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.

Bring the Outdoors In

Cats love the great outdoors. Unfortunately, the outdoors might not always love them back. With so many potential threats, ranging from automobiles to not-so-friendly animals, allowing your cat to roam free isn't smart or safe in today's environment.

But your indoor cat need not be deprived.  Whether you live in an apartment building or in a house with a yard, you can create a cat-friendly indoor-outdoor space that provides the essence of a wilderness adventure, without exposure to any of the risks.

The possibilities are endless, ranging from a small window box, to a state-of-the-art screened-in porch. The type of space you create depends on a few factors:  how much space you have available, what you can spend, how handy you are at building things, and your property's legal limitations. If you're renting, be sure to ask your landlord before making changes to the rental. And homeowners should check local building ordinance laws before adding to the home or property.

If space and money are obstacles, consider a window box -- which you can either build or buy. These are about the size of a window air conditioner, and work well for apartment dwellers. The frame is usually an acrylic material, spanned with claw-proof screen or Plexiglas for kitty's panoramic view. The most important part of installing such an enclosure is to make sure it is 100 percent secure. It must be able to withstand the weight of several cats without collapsing, weather conditions, and would-be house thieves.

If you have a yard, consider building or buying a structure you and your cat can use, such as a screened porch or patio. Using claw-proof screen will ensure that your cat can't get out and other animals can't get in. This screen is made of polyester (instead of aluminum, which animal claws can tear easily), with a nylon or vinyl coating. Cats can actually climb it without doing any damage.

Supervision of time spent in the enclosure should be a priority, too, especially in extreme weather and temperature conditions. Make sure your cat has access to a litter box, food and fresh water. You should include a floor in the enclosure, instead of placing it directly on the ground to eliminate digging opportunities. A floor helps to keep fleas and ticks out of your enclosure, and prevents kitty from accidentally eating plants or grass that might have been poisoned with run-off fertilizer or pesticides. Lush plants and grass in pots on your porch will provide the jungle environment your cat craves.

By bringing the outdoors inside, you can keep your cat safe, happy and in touch with the sounds, sights and smells of nature.

Exercise for Couch Potato Cats

Many is the cat owner who comes home to find the resident feline sprawled out on the couch -- in exactly the same place it was several hours before. If this sounds familiar, then your cat is probably in need of a little feline physical fitness.

Exercise is beneficial to your cat in several ways. For one, it can alleviate the boredom that sometimes leads to bouts of bad behavior, says Nancy Peterson, an issues specialist at The Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C. A little workout might ward off situations that involve chewing the legs of your dining room chairs, swinging on curtains, playing with your clothing, and so on.

Regular exercise can also keep your pet healthy and prevent disease. According to Peterson, heavier cats face a higher risk of developing heart problems and feline diabetes. And the more your cat exercises, the greater its muscle strength and flexibility, says James R. Richards, a veterinarian and director of the Cornell Feline Health Center at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, New York. "A lot of cats live indoors these days, which is beneficial for their health in terms of keeping them away from infectious agents outdoors. But we have a lot of bored, fat, couch potato cats out there. The high point of their day is when they jump off the couch and head to the feeding dish."

Consider it your job to keep your cat interested in some sort of exercise, says Jean Duddy, DVM, a veterinarian who specializes in internal medicine at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. "If your cat tends to be sedentary and you don't change that pattern, it will remain sedentary," she says. "Keep at it even when your cat walks away."

Experiment with different toys until you find some that capture your cat's interest and excitement. Some felines love interactive wand-like gadgets that prompt them to leap in the air, while other cats prefer to sit in hiding and pounce on objects, says Peterson. "Even older cats can be enticed to play with most wand toys," Peterson says. "But regardless of age, what's most important is to make exercise a routine part of the day. An adult cat will benefit from at least twice-a-day play sessions, preferably at set times." To keep things fun, rotate the toys on a weekly basis so that boredom doesn't set in. 

Finally, if your cat is already overweight, be sure to speak to your veterinarian before jump-starting a regular exercise routine. Your vet can rule out any underlying medical issues that should be treated, or considered, in advance.

