September 2011

How to raise a happy cat

By Gail Binkly

Pet cats outnumber dogs in this country, according to the Humane Society of the United States, and a third of U.S. households have at least one cat. If you are considering joining the ranks of cat-owners, I’d like to offer my personal tips for raising a happy, well-adjusted animal — and not getting scratched.

One of the biggest surprises to brandnew cat owners is that the animals will claw. It doesn’t mean they are vicious; it’s an instinctive reaction to something they fear or don’t like. But with a bit of common sense, you can avoid ever being scratched.

Now, I’m not a biologist, but over the course of my life I’ve lived with (at last count) three dozen cats. Not all were mine – some belonged to my parents or my roommates – but I helped raise them, and learned from them. So here is my advice, based on nearly five decades of observing calicos and tabbies, tuxedos and tortoiseshells:

First, don’t get a cat. . . if what you really want is a dog. Felines and canines think very differently. Dogs are pack animals who instinctively follow a leader. Except for lions, wild cats live alone and are used to making their own decisions; they are naturally their own leaders. If your desire is for an obedient, easily trained animal that will come when you call, ride in the car with you, and sit when you tell it to, don’t get a cat. It wouldn’t be fair to either of you.

Recognize that many cats do not particularly enjoy being picked up and held. Cats are furry and cute, and you may have a strong urge to grab and cuddle them, but they may not enjoy this. Their resistance doesn’t mean they don’t like you, just the holding. Think about it: Would you like to be picked up by a giant being and held high in the air, against your will? It’s better to pet the cat while he’s standing on the floor or on the back of a chair and can leave when he likes.

When you do pick your cat up, let it down if it starts squirming. If she gets the idea that you aren’t going to force her to stay, she will learn to tolerate your cuddling. And don’t lift the cat by her front legs, unless you want a writhing, twisting creature. An easier and more comfortable method is to scoop the cat up with one arm and hold her against your hip; often you can carry a cat quite easily that way and it won’t mind.

Don’t use your fingers or hands to play with your pet. When you get a kitten, it’s a lot of fun to watch him pounce on your wiggling finger, and those tiny teeth and claws don’t hurt much. But when the cat grows, he isn’t going to understand why you’re suddenly angry that he’s attacking your hand. Use cat toys, pieces of rope, or crumpled-up balls of paper to entertain your pet instead. If he does get excited and tries to pounce on your hand, getting mad and swatting him will only trigger similar anger and aggression in the cat. I’ve found that crying, “Ow! Ow! Ow!” in a shocked, high-pitched voice will prompt the cat to cease and desist almost instantly.

Be very careful about petting your cat’s belly. Dogs like their tummies stroked, but very few cats do, so try it very, very cautiously. If the cat curls up and puts her claws out, stop! This isn’t something you can change about your pet.

Respect your cat’s feelings about strangers. Like puppies, kittens can be socialized to some extent by exposure to different people, but some are just naturally shy. Nature plays a huge role in whether a cat is “outgoing” or not. One of the friendliest cats I’ve ever known had been cast out of his home to live on the streets of Colorado Springs – something you’d think would make him fearful. Instead, he found a furniture store and kept venturing in through the loading dock, wandering through the showroom and rubbing up against customers. On the other hand, of all the cats my family has owned, only one has ever been actively hostile and menacing to strangers – and he was raised with nothing but coddling. Anyway, if your pet is afraid of new people, don’t force him to meet them.

Above all, do not assume your cat is “aloof.” This is a ludicrous misconception regarding these beautiful but frequently misunderstood animals. I have never had a cat that didn’t purr when she was petted, didn’t like to curl up with me when I slept, didn’t greet me happily when I approached. Feline love is less overt and obvious than a dog’s affections, but it is deep and strong. Always treat your cat with kindness and gentleness and she will love you; it’s as simple as that.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Four Corners Free Press.