widen kitty's world
Consider promoting supervised, confined outdoor time so your cat can cope with change in a more complex environment. A good start is to acclimate your cat as early as possible to a harness. You may also buy a cat containment system or a new "kitty stroller" to encourage environmental enrichment. Just be sure that your cat's vaccinations are kept up to date if you plan to safely introduce your kitty to the great outdoors.
Less is more
Try this training tip: Once you've played with or given treats to your cat, ignore it until it approaches you. "The one who's not trying to force appears safest to the cat," says Hetts. Don't try to pick up your feline at this point, but instead show it you know how to behave in "cat company" by using these greeting techniques:
- Communicate like a cat Use proper cat greeting skills so you don't offend your cat's "social-abilities." Dr. Hetts explains, "Don't rush. Your cat will approach when it's ready. Curl your fingers in against your palm (a relaxed fist) and straighten your index finger. A friendly cat will come up and sniff, then process the scent through a special organ in its nose and likely sniff a second time. Next, it may rub against your hand, so reciprocate the rubbing but keep it on its scent glands -- on its cheeks and in front of its ears. You could run your hand lightly down its spine, but patting from strangers isn't usually welcome."
- Lure with treats If your cat is spooked out and doesn't make an appearance at all, utilize whatever your feline will come for, like bagged treats, food in a pouch or...dinner. Ask visitors to be calmly seated, then you can make familiar sounds, such as running the can opener or opening/shutting the cabinet door where treats are kept. Or lay a luring trail of treats from your cat's hiding spot into the party place, all the way up to your visitors' feet. Your cat may find that too irresistible to pass up.
- Be kind Never give your cat a reason to be afraid of you or other people. Don't ever spank or hit a cat (or any animal). Why not try effective discipline delivered remotely and triggered immediately by the cat's own behavior, such as a SSSCAT? It's a motion detector that sprays a harmless mist in front of your cat when your cat jumps on it, leaving you innocently out of the picture.
It may take a while before your cat might be ready to party hearty, and certain felines -- similar to humans -- retain some of their loner ways. But try to be patient. Your cat is tuned into your feelings and actions, so if you are happy and relaxed, those good vibes likely will rub off on your scaredy cat.