10 Ways to Jeopardize Your Cat's Trust

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

things you should never do to your cat

Story at-a-glance -

  • Our feline friends can be hard to figure out and even harder to bond with, especially if we don’t realize we’re part of the problem
  • It’s important to understand that to thrive, cats need consistency and familiarity in their daily lives with us, and pet parents often unintentionally upset that balance
  • Things not to do if you have a cat in the family include forcing interactions, punishment, physical restraint, and letting litterbox cleanliness slide

If you’ve spent any time around cats, you’re no doubt aware that it can be challenging to make friends with them, and quite easy to put them off. Felines are exquisitely sensitive creatures, and each one is an “original,” meaning no two cats are alike.

To complicate matters further, cats tend to find many normal, everyday things stressful. For example, even a minor change in kitty’s daily routine can make her apprehensive, and big changes, such as a move to a new home or the arrival of a new pet in the household can quickly send even cool cats round the bend.

Cats need to feel in charge of their environment, and they associate changes in their surroundings or daily routine with a loss of control, which makes them anxious. And here’s the rub — many well-meaning pet parents don’t realize the role they may be playing in creating stress for their feline family members.

10 Don’t Do’s for Cat Guardians

1. Don’t force interactions with your cat — Don't pull her from her hiding spot or hold her against her will (unless there's an emergency of some kind and you need to move her). Encourage her to come to you but let her choose to interact with you on her terms.

Having consistently positive and gentle interactions fosters trust. If she wanders off to hide or have a nap, don’t pursue her. Having time to herself when she wants it will help her feel safe and secure.

To improve the communication between you and your cat, learn to interpret her body language, facial expressions and vocalizations. A good place to start: “30 Ways Your Cat Speaks to You.”

2. Don’t punish him — When your cat is behaving in a way you don't want him to, getting physical with him will do only one thing — teach him to fear you. Yelling at him will scare him off, but probably only for the moment (and risk making him think you’re unsafe).

Instead, when you find him doing something he shouldn't, distract him with a toy or activity to show him what you want him to do instead, and then lavishly reward him for his desirable behavior.

In addition, make sure he has plenty of approved climbing and scratching surfaces around your home, and keep potentially hazardous items out of his reach.

3. Don’t encourage play aggression in your cat — Play aggression is fairly typical behavior in kittens and young cats. Hiding under furniture and jumping out to attack your foot or ankle, pouncing on your legs under the bedcovers and even wrestling with and biting your hand are all par for the course for a young cat.

Normally, your kitten would get out such play aggressions with his littermates, during which he would learn when his 'play' had gone too far.

If a kitten gets too rough with his littermates, they will bite back or stop playing, teaching him that there are limits. Intense play aggression with uninhibited scratching and biting is usually seen in kittens and young cats taken early from their mothers, under-stimulated kitties, and cats without appropriate play outlets.

You can help to avoid over-aggressive play in your kitten by taking the role of his littermates; when he is about to pounce on you, hiss at him or loudly say "ouch" – then stop playing for a few minutes. If you are consistent with this, your kitten will learn the limits of play.

4. Don’t stare at her — Many kitties are tremendously uncomfortable with eye-to-eye contact from their humans. This is because most animals view prolonged eye contact as an act of aggression and staring at your cat can make her feel anxious and fearful.

A better approach when gazing at your cat is to close your eyes for a few seconds, then open them and look away, or simply glance away once she meets your gaze. This will show her you are not a threat.

5. Don’t physically restrain your cat — Don’t hold him to kiss or hug him. Cats are natural predators, but they're also prey. The first thing a predator does upon catching a prey animal is restrain it, which is why your kitty needs to maintain his ability to move freely and escape. It's also why he probably gets stressed when you hold him, even though you're being affectionate.

Don’t hold his head. It's natural for humans to approach cats head on, however, it's anything but natural for the cat, which is why the response of most kitties is to recoil from a direct grab. Unfortunately, as soon as the cat throws it in reverse, many people are so committed to the exchange they grab his head and proceed to ruffle his fur. Now, imagine how you'd like it if someone did that to you!

Cats don't appreciate a head-on approach or head grabs. They are much more comfortable with long, gentle strokes from the head or neck area to the tail, or a bit of light scratching around the ears or chin.

6. Don’t be an unnerving presence around her — Most cats absolutely do not appreciate sudden noises or movements, or anything that can be interpreted as aggressive or even assertive. Speak softly and move quietly and slowly around your cat. Focus on being very Zen and entirely non-threatening while you’re in her environment.

7. Don’t assume your cat doesn’t need help with grooming — Cats are natural self-groomers, but they still need help to maintain their coat and nails. How much grooming your cat requires depends a great deal on the type and texture of the fur, as well as his age, lifestyle and health status.

Older cats may have trouble grooming themselves, for instance, while cats with “pushed in” faces (such as Himalayans and Persians) may need the folds of their skin cleaned to prevent infection. Your cat also needs regular brushing and may even need an occasional bath.

8. Don’t ignore his litterbox — even for a day — Cats are fastidious creatures, and most will happily make consistent use of a well-placed, clean litterbox. However, if the box is allowed to get dirty and stinky, many kitties will eventually eliminate elsewhere.

This is especially true for older cats who tend to become even fussier as they age. If you want to keep your cat content to relieve himself in his litterbox, be sure to scoop it at least once a day. A thorough cleaning with soap and warm water, and a complete litter change, should be done once a week, or every two weeks at the outside.

Also, just as human toilets aren't located in the middle of the living room, neither should your cat's litterbox be in an open, noisy, high-traffic area of your home. Just like us, cats need a private, safe spot in which to do their business. Situate the litterbox in a quiet area of your home in which kitty isn't apt to encounter people, other pets, or loud appliances. If your cat is older, be sure the location and the litterbox itself are easily accessible to him.

9. Don’t use chemical air scenting products around your home — These include scented candles, plug-ins and other strong-smelling chemicals. Cats are very sensitive to odors (it's one of the reasons they're so stressed during veterinary visits — all those smells!) and are often bothered by strong scents in the air, on clothing or bedding, and even on their humans.

Try to keep your use of chemicals of all kinds to a minimum, especially those with a strong odor. Instead, choose organic, nontoxic home cleaners in place of toxic pine-based floor cleaners, chemical wet mops, or ammonia/bleach-based cleaners.

10. Don’t leave your cat home alone overnight — Many people believe one of the advantages of having a cat is that their independent nature allows them to be left on their own for long periods. While it's true most cats don't require as much hands-on attention as dogs do, it's really not a good idea to leave your cat alone when you travel.

Number one, kibble, which is the only food that won't spoil sitting out in the open for days, isn't a species-appropriate diet for cats. I never recommend dry pet food, especially for kitties. In addition, many cats will gorge themselves, eating all the food within hours after you leave. Then they (often) throw up and have nothing to eat until you return. This is stressful for your cat, and can also endanger her health, since kitties need to eat every day.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, an unattended, un-scooped, stinky litterbox is an invitation to your cat to find some other spot to relieve herself.

And finally, in a worst-case scenario your cat could injure herself or become ill during your absence, and no one would know. I recommend asking a friend, relative, neighbor or professional pet sitter to stop by each day during your absence to feed and water kitty, scoop the litterbox, and spend a few minutes with her to insure she's content and healthy.

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