She cuddles me, she cuddles me not.
February 16, 2007 9:57 AM   Subscribe

Help me interpret my cat's somewhat odd, hot-and-cold behavior.

Background info: We (my girlfriend and I) have three cats: Kippy is ~14 and has been with my girlfriend for her (Kippy's) whole life. Daphne is ~2; we found her as a stray kitten. Cleo is also ~2, we acquired her to keep Daphne company and prevent her from driving Kippy crazy. After an adjustment period, the cats all get along fairly well. D wants to be K's friend and gently harasses her, which K is somewhat tolerant of. D & C play, sometimes very roughly, but seem to get along fine. D is a loving cuddelmeister; C is much more independent.

The behavior in question: 99.9% of the time, Cleo is your typical leave-me-alone cat. She rarely cuddles with us or the other cats; she keeps to herself; and she runs away if anyone tries to pet her. In fact, whenever she is approached, she looks terrified. However, recently she has started doing the following: every evening, she waits for me to get into bed, jumps up on the bed and snuggles up next to me. She will stay for as long as I pet her (~10 minutes). Then she jumps off the bed and goes back to her normal behavior. She does this only with me (not my girlfriend), only at night when I first get into bed, and she clearly waits for me to get into bed to do this. It started completely out of the blue about a month ago.

The question: What explains this? Why would she act terrified of us 23.75-7, but be super-affectionate with me for .25-7? I've had several cats and am familiar with their periods of aloofness, but I've never seen anything quite this extreme.

I'm not worried about this, just wondering if any amateur cat psychologists can shed some light on it.
posted by googly to Pets & Animals (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds a little like my friend’s feral kitty, Screamer. He is so wary of humans that he is rarely seen at all, but apparently learned from observing the other cats that petting was possible and apparently agreeable. One day he approached my friend and requested petting. He’s still extremely skittish and will flee when approached, but now he likes to be petted.
posted by kika at 10:04 AM on February 16, 2007

Sophie has a mild version of that. Minimal appreciation for petting most of the time, but here and there a big suck when I'm in bed. I've even caught her 'spooning' next to me. When petted then, it's loud purrs and weak-kneed ecstasy.

During the day, my affections are mostly just tolerated, and that's it.

Stuff I've come up with: I'm less threatening in bed. I don't pick her up, I don't move around much besides a cuddle-n-pet.

She's not entirely unlike me. I don't like excess cuddling, but before bed? Sure.

And I'm not intruding on any mysterious cat plans then. You know -- 'I have no time for petting right now -- there is a fascinating bit of dust in my line of sight and an unknown car outside. Please, I'm very busy...'
posted by kmennie at 10:11 AM on February 16, 2007

Is it possible she's just cold and looking for an infusion of body heat? My cat (who under normal circumstances wasn't much of a cuddler at all) was like a body heat vampire in the winter.
posted by amro at 10:12 AM on February 16, 2007

Cats like petting. They like petting on their own terms, though.

The behavior you describe is quite common. The cat has noticed that when you're in bed, you don't move around much, you don't act threatening, and you don't loom over her. A perfect occasion to get some love.
posted by jellicle at 10:13 AM on February 16, 2007

kmennie: wow! sophie & cleo are almost twins in that regard (though cleo looks more like max). I hadn't thought of the less-threatening angle; that makes a lot of sense.

amro: Temperature probably has something to do with it. Its coooooooooold in our house, and she will often come join us after we fall asleep.
posted by googly at 10:27 AM on February 16, 2007

Samui, my 8 year-old orange persian, is so terrified of the world we started to joke about his being just a family legend, because nobody ever sees him. Exagerations aside, he does spend 95% of the time by himself in whatever spot he finds safest -usually hidden outside.
However, at times he comes in the house so absolutely desperate for love that if you don't pay him any attention he'll stare at you and meow non-stop for half an hour.

