Don't Pet This Kitty
November 13, 2010 7:41 AM   Subscribe

Adopted cat doesn't seem to be warming up to us. We've had her for about 7 months now. She doesn't like to be petted or touched and often bites very hard if Mr. Stardust or I have to do so. Can we get her used to being touched, or should we leave her alone? Further details within.

Cat is a shelter adoptee. She's almost 2 years old. She spent almost 8 months in the shelter before we adopted her. She's very playful and full of lots of aggressive energy. We can pick her up, but only for very short periods before she starts yowling. I never hear her purr except when she's in a velvet-lined basket I made for her. While she's in there, she sucks the fabric. If we get within 2 feet of her basket, she hops out and stops purring immediately. She will get up on the bed while I'm sleeping and snuggle up to my feet, but she scratches or bites immediately if we touch her with our hands. Kitty is usually somewhere underfoot when we're home, so I don't think she's afraid of us. When we do hold/touch her, she often retaliates (attacking us) quite forcefully as soon as we put her down. My theory is that she was separated from her mum too early and/or was a feral kitten. I'm no stranger to standoffish cat behavior, but this one seems like a tough case.

Mr. Stardust thinks we can acclimatize her to touching if we each hold her for 1 minute a day without letting her squirm away. I think this will just result in stitches. I'd like her to be okay with being brushed and handled, but she has other plans. Should we try Mr. Stardust's idea?
posted by Kitty Stardust to Pets & Animals (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried bribing with cat treats? Sit near her with some tempting chunks of chicken, and you may quickly find a new best friend. Let her come to you. Maybe try liverwurst, it's stinky & cats seem to love it (but people are going to be all over me for animal cruelty/health issues with that suggestion).
posted by kellyblah at 7:52 AM on November 13, 2010

I've had one of my cats since we was a kitten (he is ten years old now) and I never "hold him." He just doesn't like that sort of thing. The only contact we have is that now in the evenings he will come to my husband or I and let us touch him. Other people don't like my cat because he scratches. He scratches them because they touch his ears. He really doesn't like it when people touch his ears. I always tell people this because he will come up to them, but they pretty much always try to scratch his ears anyway so he swats them.

This is my long story to say that kitties all have their own personalities and their particular likes and dislikes. I don't think kitties ever really change, you either change yourself to adapt to them or you antagonize each other. I don't know what is best for your kitty. She will probably get used to you eventually, but for my kitty is took us several years to figure out that he just didn't like ears/head touching and it took him a couple years to calm down from being a skittish kitten. I would say year 3 on, he has been a nice cat, but he really isn't that friendly. He will never be a lapcat.

So, yes maybe your cat has issues. Maybe it was seperated from her mother too early. Who knows. My cat still has his mother around and he is crazy. You just have to meet cats where they are.
posted by aetg at 7:57 AM on November 13, 2010 [5 favorites]

I have an adult (part-Siamese!) that I brought in from outside, probably a little early for separating her from her mother. She just doesn't like to be held or picked up, and has been known to do the retaliatory bite/claw thing you're talking about, although to me it seems more like a fear-related behavior than actual retaliation. She's very skittish in general, though, and although she hangs around in the room with me and occasionally sleeps on my feet, she will run away if I get too close for whatever her current value of "too close" is.

My experience is that leaving my cat alone and not picking her up has made her more amenable to being petted over time. Now I don't pick her up unless it's an emergency (vet, fire alarm going off, immediate danger of some sort) and she permits me to pet her more often, sometimes with bonus purring. It's taken years for me to come to that conclusion and cultivate the trust to let me pet her. She will never be a lapcat, though; if I want snuggles, I have to get them from the other cat.

tl;dr Don't pick up the cat or handle it unless you have to and the cat is likely to come around in the future, but it'll take years.
posted by immlass at 8:07 AM on November 13, 2010

Based on some one-cat evidence, I'd say don't go the "pick her up for 1 minute each day" route. Like kellyblah suggested, find ways to bribe the cat into interacting with and touching you.

I have a second-hand cat who started out very afraid of everything in the apartment. She warmed up to the point where she demands to be a lap cat, but still HATES being picked up. I have heard that some cats love the bellyrubs, but most cats I've seen are very protective of their bellies!

It might be a good idea to resolve not to mess with your cat when she is in her favorite basket. If she knows she is safe from being agitated there, she can get all the "me-cat" time she needs and feel much more settled when she is roaming about or playing with you all.

