Q&A: How Do I Get My Kitten to Like Petting?

Q: My kitten is 4 months old. She bites me every time I try to pet her. How do I get her to like petting?

A: This is absolutely normal. Kittens do 3 things: eat, sleep, and play. They cannot control any of those things. They need food and sleep to survive kittenhood. Play includes the use of claws and mouths because 1) they need those to hunt and 2) other cats have fur and thick skin that can withstand it. That’s why you don’t use your hand as a toy when playing with a kitten. They must learn to hunt very quickly because, for many cats, soon they will be on their own, and if they don’t learn to hunt, they will die.

So, from an evolutionary perspective, she’s learning to hunt by play. Most kittens this age are learning their independence as well. Depending on the kitten, it is possible to get them to be cuddly, but this is usually when they are too tired to play. And even if you can’t cuddle with your kitty right now, if you bond with her through play, she will repay you later.

My little guy is now 19 months. He’s super empathetic, very smart, and he will cuddle with me when he knows I’m not feeling well (which is often, since I have MS and chronic pain that is unrelated to the MS). He and I have such a close bond that he pets me when he wants to soothe me. It’s adorable! But at 4 months, he only cuddled while sleeping.

Stiles in my lap, petting me before snuggles.

So let me tell you how we developed this close bond.

  1. Play is THE key. Play with her several times a day until she starts panting. This fills her need and it gets out all that baby energy. With a kitten this young, I recommend at least 3 play sessions a day. My baby needed 5.If you use a string (elastic string is the most fun, with feathers or other toys at the end) toy and use it to make them do a lot of running and climbing to get it, this wears them out fast. If she’ll chase a toy that you throw, that’s a good way to do it as well. My little guy started playing fetch when he was about 5 months.
  2. Praise, praise, treats. Make sure you praise her when she does things that she’s supposed to, when she gets the toy during play (you should allow her to get the toy frequently, this triggers the reward center in her brain, and that is also key because she will later relate that reward to being with you even without play.) Try to get her to eat a treat or two out of your hand. This is also creating a good association with you, and building that bond.
  3. Eat after play. With play done, and a full belly, she’ll be sleeeepy.
  4. Gently handle her several times a day. Pick her up to carry her to her food (even if it isn’t necessary), to a different room to play with her, etc. They’re wiggly, but if they know you will put them down quickly when they protest, they will start being more comfortable with it.
  5. If you have a plush blanket, put it on your lap, and encourage her to sleep on your lap. Don’t force her. But if she’s wiped out, she’s more likely to snuggle into your warm, inviting lap.
  6. You can pet her head, rub her cheekbones, rub under the chin, but don’t do it too much. You’ll interrupt her sleep, which will make your lap less inviting. Right now you’re just creating the bond.
  7. Never raise your voice to her.  Cats don’t understand the concept of punishment. If she’s somewhere she shouldn’t be, just move her (gently) to someplace where she can be. If she’s climbing shelves that are off limits, you need to provide a cat tree or something else for her to climb on. Always give alternatives. Praise her when she uses the alternatives.

If you keep this up, then once that kitten play stage starts to calm down in a few months, she’ll trust you, she’ll associate you with all things good in her world, and she will be sleeping in your lap and asking for petting in no time.

Q&A: Why does my cat want me to watch her eat?

Q: My cat won’t eat unless I sit there with her and watch her eat. Why does she do this?

A: Eating is a time when cats are vulnerable. They are focused on eating, so they are less aware of their surroundings. Skittish cats are particularly prone to wanting their human to be near when they are in this vulnerable position. Kitty trusts you to have their back.

This is why those idiotic cucumber videos make me so angry. The cat is eating, totally focused on their food while a human (who is supposed to be a trusted ally) places a large green cucumber behind them. When the cat looks back, it is startled. This may look amusing, but it is among the cruelest things you can do without physically hurting the cat.

Cats don’t get practical jokes. The cat isn’t going to yuck it up with you later. The cat will be terrified in a place that it thought it was safe, and this can cause all kinds of psychological problems, and may lead to things like spraying the house with pee and other territorial issues.

Sorry about my tangent, but it does illustrate just how much trust cats put in us.

