How to Show Your Love to an Independent Cat

There’s almost nothing my cat Penny loves more than lounging around on her own. Under my bed. Where it’s incredibly difficult for me to cuddle with her.

Don’t get the wrong idea -- every now and then she comes in for a scratch. But it’s usually only when she wants something, like dinner, or to let me know she’s feeling slightly lonely. Of course I’m happy to oblige when this happens, but the fact that Penny’s only interested in my affection every now-and-again got me wondering:

Does my cat know how much I love her?

Does the fact that she seems happy to be all by herself mean that I should leave her alone … or should I be attempting to pet her and cuddle with her anyway?

I decided to take my questions to Oscar E. Chavez, DVM, MBA, Member of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition. “Cats are shown love when they’re provided with the enrichment they need to enjoy being cats and to reduce their stress,” he said. “There’s more nerve connection in a cat’s brain than in a dog’s, so they tend to be more prone to psychiatric problems akin to what their humans experience.”

So what does that mean, exactly? According to Dr. Chavez, the best way that I can prove to Penny how much I love her is to provide a calm, routine and stress-free, enriching environment for her … to include being proactive with my affection from time to time. “Cats need play with their pet parents,” says Dr. Chavez, “not just toys lying around or left for them to play with between each other. They need actual interaction with their human caretakers.”

So in fact, even though we consider cats to be ‘independent,’ and most really are to a certain extent, many actually are starved for play. “Food can be used to encourage play and enrichment, like having food puzzles and games distributed around the house,” Dr. Chavez suggests. “And of course water must be available at all times. Cats love clean, flowing water, so a tall fountain that circulates water and is readily changed and cleaned is always a plus.”

In terms of providing a stress-free environment, it’s also important to keep a clean litter box at all times. “Each cat should also feel they have access to their own box, so that territories aren’t fought after,” said Dr. Chavez. “They should be large and easily accessible in high traffic areas, not hidden away in a bathroom or an obscure corner of the house. And keep the box filled several inches deep, with finer litter material that you scoop daily.”

So to sum up, a happy cat is one who has plenty of water and food, a clean litter box and lots of interactive toys. Seems simple enough. What it all boils down to is at the end of the day, Penny and I probably have different ideas on what constitutes affection. (I just want to cuddle. She just wants to be safe.) If that’s what she needs to feel loved, I’m all too happy to oblige.

But don’t think for one second I won’t be sneaking in a cuddle from time-time, as well.

Writers Who Love Their Cats

Writers from mystery novelist P.D. James to science-fiction icon Ray Bradbury and numerous others have at least one thing in common: They all love cats. Why is it that so many literary types gravitate toward felines? Here are a few possible reasons:

1. Cats inspire us.

Recently I met SARK, aka Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy, the best-selling author of A Creative Companion and other books. We were at an NPR radio show taping, and she had just finished telling a story about her now-deceased -- yet never forgotten -- cat, Jupiter.

In 1989, SARK wrote down some inspirational thoughts about “How to Be an Artist.” They included lines like, “Stay loose” and “Invite someone dangerous to tea.” She put them on a scrap of paper and placed it on a wall in her home. Every morning, Jupiter would paw at the list, until one day it fell down. SARK paid attention and created a poster using the list. It sold more than 1,000 copies in a week and led to a lucrative publishing company contract.

2. Cats and authors admire each other.

Canadian novelist and playwright Robertson Davies famously once wrote, “Authors like cats because they are such quiet, loveable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons.”

Publisher Janet Mills named her Amber-Allen Publishing company after one of her beloved cats, Amber, and her good friend Marc Allen. Mills published all of don Miguel Ruiz’s best sellers, books by Deepak Chopra, and has also written popular books, such as The Power of a Woman: Timeless Thoughts on a Woman’s Inner Strengths. “Cats represent the most beautiful qualities. They exude wisdom, calm, grace and pride,” said Mills.

3. Cats give us permission to play and laugh.

Mills joked that her cat Anjali “silently lets me know that the house needs cleaning when she squeezes under furniture and comes out looking like a dust mop. She makes me laugh.”

Such pleasures appear to be timeless. During the Renaissance period, French author Michel de Montaigne used to take breaks to spend time with his cat. He later wrote, “When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her?” When poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott constructed a house in Italy, he made it an exact replica of his original home to avoid upsetting the comforting routine he and his cat shared.

4. Cats help us to confront challenges.

Routines, however, can be upset by unwanted happenings, such as illness. Nancy Carleton, editor of famous works by Dan Millman, Lynn Andrews, John Robbins, Sanaya Roman, Terry Lynn Taylor and many other well-known authors, is also a talented writer who has contributed to Taylor’s Angel books. In recent years, Carleton has been fighting a serious illness, but has gained strength from cats and other pets.