Invest in some special food, catnip, crunchy treats, and toys. With luck, your cat will figure out that All Good Things Come from Mr and Mrs Stardust and warm up quickly!
posted by Several Unnamed Sources at 8:11 AM on November 13, 2010

Forced cuddling is not going to help with kitty's need for safety.

Of course, it's difficult to verify that the kitty even exists without pictures.

I'm with immlass. You need to let her set the timeline for more affection. But you can encourage her to see touching as good. With treats, or with other things she likes.

My dad has a half-feral cat that hates petting but loves being brushed -- and if you give her a good brush, she will consent to some pets.
posted by freshwater at 8:14 AM on November 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yeah, nthing no forced cuddling.

We had a rescue cat that behaved the same as yours. Eventually she became quite a cuddler, but it literally took years. By the end of her life she was a total lap kitten. But in the meantime we would bribe her with brushing, which she loved, and treats she liked to eat. (In her case, that was nori.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:22 AM on November 13, 2010

I'm a crazy cat person, and I have two cats like what you're describing. One of them doesn't like to be picked up, doesn't like to be touched, and doesn't really want much to do with any of us. Sometimes she'll sleep on the foot of the bed, and we pretty much leave her alone.

We've had this cat for about six years now--my husband had her for two years before we met, and we've been together for four years. She's slightly more affectionate to him than she is with me or our eight year old, but "more affectionate" means that he can pet her without her running away, and I can't. I've tried everything with her--chicken, treats, catnip, sitting very, very still...and every once in a while she'll surprise me and, say, groom my head while I sit on the sofa. Otherwise, though, nothing I've done has made the slightest difference.

We have another cat who we've had for about...two and a half years, I guess. When we got her, she ran down to our basement, where she stayed for several months. I mean she was so down there that we'd go down and sniff to see if we could smell anything decaying, because it might have been her. After a few months, she came onto the first floor. When we saw her, we'd act super pleased and sit down on the floor, and if she got close to use we'd give her scritches and treats and catnip and basically spoil the crap out of her. After about eight months, she ventured into our bedroom and would sometimes sleep curled up next to me, and let us pet her while we were on the bed.

Then we got a dog, and she retreated. A year passed, and she was still largely hiding. Then--and this is the weird part--we got two more dogs. Within three months of the dogs showing up, she started coming out of hiding again. We've had dogs two and three for about six months now, and while she's not quite at the sleeping-on-the-bed point yet, she comes upstairs and hangs out, and will run up to us to be petted and fed. I fully expect that at some point, she'll go back to running around the whole house.

All of this is to say, basically, that we did pretty much the same thing with both cats. With one of them, it didn't work at all; with the other, it eventually resulted in...well, not a 180, but maybe a 90 degree change in personality.

My gut feeling is that you can probably get the cat to be a little friendlier, but that holding her against her will isn't going to do it. I'd definitely try bribery first.
posted by MeghanC at 8:24 AM on November 13, 2010

You can try touching her with the back of your hand (less scary roving points of contact) or brushing her with one of those amazing rubber-tooth brushes, which may acclimate her to a finger-like touch. Or hold out a wet treat-- like a bit of tuna in the palm of your hand-- and close your hand until she lets you pet her once. Then she'll get extra touch time by licking your hand.

She may also be asking for more rough play time. Why not try "fighting" back? I have a cat who also doesn't like to be touched, but he LOVES rowdy play, especially when I put a hand on his stomach and he rolls on his back and tries to fight me off. Let go after a few seconds-- if he runs away don't do it again, if he hangs around excitedly that's a sign he wants to play!

I give another cat a big, tight hug (deep pressure stimulation-- got the idea from Temple Grandin lol) when he goes on a really ferocious sprinting rampage. Calms him down immediately and he remains purring in my lap.
posted by acidic at 8:35 AM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've known a lot of cats, and even the spoiled indoor ones have crazy personalities. Yours sounds like she might have encountered even some abuse along the way. Someone was handling her VERY roughly. So try to be mindful of this when you're around her. I wouldn't do the Force Cuddle, even if its a Light Side power. Nthing bribing her with pieces of chicken, turkey, etc. When it's dinnertime, if you have a schedule like that, and she approaches her eating area, kneel down and offer your fingers. She what she does. Hopefully she sniffs, hopefully soon she rubs her cheeks against them eventually to scratch herself. If she makes productive contact, give her some baby food or something extra special.
The same goes for brushing... hold the brush out so she can see it and get acclimated, sniff it, maybe scratch herself against it. Gradually ramp of the amount of push and movement you give with the brush until she ends up, surprise!, being brushed. If she's scared of the brush, leave it laying around so she can get used to it.

