If you're a cat owner, you've most certainly been there: at some point in time (or any time), you'll have a strong urge to cuddle up with your fur kid. After all, that's half the fun of having cats, right?
But what happens if your cat just doesn't seem to be a "cuddler"? What happens when you approach your cat to cuddle with them, but they just don't seem to be receptive to you? Does that mean you should stop trying to socialize or have a meaningful relationship with your cat? Of course not!
Petside had the chance to talk to Pam Johnson-Bennett, a certified member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and the Founder / Co-Chair of the IAABC's Cat Division, to discuss why some cats aren't comfortable with being handled, and how to best cuddle with a cat who doesn't instinctively want to snuggle.
Why Aren't All Cats Comfortable with Being Handled?
Although it may sound terrible, some cats just aren't natural born Cuddle Champions. According to Johnson-Bennett, this unwillingness to cuddle can occur due to a variety of reasons, including how they were socialized when they were young kittens and other environmental factors.
"How a cat was socialized during the crucial socialization period can have an influence in how comfortable they are being handled as adults," says Johnson-Bennett. "Frequent, gentle handling of kittens when they’re between 2-7 weeks old helps them grow to become comfortable with human handling and interaction once they reach adulthood. Additionally, a stressful environment where the human engages in holding techniques that make the cat feel confined and restrained can teach kitty to avoid being around that person."
Johnson-Bennett continues by saying that punishment and human misinterpretation of a cat's needs can contribute to a cat being uncomfortable with being handled.
"Punishment can also create a negative association for a cat," Johnson-Bennett says. "If an owner physically reprimands, then the cat soon learns not to trust and will be reluctant to accept handling. Timing also plays a part in how a cat feels about being handled. Owners often misinterpret a cat’s solicitation for playtime as solicitation for affection. The owner may attempt to hold the cat when kitty was actually in play-mode. This results in a cat who struggles to get out from the owner’s grasp. If this pattern is repeated often enough, the cat learns to avoid being put in that position again."
Finally, Johnson-Bennett emphasizes that, when it comes to cuddling your cat, giving the cat the element of choice is vital. Ultimately, a cat's willingness to cuddle with his owner is his choice to make.
"If cats are given a choice when interacting with their owners in terms of being able to get down from their laps or out from their embrace, they will be more likely to want to engage in that interaction again," Johnson-Bennett says. "Choice plays a big role in how a cat interprets an experience."
What is the Best Way to Approach Cats Uncomfortable with Being Handled?
So now that you know why your cat may be uncomfortable with being handled, you want to know how you can approach your furry friend and ease them into cuddling. Johnson-Bennett provides some sound advice in approaching these cats.
"Use feline manners," she advises. "Let the cat come to you. If you don’t give the cat the choice to engage or stay at a distance, then he’ll avoid putting himself in that position next time. One method I use is what I call the 'feline handshake'. I extend my index finger out and give the cat the opportunity to approach to sniff it. This is similar to nose-to-nose sniffing that two familiar cats would engage in. If the cat wishes more interaction, he may advance toward me or do some cheek-rubbing against my finger. He may even rub his side again my hand. This lets me know that he’s willing to pursue more interaction with me. I may then reach out and pet him. If, however, he backs away or just stands still after sniffing my finger, then I know he’s not ready for more interaction. The bottom line: always let the cat set the pace."
What Other Tips Are There to Ease My Cat Into Cuddling?
In addition to the "feline handshake" that Johnson-Bennett advises, she also provides a few other tips / methods for approaching cats that are not so receptive to human interaction. One method that she advises is clicker training.
"Another method is to use clicker training to help the cat learn that any positive step toward you, however, small, will result in a reward (usually a treat)," advises Johnson-Bennett. "You can click and treat for the cat looking at you, for him putting a paw on your lap, for sitting in your lap, and so on."
Another method that Johnson-Bennett suggests is using interactive playtime.
"I also use interactive playtime with a fishing pole-design toy so the cat learns to associate my presence with something fun," she says. "The fishing pole toy puts a distance between me and the cat so he can stay in his comfort zone. Gradually, I move the toy a little closer to me. Periodically I will also toss out treats."
Finally, Johnson-Bennett says its important not to "jump-the-gun" when easing your cat into cuddling with you. Just because he makes a move towards you doesn't mean you have full permission to pet yet.
"If a cat who typically hasn’t enjoyed being cuddled decides to sit near you or even in your lap, resist the urge to reach out and touch him or to encircle him with your arms," Johnson-Bennett says. "Let him be in control. If he feels he has the freedom to stay or go without confinement, he’ll be more likely to do this again. In subsequent training sessions you can reach out and pet once or gently place your hand on one side of his body. The key is to do everything gradually and hopefully you’ll end up with more of a cuddle cat."
Do you have trouble cuddling with your cat, or is your cat a natural born Cuddle Champion? If so, was this advice helpful? Share your thoughts in a comment!