Wicca and brother Deco, two black strays we adopted three years ago, although having very different personalities share a similar behaviour. They'll spend days at time god knows where, showing up just to eat twice a day. Then comes a random evening 7pm and they'll show up rubbing against every piece of furniture on their way untill they get to the first available human to beg, BEG, for some petting. This goes on for hours at a time, usually at night.

Personally, I find these "needy fits" adorable. And as you can gather from my experience, completely normal.
I guess every cat has the need for some amount of attention which, however aloof they act, they must receive from time to time.

(Mine are all neutered/spayed, by the way. Don't know if this has anything to do with that.)
posted by AnyGuelmann at 10:27 AM on February 16, 2007

Oh, by the way, with Wicca these needy fits are the perfect occasion to play - she'll be there all involved in your love but if you wiggle a finger next to her she'll have a blast.
posted by AnyGuelmann at 10:30 AM on February 16, 2007

Re: the specific situation, I've read that it has to do with when a mommy cat lies down, baby cats know that means it's time to be quiet. It's time for nursing and snuggling and bathing and sleeping. With a housecat, they're pretty much stuck in their kitten brain, and whoever smells most familiar is a substitute mommy cat, so they snuggle up and start kneading and purring and bathing like they would if they were kittens settling down.

In general, though, cat behavior comes down to the following: they pretty much don't like anything that isn't their idea.

I have a huge, temperamental dilute calico. She loves sitting in my lap. Unless of course I pick her up and put her there. Cats just like to make the first move. Which describes me pretty well too, actually. If I try to force something on her - anything at all - she does the cat equivalent of rolling her eyes and stalks off. But if I just let her do her own thing, she will snuggle on her own terms, even if it means working her way between my lap and my laptop. Which isn't easy, cause see above re: huge.

I actually love this about cats. Dogs are so codependent I feel guilty leaving them behind to go to the bathroom. It's pretty hard to hurt a cat's feelings, but you can still develop a really nice companionship.
posted by ultraultraboomerang at 10:36 AM on February 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

jellicle is right.

She feels safe when you're lying down, because you can't grab at her or chase her or any of the things she finds scary. Not that you do those things, but that's usually what the jumpy cats worry over.

She likes you, but she is just a wee bit frightened. Maybe over time she will stop being afraid and will ask for petting more often. I had a cat like Cleo and it took him years to not be afraid of me. He finally became trusting of me, but he still didn't trust other people.
posted by winna at 10:45 AM on February 16, 2007

Rupert's like that. He won't sit on my lap, but he'll sit on the couch behind my head when I'm watching TV, or sit on the pillows behind my head when I'm in bed. Then it's purr time.
posted by matildaben at 11:27 AM on February 16, 2007

The ways of the cat are inscrutable. As your cats age, you will find their personalities changing: some years they will be aloof, other years they will want to live in your pocket.

If a cat did not like you, it would never go near you. Like any relationship, you just have to let time pass and build up trust.

Also: dispensing kitty treats helps.
posted by gsh at 12:43 PM on February 16, 2007

winna and gsh both touched on my theory. Everytime I've raised a kitten, their personalities were still changing a lot around the 2-year mark. Sometimes they finally get comfortable (especially if she was feral) and outgrow some of their skittishness. I bet the little girl's just growing up.
posted by juliplease at 12:54 PM on February 16, 2007

One of my cats has a similar issue. She's gotten less skittish and more cuddly over the years, but she used to only be that way with anyone but my husband in the bathroom. She would whine and paw at the door to be let in, and if you let her in, would cuddle and nuzzle you, wiggle around as though in absolute ecstasy, and just be a totally different cat.

I assume part of it is that she likes to be away from our other cat (who is her littermate, oddly enough). He can't see her or bother her in the bathroom, so it's HER time.

Maybe your cat assumes your bedtime is CLEO's time.