In short, only ever OFFER her touch, in conjunction with treats or food, but don't force. There are times when force is needed, like you said, vet, emergency, claw-clipping time and medicine time, but the goal is for her to be totally relaxed in your arms. Oh, and stay away from that belly until maybe some, miraculous day she rolls onto her back and offers it up. And as far as touching in general, on the long term, start at her head and work your way back and under as she gets comfortable.
posted by mostlybecky at 8:37 AM on November 13, 2010

Or hold out a wet treat-- like a bit of tuna in the palm of your hand-- and close your hand until she lets you pet her once. Then she'll get extra touch time by licking your hand.

I was going to suggest something similar, have something wet and tasty in your hand that she can lick, and you can stroke her while she's licking. I was wondering if she had been abused and is afraid of hands as a result. Didn't the shelter give you any info about the cat at the time of adoption, at least as to whether she was a stray or a surrender?
posted by Gator at 8:39 AM on November 13, 2010

Sorry, forgot to include my main point about tight hugs/cuddling, which is that it pleases my super-super-super-cuddly cat and no others. You should not try it with a non-cuddly cat.
posted by acidic at 8:40 AM on November 13, 2010

I have two adoptee cats, mother and daughter. Even after seven years, the daughter hates being stroked or picked up. She actually bends her spine down to the floor to avoid my touch. Picking her up, even if it's to give her a better view of the squirrels, results in banshee yowling all the while she's enjoying watching the squirrels. She gives out signals for how she likes to be touched - for example she'll flop on the rug on her back, and that's the sign to me that she wants a (very short) tummy rub. She hates the top of her head being touched, but if I put my hand down, she'll rub her cheek against it. But if I go to touch her cheek, she pulls away. It's just her way.

I'd suggest you look out for your cat giving you little signals and go with what she wants. Neither of my cats is a lap cat, and whilst sometimes this doesn't meet my needs, I think back to my three other cats who would all insist on trying to sit on my lap at the same time and Just Would Not Leave Me Alone. There's rarely a happy medium with a cat or its owner.

The rare occasions - three of them in all - when Lucy's actually curled up on the sofa leaning against me and gone to sleep have been awesome, but they are totally on her terms.
posted by essexjan at 8:44 AM on November 13, 2010

I found a feral female cat who was about six months old at the time, and managed to grab her and bring her into my house. She freaked out, hid for a couple days, and remained largely unfriendly for a year or so, behaving much as you describe your kitty. I already had a cat when I took her in and they didn't get along until I took in a third cat that they ganged up on.

I never tried to force affection on her, and she remains a cat who HATES being picked up. However, eventually she became quite cuddly on her own terms. She especially likes to lie on top of me when I'm reading or sleeping, and at times she enjoys being petted. However, she gets overstimulated easily. Sometimes she will go from purring to batting my hand away or biting (gently) as a warning that she's done being touched for now.

Several years later, we found another stray and rescued him. He bit for about two years before he became sweet and affectionate. He still bites playfully, but that's because my partner likes to play rough with him. (If you teach a cat that biting your hand is a fun thing to do, you have to live with the consequences).

Feral cats often retain these types of traits. It's just something I accept. I think given time your kitty will probably become a bit more tame, especially if you reward sweet behavior and ignore the aggression.
posted by xenophile at 8:57 AM on November 13, 2010

I fostered a cat (who I eventually adopted as he was deemed unadoptable and was under a death sentence -- he's the black one in this photo) and he was like your cat for about a year, except more skittish. After just sort of accepting him -- there are lots of other, more affectionate cats here to get my cuddles out on (though I did do some forced snuggling anyhow because I am selfish) -- he eventually started coming up to me for attention, and now is snuggly when he so desires. The process took about 1.5 years, he came to me when he was 5ish months old. He still dislikes being held, though he is resigned instead of bitey, and he won't sit on your lap, but in his own weird way he's extremely affectionate, sleeps on your legs, butts himself on you for petting, jumps on the newspaper for attention, but when he isn't in the mood, he's gone.

