A long time ago, I got a call asking if I could help out a pet sitter who was having a spot of trouble.
Cleo, one of the 5 Maine coons the sitter was looking after, was supposed to stay in the master bedroom to avoid fights with another female. Well, she’d gotten out — and bitten the sitter.
When I got there, the sitter was waiting outside. She was both allergic to and a little frightened of cats. Not knowing what else to do, she’d thrown a blanket over the cat’s head. I found Cleo resting quietly on the living room sofa with another Maine coon — hardly the bloodthirsty banshee I’d been expecting.
I did a little massage and then moved quietly toward Cleo. She let me pick her up and carry her back to the bedroom, easy as a kitten in my arms.
Why the difference? I think Cleo knew that the other woman was frightened of her. Cats are, after all, predators and can smell fear.
Who Domesticated Whom?
Cats signed on with humans much later than horses and dogs did.
“About 9,000 years ago, when grain agriculture began spreading throughout the Fertile Crescent, scientists think wild cats began encountering people more often as they hunted the rodent populations that swarmed granaries during the harvest,” explains writer Gwynn Guilford.
Those early farmers knew a good deal when they saw one. So did the cats, who were given food, shelter and protection in exchange for killing vermin. “The offspring of those whose genes allowed them to tolerate the presence of humans are the ancestors of modern-day house cats.”
And yet somehow cats have maintained a strong sense of self. They have been domesticated — but only because they chose to be. They essentially brokered their own deal.
Dog genes, Guildford argues, “have been shuffled around for millennia to suit human needs…. House cats are mainly a product of natural, and not artificial selection — they domesticated themselves, you might say.”
The felines we know and love — that cat waking you up with a playful love bite and demanding breakfast, that kitten in hot pursuit of the cat teaser or fishing toy in your hand — retain something of their ancestors’ wildness. And that’s why working with a cat can often feel like working with a wild animal. Winning their respect also means winning their trust.
Many cats are extremely oriented toward people. But quite a few — rescues, ferals and many barn cats (who are, behaviorally speaking, close to ferals) — get frightened easily. So go slow, just as you would with a wild animal.
- No sudden moves. If you approach the cat in a quiet, calm manner, he will respond in kind. And don’t make direct eye contact, which he might take as a challenge.
- Set up a routine. This gives the cat a chance to get used to you. “Nothing builds trust more quickly than the daily routine,” maintains Laurie Goldstein. And use your voice instead of your hands. Talk with her — even read to her. It sounds a little silly, but cats really enjoy it. My son used to read Poe to Keisha, our tortoiseshell. Now Keisha hadn’t had any particular trauma in her life, but she responded to Zeke’s voice and the rhythm of the words, and it built a bond between them.
Alpha Cats and Respect
Now and then, you meet up with an alpha cat.
Alpha cats can be male or female. According to Vetinfo.com, they are “natural leaders, and their actions make sense from that perspective…. An alpha cat basically believes that he owns you, not the other way around.”
Watch these cats help their human navigate the daily tasks of life:
An alpha cat is something of a bully and, like human bullies, he thrives on attention and getting what he wants. He will bite, hiss and meow “loudly and persistently” to achieve that.
There’s only one way to deal with this: Take away “the attention and be proactive in the cat training process.”
That’s what cat rescuers Kristen Wookey and Susan Graham believe. If a cat hisses at her, Wookey simply tells him, “That’s not allowed” and calmly exits the room.
Graham takes a similar approach. “I do speak sternly to them and disengage,” she says. “If it’s fear-based, I talk softly to them and very gently disengage…. People wonder how I don’t have the same problems they do with them. Well, [the cats are] just like little toddlers.”
A good thing to keep in mind, really.