New boyfriend, old cat
December 8, 2010 12:26 PM   Subscribe

My cat has a weird love/hate relationship with my boyfriend of 3 months. Help!

I have 4 dogs and a cat. My boyfriend (I'll call him "Fred") has 1 dog and 1 cat. My dogs love Fred and his dog. My cat, not so much (either of them). Fred lives in a small town about an hour away and stays at my place 3-4 nights a week. His cat has never come with him, but Fred's dog always comes along and stays with us. (Except for 1 time a couple of weeks ago when he stayed with Fred's Mom on Thanksgiving). Fred's dog has integrated well with my pack of middle-aged to senior spayed females. However, my 7-year-old spayed female cat often hisses at Fred's dog and/or just runs away whenever he is in proximity to her. Fred's dog lives with a cat, and does not exhibit any aggressive behavior toward my cat--ever. He's a happy-go-lucky little pug and is not much bigger than her.

As for her treatment of Fred, her behavior ranges from lovey-dovey to downright hostile. Sometimes, she lets Fred hold her and pet her and play with her, and other times, she will hiss and growl at him if he walks anywhere near her, even if he isn't even looking at her or otherwise giving her attention. She has also scratched him a couple of times. Her mean behavior toward him occurs much more frequently than her nice behavior does.

So far, he and I have used verbal correction with her, and now Fred also uses a spray water bottle on her when she does the growling and hissing thing. I won't use the spray bottle because for one thing, she doesn't exhibit the behavior toward me, and for another, I just can't bring myself to do that. I do, however, correct her verbally when she growls and hisses at Fred, so it's not like I remove myself completely from the situation.

She is the first cat I have ever had, and I raised her from 5 days old. I have no doubt she is very closely bonded with me. She is also very closely bonded with my pack, and has been around all of them her entire life with no problems. Fred has had many more cats than I have, and told me that female cats are notorious for this type of behavior whereas male cats are much more laid back and friendly toward everyone. I have met his (approximately 3-year-old) neutered male cat twice, and he's a real sweetheart--he approached me on his own and let me hold him and pet him as much as I wanted.

Fred is moving in with me in a month or so (please don't derail the thread with your opinions on moving in too quickly with each other--I just want to focus on the issues between Fred and my cat). His dog and cat are moving in also. There is a lot of information about integrating cats into a common household, but I can't find anything here on the green or elsewhere about dealing with this love/hate with the new boyfriend thing.

Fred and I thought that perhaps my cat associated him with his dog, and because his dog was always around when he was, that was why she treated Fred badly. However, when Fred's dog was not at the house with us, she still exhibited the bad behavior toward Fred. Fred is a big animal person, with dogs and with cats. He is completely comfortable with all the animals and the dogs accepted him pretty much immediately. Oddly, so did the cat. I think it was once she realized he was going to be a permanent fixture that she starting turning on the hate.

When Fred doesn't stay at my house, she acts toward me like she always has--coming to sit on my lap when I'm on the couch, laying on my chest when I go to bed, and sleeping in the bed with me. She also lets me pet her and love on her as much as I want to. She does not do this when Fred is there with me. She does let me approach her and pet her when Fred is around, she just doesn't ever approach me when he is there. Sometimes, when she hisses and growls at Fred, she also hisses and growls at me, but this doesn't happen every time.

I was nervous enough about integrating Fred's cat into my household, but now I'm really worried about my cat's (apparent) hatred of Fred.

Here are my questions (finally!):

(1) What the hell can I and/or Fred do to get my cat to behave better toward him?
(2) Once Fred lives with me on a permanent basis, will his constant presence cause her to exhibit even more behavior problems? (The hissing/growling thing is the only behavior problem I am seeing at this point. She eats fine, treats my dogs fine, and does not pee outside her litterbox.)
(3) With Fred around all the time, will she stop approaching me at all?
(4) Can you recommend any resources to help us deal with her behavior?
(5) For those of you who have dealt with a situation similar to this--does it ever get better? Ever?

Sorry for the length of this post--I really appreciate any help/info you can provide!
posted by angiewriter to Pets & Animals (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I forgot to mention--Fred's dog is neutered and 10 years old.
posted by angiewriter at 12:36 PM on December 8, 2010

Fred should ignore the cat. Entirely. He has lots of other animals to devote his love to, and any movements he makes towards her are probably being read as aggression now. She will probably get used to him in time, but he needs to leave it alone until then. Don't spray her. Don't hiss at her. Don't pat her. Just ignore her, except that Fred should perhaps put the cat food out. If she comes to him, fine, but he should not approach her. All the spraying and the yelling are doing is associating Fred with bad things.