Give it more time and her lots of treats.
posted by jeather at 9:03 AM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, 8 months is a long time to live in a shelter environment (and who knows what she experienced before that). I think that, since she's lived with you less than the time she spent in the shelter (and only about 1/3 of her life) -- it's entirely reasonable to assume she's still figuring out what life with you is about. I think your theories about her being feral and removed from her mom too early are spot on (nursing on her bed is a common example of that).

As one would imagine, there are cats who are born to cuddle and cats who are averse. My beloved Matthew lived with his mom as an 'infant' and then me from 6 weeks of age until he died at 18.5 -- and he didn't purr in my arms for YEARS. My formally feral Roo (3) has always purred in my arms but is skittish and will only do it on his terms. My Michael (11) is the friendliest guy ever but just isn't comfortable being held -- he'll submit rather stiffly with legs standing straight out. I currently have 7 cats but have had as many as 16 running around the house and have fostered over a hundred -- some of whom hated to be held but were so sick that submitting to contact was a matter of life or death.

Through all that, I have found benefit in forced cuddling. If it were me, the very first thing would be to get a brave friend to help and securely wrap her in a towel to cut her nails. And then I would pick her up and hold her for a minute per day. If she struggles and tries to kill you, I would hold her by the scruff of the neck* (as far away as needed to keep yourself safe) and look her in the eye and say NO, firmly -- and then slowly gently lower her until all four feet are securely on the ground and (frankly) turn and run away. (You lower her to the ground with all four feet securely planted so that she stops feeling in danger of falling but knows you're still in charge) The running away sounds funny, but it serves two purposes: a) it shows that once the 'torture' is over, it's really OVER ("I'm ignoring you now, la-la-la-la"), and b) it prevents you from being attacked. Even better if your partner can have an extra special treat or meal on the floor when you lower her, to distract her and maybe convince her that there's a reward for enduring this 'torture'. Cats not being the most trainable animals, this will be a long process -- I would expect it to be a year before you feel like "Wow! She's a whole new cat!", but you should feel like it's making baby steps within 1-2 weeks.

*yes, I know PETA would flip out over scruffing. I do not believe it's the manner in which every owner should handle their cat routinely -- but while it's not the most gentle loving contact, it is not cruelty and there are situations where it's necessary & practical.
posted by MeiraV at 9:06 AM on November 13, 2010

Some cats just don't like it. My parents owned a cat that didn't really like to be touched and couldn't be picked up unless you were outside. He never sat on laps. Then, when he turned 13 or so, something clicked. He became a slut for laps. He couldn't get enough of them. He'd follow you around, waiting for you to sit down so that he could get on your lap.

My parents now have a rescue cat (he's a completely beautiful grey puffball) who doesn't trust anyone except them and it took a year before he could stand to be in the same room as them. Now he's their best buddy, but if I so much as blink in his direction he'll run and hide under the bed for days. Maybe in a decade or so he'll get used to me.

Yeah, it kind of sucks that you can't pet and cuddle your kitty, but that's life. Your cat is going to do precisely what it feels like doing and any attempt by you to force it into a different path will fail and make the cat upset.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:33 AM on November 13, 2010

When I adopted my horrible cat in 2003, she'd spent a long time in a small cage in a shelter. Being in a home confused the hell out of her—she would not permit petting, proximity, eye contact, or acknowledgment. If you looked at her for more than a few seconds, she'd fall on the ground and roll back and forth while making strangled bird noises. If you tried to approach her while she was doing this she'd pop back up, hiss, and run away. Then she decided to hide under the bed for a month.

After awhile, she'd follow us around the apartment from a safe distance but still resorted to the drop-and-roll if you acknowledged her. One day, maybe five months after I got her, she deigned to step gingerly onto a pillow I had on my lap (hissing all the while!). For about six months, that was all the contact she wanted: sitting on a pillow in my lap, hissing periodically. After maybe a year, she would sit happily in my lap and accept head/neck scratching if she initiated it.

Now (seven years later) she's still the meanest cat possible to mostly everyone. However, she's super cuddly and sweet to me and a few friends that she's decided are acceptable. I would love to take credit for her development into an affectionate animal, but it seems to have happened because at some point over the last few years some switch in her tiny brain flipped and she was like, "Oh well fine then I can be just as crazy as a lap cat as I could as an under-the-bed cat. How do you like my constant howling for attention?"

