By Dr. Beth Leermakers
“Dogs come when they’re called; cats take a message and get back to you later.” — Mary Bly.
Cats have a reputation for being aloof and, indeed, some cats are shyer and more stand-offish than others. If you’ve recently adopted a new cat, you may be wondering how to encourage Fluffy to warm up to you. When I bring home a new foster dog from the shelter, I give that dog a week or two to decompress — become comfortable in my home without any pressure to meet the other dogs or engage in stressful activities. Cats also need time to decompress, and they may take longer than dogs to bond with their new family. Veterinarians recommend these strategies for bonding with your cat:
Give your cat time and space. When you bring home a new cat, you probably want to pet and cuddle her right away. Unfortunately, cats aren’t so quick with their affection; they don’t want to kiss on the first date. According to Dr. Nicolas Dodman, an animal behavior expert at the Cummings Veterinary School at Tufts University: “You can’t force cats to do anything. You just can’t make them love you, and you can’t run over to a cat you’ve never met before without causing issues.” So, take it slowly and give your new cat space. Provide an out-of-the-way place for your cat to hide while she acclimates to her new surroundings. Give your cat “safety places” — vertical spaces like a cat tree or perch, or a cardboard box with entrance and exit holes cut in it. Your cat needs an escape route from the box.
Make changes gradually. Because cats are creatures of habit, new environments are very stressful. Ease your cat’s transition by keeping as many things as possible the same until your cat adjusts. Find out what kind of food your cat was eating at her foster home or shelter so you can start out feeding the same food.
You can gradually switch to a different food later as your cat settles in. Ask the foster parent or shelter staff if your new cat has a favorite treat or toy. Familiarity and consistency create comfort.
Let your cat come to you. As your cat feels more comfortable, he’ll start exploring his new home and bonding with people. Some cats may be ready in a few days, while others may take a few weeks or longer. Let your cat decide when he’s ready to make new friends. When the time is right, your cat will start engaging in bonding behaviors such as kneading and bunting. Kittens knead all the time, but when adult cats knead, it’s a sign that they’re relaxed and comfortable around you.
Bunting is when the cat approaches you and rubs against you with his forehead. Bunting often goes along with purring and sitting next to you or on your lap. Some cats may warm up and display these bonding behaviors right away, while other cats may need a little encouragement.
Back off when your cat is uncomfortable. Pay attention to your cat’s body language for signs of discomfort — flattened ears, an aggressively twitching tail and super dilated pupils. When you see these signs of distress, it’s not a good time to pet your cat. Even purring can be a sign of discomfort; cats sometimes use purring to soothe themselves.
If your cat is purring but seems agitated, back off and give him space. Pushing your cat for too much togetherness when he’s stressed may set back the bonding process.
Encourage bonding behavior. You shouldn’t force your cat to interact with you, but you can gently encourage him. Your cat should associate you with positive things like food and fun.
Offer your cat treats, and serve food in your general vicinity. Engage in play that doesn’t require physical contact (at least initially). Try a laser pointer; the cat won’t realize you’re handling the remote, but he’ll be chasing the light and having fun while you’re in the room together. Many cats are food-motivated, so you can use treats to encourage your cat to approach you. Putting a few treats in your lap may lure your cat to sit with you.
Be patient. Bonding with your cat can take time, and you may not be best friends right away. Don’t take it personally if your cat withdraws for a little while after making progress.
Just shake off your disappointment and keep trying. Slow and steady is the way to earn your cat’s trust and affection.