Carleton specifically talked about Luna, a cat that came into the hearts of her and healthmate Susan Hunter one dark and stormy night. She also recalled Sheba, a “beautiful black, long-haired cat” who was with her and Hunter during the last year or two of Sheba’s life. The cat was very elderly when she chose to live in Carleton’s home.

Carleton was present when Sheba had to be euthanized, something she’d experienced before with another cat named Tappy. “It was a very moving experience being with both of them and giving them love and blessings as they left their bodies,” she said. The moments helped her to “never doubt that the spirit goes on after death.”

The author/cat connection therefore runs very deep. Many of your favorite books were probably written and published by individuals who had a cat nearby for inspiration, companionship, comfort and so much more. Don’t discount the cat contribution either. As poet Dilys Laing once wrote, “I put down my book, The Meaning of Zen, and see the cat smiling into her fur as she delicately combs it with her rough pink tongue. ‘Cat, I would lend you this book to study but it appears you have already read it.’ She looks up and gives me her full gaze. ‘Don't be ridiculous,’ she purrs, ‘I wrote it.’”

ID Your Relationship With Your Cat

Cats are thought of as family members by 89 percent of feline owners, according to a Harris Poll from December 2007. Gone are the days when kitty had to sleep in the barn and is expected to earn a daily ration by chasing mice. When you're a feline family member, such status affords you the right to sleep in the master bed (78 percent), receive gifts during the holidays (63 percent), and even for some, get a mini vacation at the owner’s place of work (10 percent).

"Cats are quietly becoming our allies and pals," says Arden Moore, author of Happy Cat, Happy You (Storey 2008) and editor of Catnip magazine. "They're no longer being regarded as furry pieces of furniture. We don't need them to be mousers anymore. Quietly and with dignity, cats have won us over. We know they can give us real affection."

The type of relationship you have with your feline can vary, however, between parenting your cat as if it was a coddled babe-in-arms to cherishing your purebred as if it were the Queen of Siam to confiding in your mixed breed as you would a best friend. How you see your relationship with your cat can be a function of several factors, including your cat's temperament, your expectations in the relationship and your understanding of cat behavior.

See if any of these relationship types matches the bond you have with your furry friend:

Pampering Parent 
You regard your cat as the child you never had, as a replacement for the child that flew the coop or simply as yet another babe to care for. The sure signs include talking baby talk to kitty, co-sleeping, throwing birthday parties to mark each of your pet's new years and scheduling your cat for all different types of enrichment -- from grooming to training to feline dance classes.

Benefits The relationship can be rewarding and comforting to both cat and pet owner. The unconditional love that a parent has for a human child -- and vice versa -- can be brought to this parent-cat relationship. All pets need to be nurtured. Every pet owner wants to be needed.

Pitfalls There is the potential for the “soccer mom syndrome” -- over-scheduling your little one. Sometimes, for example, a parent's exuberance can get out of hand, according to Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant in Northern California. Krieger recalls hearing about a cat owner who bathed her pet every few days and then applied perfume. "This was not healthy for the cat," Krieger says. "The cat developed over-grooming problems as a result."

Feline's Best Friend
Move over, Rover. Let Fluffy take over. You see your cat as man's (or woman's) best friend. Your cat is your true companion that you can tell all your troubles to -- and it'll still purr and rub around your legs as long as you treat it kindly. Some cat owners swear that their pet, like a true buddy, is the perfect barometers for whether a new boyfriend or girlfriend is a keeper -- or whether he or she is "hisss-tory." Your cat doesn’t care if you gained weight or if you made a mistake at work.

Benefits Feline friendship may bring health benefits. University of Minnesota researchers recently found that over a 20-year-period, people who never owned a cat were 40 percent more likely to die of heart attacks than people who owned cats or who did so in the past. "A lot of people are lonely out there," Krieger says. "Instead of coming home to an empty house, they come home to a pet. Cats are affectionate. They talk and listen and respond."

Pitfalls Unrealistic expectations may lead to friendship fallouts. You may want your cat to be like your long-lost human friend -- or maybe more like your last cat -- but the truth is that you have to accept them for what they are.

Proud Collector
You are a cat lover because the species is so regal, so mysterious, and so exotic. You may have a beautiful cat -- maybe an expensive purebred -- that you treat like a trophy pet. You put that cat on a pedestal. You make sure it’s brushed, well fed and has all the right toys. You may not ask for anything in return -- except that your meower looks good.

Benefits You make sure your cat is brushed, well fed, and owns all the right toys. Your cat just has to look good and proudly revel in the admiration.

Pitfalls "We still see people adopt a cat strictly on looks, and they don't necessarily pay attention to personality," Moore points out. Some of the exotic breeds may match your sofa, but they're cats -- and they're going to exhibit very cat-like behaviors such as scratching up that sofa if you don't provide them with a better scratching post.