In summary: it's not always possible to direct the expression of your cat's Crazy, letting the cat make up her own mind about what sort/duration of attention she wants usually works better than trying to enforce, cats are a long game and you may find yourself six years from now looking back wistfully at those first seven months when she wouldn't sit on your face every morning at 6 a.m. begging you to pet her.
posted by ausdemfenster at 10:03 AM on November 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

I was unable to keep my pre-teen daughter from manhandling the wild strays we adopted. She would pick them up, hold, scratch and pet them, scold and chastise them daily. Then she would come to me to patch up her hands and tell her she was only getting what she deserved. I figured that as long as she wasn't hurting them, she would eventually learn to leave them alone if she didn't enjoy pain.

Remarkably, what happened was that they tamed down. That was probably 7 or 8 years ago. The cats continue, bit by bit, to be more and more relaxed with us. The runner still startles easily. The biter still nips, but rarely hard. She has learned to warn us of her displeasure instead of punishing us. One of them sits in my lap. The other lies next to me in bed to have her head scratched. They both purr.

Overall, the frequent forced contact was the way to go for our kitties. They, and we, are happier for it. And the little girl is grown up and her hands have healed.

Good luck.
posted by SLC Mom at 11:30 AM on November 13, 2010

In my experience, 90%+ of cat problems in one-cat households can be solved by getting a second cat.

Cats need other cats to socialize with. It keeps them from getting lonely and bored, gives them someone to play with all day to burn off excess energy that otherwise would be directed towards hostility or troublemaking, and helps teach them important cat social skills like "biting is not nice."

So, try getting your cat a cat.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:54 AM on November 13, 2010

When we got our kittens, Udu was easy to pet but Bouka, the tuxedo girlcat, would, as essexjan's cat, bend her spine to the ground to avoid our touch. For, like, eight or nine months.

But I couldn't help it, so pretty much every day when I came home from work that first year and any other time Bouka was snoozing (not in a safe place or special place, just in a chair or such), I would touch her and stroke her and murmur to her. Sometimes she would start and be alarmed but mostly she would stretch and give into it. After a few weeks of this, Bouka during these sessions started making these strange gurgling sounds that -sure enough! turned in purring.

She's not a lapcat and unless she's drooly lovedrunk, she doesn't like to be picked up. (We still try, three years on, but set her down the second she starts indicating she wants down, which is about 4 seconds in).

But every morning now she demands DEMANDS private drooly lovedrunk rubbies. And pretty much anytime we put out fingers near her, she leans into them with half-closed eyes and starts to purr.

Good luck with yours. Give it time and treats.
posted by Jezebella at 5:34 PM on November 13, 2010

I have a pair of brothers adopted at eight weeks. One brother was a lovebug from the beginning. The other brother has just this year decided that laps are pretty wonderful and hey, I can stand to be held for a minute or two. They're three years old.

I forced affection on him a few times. Almost every time I did so I ended up bleeding from several places (I'm a slow learner stubborn). Your cat may vary.

And even though it's been said many times, I'll say it again - cats are weird.
posted by deborah at 7:53 PM on November 13, 2010

I have four cats, two of whom were street cats. One of them (the kitten from this AskMe) has a weird relationship with petting; she will come close and meow like her heart is broken, purr loud enough to hear across the room, and then run away. She used to shove my hand away with her claws, and not particularly nicely. Smudge has lived here for nearly 2 years, and just in the last three weeks she has started to jump up on my lap for pets. Still can't hold her without wiggling and biting.

My 19-lb tabby has been in homes since he was a kitten; I adopted him at 3, and he's nearly 7. He is really sensitive to the feeling of petting - he will use his teeth to stop someone petting him after a few strokes. However, he really likes the close-holding that acidic describes; it calms him down and he purrs like a motorboat. I can't do that with any of the others.

Be present, pleasant, and available for your kitty, but let her set the pace. Smudge says that sometimes it takes a while.
posted by catlet at 8:10 AM on November 14, 2010

Response by poster: Acidic, I think Mr. Stardust got the idea after reading Temple Grandin too.
Jacqueline, I have considered getting a second cat, but I'm worried that present kitty will be too stressed out by that. She was in the shelter for a long time, and I suspect they didn't really handle her with loving care in there.

Thanks to everyone for all the tips. Kitty does eat treats from our hands. She's immune to catnip. I think I may just have to keep trying to redirect her aggression to toys and away from hands. I will have to keep touching her at least to trim her nails. It may just take some time for her to adjust to us. I don't think I'll force any cuddling on her because I don't want her to think that she has to fight against being held every day.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 8:44 AM on November 14, 2010

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