Stiles always has to have a person or one of the other cats next to him to eat more than a bite. He’s been this way since he was a tiny little guy, drinking kitten formula out of a saucer. He especially loves eating with Kiki near, partly because she won’t eat his wet food like Kagetora, but I think it’s also because she would often lay in my lap while I was syringe feeding him. I’d set him next to her in my lap, and that always got him to eat, even when he was feeling bad and didn’t want to.

He isn’t skittish at all. I think he just built a connection between eating and being with the people and cats he trusts and loves.

Q&A: Crazy Cat Lady?

Q: Why are single women with cats stigmatized while single women with dogs aren’t?

A: I could talk about how cats and women have been tied together throughout history through myths like those of Bastet and Freyja.  I could talk about how those associations led to literal witch hunts and mass slaughters of cats, but I don’t believe that has a lot to do with the idea of the Crazy Cat Lady myth.

I believe this happens because of several stereotypes and misconceptions. Any one of these things might be responsible for saying a single woman is a crazy cat lady, but when you start combining them, that’s when an idea pervades our discourse and rhetoric. It becomes this iconic phrase that most everyone in places where there are cats and single women can look at and identify someone they know, even when the criteria they use to label her as a crazy cat lady may be completely different from someone else’s.

The major contributing factors are:

First, people wrongly assume that cats are not as loving and affectionate as dogs are. This then contributes to one of the most idiotic, misogynistic concepts ever: that these single women must therefore be frigid (ugh I hate that word), just as incapable as those cats to show affection. So, on the flip side of that, where people see dogs as openly loving everyone, dog owners get a pass on the frigidity debate (at least for choice of pet).

The second factor is that single women over a certain age are either seen as pathetic (because she hasn’t managed to bag a spouse, as if a woman cannot possibly be content without a mate) or as bitchy, frigid, cold, or any other such qualities that would explain her being single. Evidence of this tendency to cast unmarried women as failures to marry can be seen in the way the terms spinster and bachelor are interpreted and used.

A third factor is that there’s also a long history of using cat-like words as pejoratives to describe women. Words like catty, kitten, cougar, and catfight are just a few examples. Both cats and women are often characterized as being sneaky, manipulative, and difficult to please. All of which is your average stereotypical nonsense.

Fourth, many women also regularly talk to the cat(s), and pour a great deal of time, money, and affection into taking care of their feline friends. And when you add these things up, it may look to an outsider as if this woman is a bonkers crazy cat lady, who presumably thinks her cats understand what she’s saying (not true, many people—including myself—just enjoy having a chat with the cat). Cats can be ASTONISHINGLY empathetic, and they are often great listeners.

In some cases, there may be actual mental health, dementia, and declining cognition issues, just like their married counterparts, but they may not realize just how bad things are on their own (or they may fear seeking help, thinking they will lose their freedom).  Those are the cases where the term Crazy Cat Lady is truly offensive. We should be working to help those women get the care they need while maintaining their freedom for as long as possible, which should include help with caring for pets. Those pets may be the only thing keeping a woman who simply needs some help from turning into a woman in crisis.

There are some great organizations out there helping seniors and pets stay together. Look for one in your area to volunteer. If there isn’t one in your area, you could consider starting one. This is an issue we should all think more about.

Q&A: Does the cat remember me?

Q: I’ve moved, and my new church has got a church cat. I’ve met him a few times, had some nice interactions. But I wonder. He must see a lot of humans at the church. How many of us can he actually fit into his tiny little kitty brain? Does he remember me meeting to meeting?

A: Cats have fantastic memories. Their brain structure is much more similar to ours than a dog’s brain. If you have a cat that spent its formative years (2–7 years) in a particular place, then you move, then you take the cat back to that place a decade later, it will remember all the paths it used to walk, where to get food, whom to avoid, and whom it can sweet talk (or meow) into giving it last night’s chicken leftovers.

To learn more about cats’ memory, read my post on the topic here.

Cats have an advantage that we don’t: they rely on smell (which is closely tied to memory, even in our minds, though we don’t use it when we meet people), as well as body language, the sound of that person’s voice, facial recognition, and other distinguishing characteristics to remember individuals. It doesn’t matter if it’s another cat, a dog, a possum, a human, or a goat. They use all those things to remember each individual. Every time. We rely heavily on sight coupled with a short word (the person’s name) to try to remember the people we meet.

A cat is much better equipped to remember you as an individual than any other person in that church.