Any other behaviour problems are likely to be temporary if they occur at all.

She will probably approach you again, but you should be sure to spend time with just her and giving her attention. Eventually, Fred can come in the room while you are doing this (but should not interact with you or her).

It will take a few months to settle back to normal.
posted by jeather at 12:36 PM on December 8, 2010 [6 favorites]

I was this boyfriend. The cat and I are pretty much BFFs now. Just last night it slept curled in between my legs, in fact. It didn't take squirt bottles or routine changes or anything like that. It just took patience and time. At some point, the cat realized I wasn't going away and just got over it. Relax. Cats are just like that.
posted by negatendo at 12:39 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

1. Leave her alone. Don't force her to interact with him.
2. Probably not.
3. Probably not.
4. Leave her alone. Let her do her own thing as long as she's not lying in wait to attack him or crapping in his shoes or something.
5. She may never be his best friend. She may hate his dog for the rest of her life. She may also hate his cat, but it will most likely simmer down to just a lingering resentment.

I can only speak for my experiences integrating a four cat household with a two dog, three cat household. We all survived to tell the tale. Some of the cats will never be BFFs with each other, and some of the cats will always secretly wish for the dog to go for a walk and never come back, but day to day life is general mostly peaceful.
posted by crankylex at 12:39 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

tl:dr, but it might help if more Fred-smelling things are around for her to bond with separate from unpredictable/moving around/big gigantic dude Fred. Can he leave a dirty T-shirt or two somewhere near where she sleeps? It needs to be dirty so it smells like him. Maybe if she smells him, particularly when he's not there, she'll adjust better. We did that when my kitty was so shy she wouldn't come out from under the bed when bf was there. Now they're best buds (except when he vacuums). Having him give her treats and cat nip helped as well, but I wouldn't spray the cat. She may just be learning to associate him with negative experiences, then. I would think ignoring her would be the better option.
posted by BlooPen at 12:40 PM on December 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Fred also uses a spray water bottle on her when she does the growling and hissing thing

Also, I would continue to dislike anyone who was spraying me with water.

The whole point of the water bottle method of correction is that the cat can't see that you are the one doing it. If he is standing there in front of the cat and spraying water on her, he is doing it wrong.
posted by crankylex at 12:43 PM on December 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

The cat will come around.

One of my boyfriends had a rocky start with my cat: she snuck up on him and bit him, hard. A few months later, she preferred lounging in his lap and sleeping between his legs over cuddling with me. The change was gradual - and aided by his indifference to whether she liked him or not. For my part, I made sure she knew the boyfriend wasn't replacing her in some way.

Good luck - it'll likely get worse (with the addition of his cat and his stuff in your household!) before it gets better.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 12:49 PM on December 8, 2010

The cat will either adjust, or not. Or she'll adjust, and then un-adjust. Two years ago, we added a couple of kittens to our household. We already had a somewhat elderly cat, and for the first year or so, they were all fine together - they'd sleep next to each other, hang out in the same room, etc. Quite suddenly, elderly cat decided she didn't like the other cats. One of the cats wants to keep liking her, but all she does is hiss and growl and swipe if he comes to close. The other cat either ignores her (most of the time), or attacks her (rarely, thank god).

The whole point of the water bottle method of correction is that the cat can't see that you are the one doing it. If he is standing there in front of the cat and spraying water on her, he is doing it wrong.

Depends a lot on the cat, I think. All I have to do is pick up the spray bottle now, and whichever cat needs to stop doing the thing I want it to stop doing stops doing it when it sees me pick up the bottle. They still like me.

Cats are weird.
posted by rtha at 1:01 PM on December 8, 2010

I second the previous posters re: the spray bottle. I would discontinue that practice; I even doubt the efficacy of verbally correcting a cat. They're not like dogs; they don't really learn from negative reinforcement. And you could be doing yourself a HUGE disservice by creating/increasing the kitty's anxiety around Fred and the pug.

You really don't want a cat with an anxiety problem; cats start doing crazy things to relieve their stress!