Pet Savior
You are the antithesis of the pet owner who views his or her cat as a piece of property. You're looking for a companion -- or two or three or more -- to save. You can't turn down a stray. You may start by putting some cat food out on your doorstep. The next thing you know, another cat is sharing the litter box.

Benefits You try to tame even feral cats with your heart of gold because you love feline companionship. You're doing a good deed by rescuing cats from the streets or the shelter and making sure they're neutered after you adopt them. They'll shower you with affection -- each cat in its own way.

Pitfalls Picking up strays can pose some problems. If you have more than one cat in a house, you need to set up -- and continuously clean -- more than one litter box, more than one food bowl, and so on. Cats also need vertical territory to establish the hierarchy, Krieger says, so make sure you have enough places to climb. Trying to be a cat savior can cost you in terms of human relationships. You may have to choose between your feline companions and a spouse.

When developing your relationship with your cat, it's important to realize that each cat likes to socialize in different ways. Some may give you head butts and purrs. Other cats need to have all four feet on the floor and are uncomfortable sitting on anyone's lap. "You have to read the cat's cues," Moore says. "It can be like the difference between the relative that gives you the bear hug and another that will freeze if you touch them."

Photo: Corbis Images

Photographing Your Elusive Feline

Linda Formichelli of Concord, N.H., would love to have a photograph that does justice to her 11-year-old cat, Sasha. However, the black-and-tan feline apparently does not share Formichelli’s desire.

When Sasha sees the camera, “she won’t stay still for even a second,” says Formichelli. “It seems that if she’s not lying down, she’s in motion. We tried to get a photo of her on a bench with my other two cats to create a birthday card for a cat-loving friend, and she kept jumping down.”

Plenty of cats share Sasha’s dislike of being photographed. Some fear the camera and disappear, while others simply saunter off or otherwise refuse to cooperate. And even if your kitty is willing, your photography skills may be inadequate, resulting in blurry, off-center photos that make your cat look as though red is its natural eye color.

Don’t despair, though, since professional photographers face similar challenges. “Some cats are very shy and may want to go and hide,” acknowledges Robin Burkett, owner of PawPrints Photography in Annandale, Va. “And most cats are very independent; they only do what they want to do.”

That said, you can still try and capture your pet’s Cheshire cat smile with these seven tricks:

Let the cat rule Trying to force your cat to cooperate is a recipe for disaster, according to Shawn Green, co-owner of Animal Images Photography in Michigan City, Ind. “The worst thing you can do with cats is to try to force your agenda on them,” she says. “That is when a battle of wills begins. Make them think it was their idea to sit on the velvet chair on the forbidden side of the room and that this time you approve.” 

Burkett agrees. “The cat runs the session,” she says. “If we can’t get them to go where we want them to go, we go where they want us to go.”

Create distractions If your cat isn’t cooperating, try diverting its attention away from the camera and toward something novel. Burkett coaxes shy cats into coming out of hiding by offering up interesting toys, catnip or food. “We bring lots of interesting-smelling things to a photo shoot, and cats usually like to explore the new stuff,” says Burkett. “The key is to use something they don’t usually get.” Just having another person in the room can provide a welcome distraction, too.

Don’t flash To combat red eyes in cat photos, put away your camera’s flash attachment. “Unless you have a professional lighting arrangement, the easiest way to prevent red eye is to rely on natural light,” says Green. “Do not use a flash.”

Work the angles Sometimes you may have no choice but to use a flash.  According to Green, you can still avoid red eye if you “try to shoot from an angle where the cat is not looking directly at the flash. Have someone distract them so that their gaze is at about a 30-degree angle from the camera.”

Keep your cool If the photography session is not going well, don’t give in to frustration. “Animals have their own ideas, issues, fears and agendas,” says Green. “The more frustration you show, the worse the situation will get. So stay calm. And if it doesn’t happen, tomorrow is another day.”

Be patient Sometimes a great shot will materialize if you’re just willing to wait for it. For a photo of a kitten peeking from behind a curtain, “I just waited until she went behind the curtain, which is her favorite bird-watching post,” Green recalls. “It was perfect and the kitten never knew she was being stalked.”

Hire a pro To get a truly artistic or high-quality portrait of your cat, consider hiring a professional photographer -- but not just any photographer. “You want someone who knows, loves and understands cats,” says Burkett. “And you want someone who has an incredible amount of patience, is flexible and understands photography so that when the cat moves to a different room, the photographer can adjust and still get great images. And you want someone who brings their own cat toys.” Find an animal-loving photographer by looking at local trainer, or other animal expert, Web sites. Note who is credited with the photos on the sites, or if the credit is not available, ask the site owner where he or she obtained the photos.  