Cats love routines so once she established it, it probably just became normal for her.
posted by tastybrains at 1:16 PM on February 16, 2007

My cat is now coming up on 9 years old, and I've had her since she was a stray kitten. She continues to surprise me with new, affectionate behavior that is unlike her typical behavior. As an example, she has decided she loves my boyfriend and will climb up on his lap (amazing, because she is not a lap cat at all) and knead his belly and purr. She is still wary of all strangers and will hiss, claw, or bite if anyone (friend or foe) tries to pet her when she's not in the mood.

gsh is correct that as cats age, their personalities change. Also, cats are crazy. That's why we love them.
posted by misskaz at 1:17 PM on February 16, 2007

I agree with those who suggested letting the cat deal with you on her own terms. Once you become closer friends, you'll probably be able to initiate petting or holding, but with some cats it takes a lot of time to get to that point. I always make a point of allowing cats to initiate touching -- it puts them at ease, which makes them more likely to allow touching in the first place. One of my cats is an "unfriendly" one, and over the years she and I have come to develop a deep trust and understanding... but before that, there were months of scratches and yowling and running away. I guess that's just the way it is with some cats.

Here are a couple of tricks you can try that often put frightened cats at ease:
-Don't stare. For humans, direct eye contact can be welcoming, but cats are often repelled by it. Look at the cat briefly, and then glance away.
-Instead of approaching, try crouching 5 or 6 feet away. Put out your hand and call quietly. If the cat is interested in saying hello, he or she will come over and sniff your hand. With confident cats you can turn this into a pet, but for skittish cats it is best to hold very still and let them rub up against your hand if they want to. The idea is to get them used to you and your scent, without associating you with any threatening actions.
posted by vorfeed at 1:30 PM on February 16, 2007

She sounds like a cat.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 2:15 PM on February 16, 2007

My cat -- insane, like all cats -- acts similarly. I believe it's because he thinks I'm two different people. When I'm dressed normally, I'm another large human moving around the place; I'm not to be feared, but I'm not anything special either. However, when my hair's wet and I'm in a certain bathrobe, I am the cat's beloved mother who cannot be allowed to get more than an inch away. And no, he isn't attached to the robe or the hair -- he'll leave me alone if I have one, but not the other, and he never cares about the robe if it's on a hook, or about other people's wet hair. The time of day doesn't matter, what I'm trying to do doesn't matter, and I don't think it can even be a scent thing because it's independent of the soap and shampoo I use. The cat just thinks I'm two people, one of whom is defined by wet hair and a blue bathrobe.

The ways and thought processes of cats are inexplicable. You can do little experiments to see how Cleo's behavior changes in different cases, but you're probably not going to wind up with anything more than an interesting hypothesis.

Stuff I would check: What happens if you pet Cleo for longer than 10 minutes -- will she stay longer? What if you go get in bed as soon as you get home -- will she join you then? What if you take the blanket and pillow and camp out on the living-room floor? What if at bedtime, you act like you're getting ready to go to bed, but then head for the couch?

Questions like this will probably help you guess whether it's a routine for her, or whether she has a thing for your blanket or wants your body heat at night, or whether she just wants to hang out with you when it looks like you're going to be holding still and petting her for a few minutes. Ultimately, though, cats is cats.
posted by booksandlibretti at 2:33 PM on February 16, 2007

You know, this sort of thing doesn't have to be a purely cat behavior. I have a dog that absolutely refuses to sleep where we sleep -- if he's sleeping on the bed or the guest bed when we come in, he'll get up the moment our asses hit the mattress. No amount of cajoling or petting or praise will get him to stay where we are when sleeping, even though he's affectionate when we're sitting around.

Then, in the morning when we wake up, suddenly he's ALL OVER the bed, jumping and trying to eat our faces. It's a mystery, and he wasn't always like this. Sometimes, animals do what they do, just like humans, and it's a little reminder that their brains work in unfathomable ways no matter how much we like to believe otherwise.
posted by davejay at 10:51 PM on February 16, 2007

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