Cat behavioral therapy is pretty hardcore. After we moved to a new house, our cats starting not getting along. (We also have a dog, but the cats are sisters/littermates, 7 years old, and had ZERO problems until we moved, were usually cuddled up together.) After the move, Trixie started hissing and fighting with Texas. And then our spayed female cat started spraying the walls in the rooms with carpet (don't believe anyone who says spayed females don't spray). At a vet visit, our vet told us that spraying was Trixie's way of telling us that she was seriously stressed. Long story short, it took a few month stint in Trixie's own isolation room plus a prozac prescription (for the cat) to end the spraying (luckily we had the extra room). It was really difficult to keep everybody happy during the isolation period. She's fine now (no spraying), but there are still fights from time to time. Our home has never really returned to the times where everyone cuddled up together before the move.

So, relax, be sweet to your kitty, and try to make sure her environment is as soothing as possible. You don't want it to get worse!
posted by Kronur at 1:11 PM on December 8, 2010

Cats hate when people make eye contact with them. Tell him to ignore the cat. Don't pet it, don't say hi to it, don't spray it with the waterbottle. Just ignore it.
posted by empath at 1:18 PM on December 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Fred also uses a spray water bottle on her when she does the growling and hissing thing

Fred needs to stop that. Would you chastise a kid for being scared and crying about something? Of course not. This is just going to ramp up the cat's anxiety.

(I am a fan of spray bottles for things like kitty being naughty and chewing on Christmas lights, but not for anything else. I definitely wouldn't squirt my cat for, say, running away from me when I approach it with flea medicine.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:25 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just as everyone had said, you are stressing the cat out by focusing so much on her. I would second everyone who's said to stop using the sprayer bottle to modify aggressive behavior. I would also suggest to maybe create a few more spaces for her to hide that are completely off limits to all other pets and humans. Elevated shelf, or a snuggly cat house (I built a cat house out of cardboard boxes from Costco).

And ask Fred not to approach the cat on his own. I used to have an ex who had some aggression issues and when the cat hissed at him he took it as a challenge to try and grab her. I'm glad he is an ex.
posted by Shusha at 1:41 PM on December 8, 2010

This is very difficult to answer without pictures of said kittay.
posted by dzaz at 2:24 PM on December 8, 2010 [7 favorites]

My cat dislikes people who are so much bigger than her or make lots of big scary unpredictable movements - like small children and big unfamiliar people.

So, my suggestion is for your boyfriend (who I'm assuming is big people sized and not small children sized) to crouch down small, look at the ground, and reach out his arm and stick out his index finger for your cat to sniff. Basically, act very non-threatening and non-challenging, like he's approaching a beheading-happy monarch. My notoriously ornery cat will then usually (unless she was already startled) tentatively sniff the proffered finger. If she wants you to pet her, she'll rub her face a little on the finger. Otherwise she'll back off, but be much less freaked out around the person.

I think if your boyfriend does this, it'll help assure the cat that he's not dangerous and maybe the cat will like him more.
posted by jillithd at 2:42 PM on December 8, 2010

This all sounds like normal cat stuff to me. It took my cats a full year to get comfortable enough with one another to stay in the same room and some cats just plain don't like some people for a very long time. One of my cats still really doesn't like one of the others, but it's not a problem because they aren't fighting. My sister's cat really never liked any person other than my sister, so the rest of us just ignore her when we visit (the cat, not my sister, obviously).

As long as the cat isn't hurting anyone out of blue (i.e. scratching and biting when not a part of play, or not being picked up), don't do anything! Hissing and growling is not a behaviour problem! It's part of what cats do sometimes. All the water bottle spray does is stress out the cat and confuse it. It's kind of cruel, in fact, and it's certainly not going to make the cat affectionate. She'll come to you when she's good and ready for you to pet her.

Personally, I'd worry much more about Fred's cat and your cat getting along, because they could actually physically hurt each other if they get in a bad enough fight. Until you're certain they get along (or at least have reasonable detente), you may want to keep them in seperate rooms when no one's home.
posted by Kurichina at 2:56 PM on December 8, 2010

Thank you all so much for taking the time to read the tl post and for your awesome responses! I have never had a behavior issue with my cat--whose name is Meeps--until now, and since she's the first cat I have ever had, I am feeling pretty overwhelmed about this. I feel a lot better knowing that this most likely won't last forever.

jillithd--my boyfriend is 6'5" and I'm 5'3", so yeah, his size is pretty imposing to her, I'm sure.

dzaz--I would love to provide pics of Meeps, but unfortunately, I have none on my work PC. She is solid black, kinda chubby, and has light green eyes. Hope that helps. :)
posted by angiewriter at 3:04 PM on December 8, 2010

Chiming in to agree with all the folks who say he should ignore the cat entirely. No looking at it, no talking to it, no petting it. Let the cat come to him. Let her decide to be friends with him. Don't try to force it the other way around.