How to best bond with your new cat

Becoming a new cat owner is an exciting experience. Your kitten can become a happy new addition to your family, as long as you start by making your new pet comfortable in her surroundings and take the time to bond with her.

Prepare Ahead of Time
Laurie Donovan, DVM, recommends a few preparations to help ease the transition prior to bringing your new cat home. “The items you really need are food and water bowls and litter boxes, and you should always buy one more litter box than the amount of cats you have,” she suggests. “It’s also advised to purchase a scratching post as well. Cats like to jump on counters and shelves, so make sure to safely put away any valuable, breakable objects and tuck away any exposed wires.” 

It’s a good idea to ask around for veterinarian recommendations early, too, so you have one ready to evaluate your new cat during the first week.

Start Small
After you bring your cat into your home, it’s smart to keep him confined to one area at first, to help get him acclimated. “Make sure to lead your new cat to where the litter box is located, and show him a few times,” says Donovan. “Try to keep loud noises and activities to a minimum as to not spook the new cat while he explores.”

Of course if you already have a cat at home, introductions can be a bit more intense. Here’s how to keep the harmony in a house full of cats.

Show Your Affection … the Right Way
Creating a level of trust between you and your cat takes patience and positive integration. “Pet him when it seems he wants to be touched -- forcing it may just make him run away and hide,” says Donovan. “You can use toys that have the human-cat interaction, such as a laser pointer, and a stick with a cat nip mouse or feather attached to the end.” Cats are very sociable, and with a little time they will learn to love your company and become a perfect addition to your home!

Children and New Cats

Whether through serendipity, regular visits to shelters or cat breeders, or simply the persistent child who attracts all stray cats within a 10-mile radius, parents may find themselves in a home with a new cat in one corner and an eager child in the other. If you find yourself in this situation, you may also wonder about the challenges that arise after the wonder of the new arrival has worn off. Here are some suggestions to help you maintain harmony between your child and the new feline member of the family.

First, get the whole family together and make a list of the cat's needs. Then use this list to assign responsibilities. Even allowing for individual interests and abilities, children should be at least eight to 10 years old before becoming primary caretakers for any pet. However, there are a number of responsibilities children can handle at a younger age, as long as they are overseen by parents.

Cats must be fed regularly, and their dishes washed. Water bowls should also be washed every day, and rinsed and refilled several times a day. The litter box (or, ideally, litter boxes)--no one's favorite chore--should be scooped daily and periodically washed and refilled. The floor surrounding the box will need sweeping or vacuuming every day. Cats also enjoy--and benefit from--regular grooming. This includes brushing and nail clipping. The coats of longhaired cats will require more attention than shorthaired cats. Any procedure that may potentially cause pain, such as combing through knotted hair or trimming nails, should be performed by an adult.

Next, consider your new pet's tolerance for physical contact. While some cats seem to enjoy being cuddled for long periods, others simply do not. A forcibly restrained cat will naturally push against the holder with her claws, scratching as she jumps away. Even young kittens may bite when stressed. Timid kittens or cats react to physical attention by hiding for long periods. To keep children safe and cats content, the family can discuss these issues--and their possible solutions--together. Nails can be trimmed and kept relatively dull. Most important, children may need to understand that cats have individual needs, and for some that includes not being picked up. Instead of carrying a kitten everywhere, children can be enlisted to play with her, perhaps even making new toys for the cat. Homemade toys can include stuffed animals or dangling fishing pole creations using feathers and bells. Give the cat a little box or bed in each room that's a "safe haven," and then make sure the children understand the cat must be left alone whenever she's in her safe haven.

Finally, no matter how much your kids promise and no matter how much they love the cat, it is ultimately your responsibility to care for any pet. Check every single day to make sure all the cat's needs have been met. You owe it to the cat. It's OK to leave the dirty dishes piled up in the sink for a week to make a point about responsibility. But it's unfair to the cat to leave her unfed, unbrushed, unloved, or her box unscooped, just to teach your kids a lesson. Caring for a pet helps children develop empathy for another living creature. With the help of parents, that relationship can lead to lifelong benefits for everyone.