No one would say that photographing a cat is easy. But if you’re patient and flexible -- or willing to pay for a pro with those characteristics -- you’ll stand a good chance of getting some pictures that really do justice to your feline friend.

Lost Cats Found

Even the most doting, attentive cat owner can lose a kitty. Just ask Jenne Mundy, the world's first "cat profiler," who now helps to reunite lost felines with their humans. The San Antonio, Texas-based Mundy got into this line of work after her own cat strayed. Since then, she has learned ways of preventing the worst from happening.

"The best place to start is to always make sure your kitty is wearing a collar and a license," Mundy says, "even if the cat never goes outside. But if your cat does escape from your home, you have to go out and search for it -- you can't wait for a kitty to return on its own."

Even without an expert at your side, it is quite possible to locate a lost cat. Here are tips from concerned pet owners with success stories to share:

When in doubt, lure a lost cat with food "Minnie, one of my two cats, once crawled out a window through a broken screen and, according to my neighbors, slid down the awning onto the ground below," says Jennifer Ediger, a marketing manager in Los Angeles. "She took off at that point, having never been outside before. By the time I got down the stairs, she was gone. I was absolutely panicked! At the time, I lived on an extremely busy street in Burbank, California, and was imagining all the worst possible scenarios. I searched for her for 10 hours straight, the whole time absolutely terrified. When it started to get dark, I called the local animal shelter to see if anyone had turned her in and was fortunate enough to speak with someone who had been through a similar situation. He told me to walk around the perimeter of my house shaking something that she would identify with -- in this case, a bag of favorite cat food -- and she would likely come out to be fed. I did this for an hour and gave up only because my neighbors were getting tired of hearing me calling her name and banging a bag of cat food. I went back into my apartment thinking she was gone when I heard her meowing. It worked! There she was on the doorstep, waiting to be fed. I was so happy to get her back! She was cuddled, only mildly scolded and tucked under the covers with me at the end of the night."

Exercise extreme caution if your cat goes outside "I got Charley, my female tortoise shell cat, from a private owner when she was about three years old," says Cincinnati real estate broker Tom Nurre, Jr. "The previous owner said she had never been outside so I was very hesitant to let her out. But I did and Charley got used to going outside, being especially fond of sunning herself. About two weeks after moving into a new place, Charley went out the front door and was gone for almost a week over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. We searched for her, but since we live next to a couple of busy streets, I had just about given up hope of her returning. Then, after being gone for six days, Charley showed back up on the front walk noticeably skinnier than when she left and smelling like gas/oil. We've concluded that she went exploring in someone's garage and got locked inside while they left for the holiday weekend. She still likes to go outside, but since that time has never strayed from the front yard and will not stay out longer than about 30 minutes before yowling to come back inside. She seems to have certainly learned her lesson. Since she was still relatively inexperienced at being outside, I felt very guilty for letting her out and truly thought that I had killed my cat. It was with great relief that I saw her come up the front walk on the day she returned."

Rely on the fact that your cat knows your voice "I took Windrew, my neutered marmalade tom cat, with me to visit my mother," recalls Nan Andrews Amish, a San Francisco-based business strategist. "Somehow he snuck out with my mother's cat and her cat scared him off. He was missing for 10 days. We called everywhere. We ran ads in the newspaper.  Seems there were a lot of stray marmalade cats running around that week because we followed up about 14 calls. Finally, I got a call from someone less than a mile away. We drove up and she said Windrew had been in her garage but had snuck out after catching breakfast. We kept calling for him and he must have followed our voices because he was at my mother's house almost as soon as we arrived. Even if a cat is disoriented, he will try to get back to you, and your voice can lead the way. Just don't give up on calling him!"

Five Things to do to Find Your Cat
If your cat ever becomes lost, Mundy suggests taking the following actions:

  • Enlist help Tell your neighbors your cat is lost. Distribute flyers with clear, color photos of the kitty and include your phone number(s).
  • Ask permission to search If you think your cat hasn't strayed far, speak with your neighbors and get permission to search their property. It's possible your cat is injured and hiding, or is stuck in a place like a garage or shed.
  • Reach out Call the Animal Control or Sanitation Department regularly. They'll tell you if they've picked up your cat since they have records of any cats they have picked up or have been hit in the road.
  • Remain calm Lost cats are likely to be frightened and nervous so, when searching, call for your cat soothingly and without panic. If the cat does come out of hiding, it's likely it'll come out very slowly and carefully. Be sure to be careful and try not to alarm it. With a little patience, the kitty should come to you.
  • Lure it to you Place a bowl of your cat's favorite food outside. Sometimes this simple act does the trick.

Photo: Corbis Images