Meantime, you need to show meeps that you still love her dearly and that she's the very best cat in the world. This is what they suggest when you integrate new cats into a one-cat household. Give her lots of attention and lots of love -- both alone and while he's in the room -- so that she knows you're still her person.

She'll probably come around eventually. But the more you try to force it, and the more she's 'punished' for being angry or afraid (not that you're MEANING to punish her, but you've got to realize that she has NO IDEA why she's being attacked with water), the worse it's going to be.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:28 PM on December 8, 2010

I recently had to tame some feline aggression and territory issues aka "angry cats," including urination issues and fighting. I spent hours researching these issues and found a lot of recommendations for Pam Johnson's Cat vs. Cat or one of her other books on feline behavior. (Also available on iBooks.) She has a lot of interesting info on cat behaviors and behavior modification for kitty. Although it costs money, there's a lot of information in one place and its accessible.

According to Johnson, a lot of the above advice is good:

1. Don't get caught spraying. Spraying only teaches the cat to associate the spraying with the person doing it and not as a consequence of the behavior itself.

2. Consider using a Feliway collar - it's helped my angry cats take their aggression down a notch. (But only a notch.)

3. Fred should just ignore the cat as much as possible and not react to the cats various displays. He should not try to approach or pet. The cat will approach him for affection when it wants to.

Don't bother with medication, except as a last resort; try isolation & reintroduction strategies first.
posted by Hylas at 4:38 PM on December 8, 2010

It took my dad and my stepmom's cats a good six years to go from hiss/hide/swipe to arbitrarily sitting on his head when he tried to read a book on the sofa (I think sometimes he wanted to go back to the hissing part.) One cat never forgave my stepmom's ex-roommate (or her bedroom door, sigh) for moving out of the house - literally years later, he was growling at her. It took my sister's male cat two years to willingly stand next to her new dog; the female cat never did warm up to him, and the way we knew about the dog and male cat finally being okay was catching them asleep together (the cat only did this when they were alone and the dog was already asleep.)

My sister's been trying to integrate another female cat (who used to live with the other two cats) back into the group for that same two year period. We're up to "can hold the calmer cat near the freaked out female cat for several seconds without anyone drawing blood," but they still generally refuse to stay on the same floor of the house together and glare at each other through cracks in doorways. And they loved each other. In their weird cat way.

Agreeing on chilling out and ignoring the cat. They do nothing on our schedule, ever.
posted by SMPA at 5:41 PM on December 8, 2010

Time is the only thing that can bring cats around. We took a stray cat into our 3-cat 1-dog household a year and a half ago. He got along fine with the animals, but is just now beginning to get on the couch of his own volition when we're sitting on it. He still freaks and runs underneath the bed when anyone comes over, though.

Cats are weird.
posted by InsanePenguin at 7:30 PM on December 8, 2010

Fred should ignore the cat. Entirely.

Sort of. I agree with the "don't force it, be patient" strategy (it totally works), but just wanted to add a minor useful tweak: have your boyfriend try saying hello to Meeps whenever he enters a room where she's already hanging out, and *then* ignore her entirely.

I've found hesitant cats like it when you acknowledge their presence in a room you enter, and then like it even more when you leave them totally alone. I.e., the ignoring tactic works better if you first casually say, "Hey Meeps, how's it going?" and then give Meeps plenty of space to realize she's missing out on more friendliness. A regular dose of a quick, respectful "Hey, cat, hope things are going ok" after an absence seems to break down the walls faster.
posted by mediareport at 8:48 PM on December 8, 2010

She's used to things being a certain way and doesn't like change.

Here is one strategy (of many) you can use: outright bribery. Every day, when Fred comes home, he feeds her her favorite cat treat. Then, to her thinking, Fred appearing means cat treats. Happiness!
posted by coffeefilter at 11:29 PM on December 16, 2010

« Older What are ways in which people stay active and...   |   Completely over-engineering something simple. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.