Cats like their worlds orderly and predictable. They tend to view new humans askance, almost as much as they would a new cat coming into the house.
But when the newcomer is a significant other, your feline friend may express some very strong opinions on the subject.
I once had a cat knock an open beer into a date’s lasagna. Now, the guy was not a particularly significant other, and not all cats are as over-the-top as Star was. But cats are masters at pulling off the unexpected, so it’s always a good idea to have a game plan ready when anyone new shows up.
Beyond Cupboard Love
“Cupboard love” is a British phrase that basically means someone is kissing up to you because he or she wants something, and it’s often used regarding cats. The age-old assumption is that they are all furry con artists who view their humans as means to an end.
Not so. “Cats’ attachment to people cannot be merely utilitarian; it must have an emotional basis,” observes John Bradshaw of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol. “Since we now know that cats have the capacity to feel affection for other cats, why should they not feel the same emotion toward their owners?”
Domestication and “[t]he lasting loyalty feral cats can show toward members of their own family” have, he believes, combined, creating “a new capacity to form affectionate bonds toward humans as well.” So what we have here is emotional evolution on the cats’ part.
But they can still be very choosy about the people they cozy up to — which mostly has to do with socialization and genetics. As Dr. Karen Becker points out, a cat who “spent her first months of life in a shelter kennel with minimal exposure to other cats and people” is not going to rub up against and head-butt humans she has never seen before.
She may also have a genetic predisposition toward fearfulness if her parents were strays or ferals. The minute strangers show up, she’ll probably vanish — only to magically reappear when they’re gone.
Slow and Steady
This works for cats as well as for relationships.
Very few cats like people swooping down on them and scooping them up…yet some people keep doing just that. Even tried-and-true cat lovers occasionally make this mistake; they believe they can handle any cat, no matter what the circumstances. Anyone who has ever done cat rescue knows that that’s not so.
Feline Rules of Engagement
When you’re talking about a serious romantic partner — someone who is going to be living with you and your cat — the need to proceed carefully is paramount. “Because cats do not always take lightly to new additions to their household, there is a lot you can do to make the adjustment quicker and easier,” says cat therapist Carole Wilbourn. “Like people, they become used to their same constant environment, and newcomers can present a threat to their existence.”
This cat doesn’t want to be touched right now, thank you very much:
So you want your cat to see that this new person is not a threat. But you and your significant other (SO) can’t make the first move. Noodles or Smokey Joe does that. It is, as Wilbourn points out, “up to your cats to do the screening and the final acceptance.”
There are, however, things that you can quietly do to ease the process along:
- Even before an SO moves in, he or she can leave “one of his [or her] belongings on your bed,” Wilbourn writes. “This way your cats will become accustomed to his [or her] scent.”
- Gradually have your partner take over your cat’s feedings; the cat will then begin to associate him or her with good things. Even “[i]f you free-feed, still have your spouse be responsible for the duties,” advises animal behaviorist consultant Pam Johnson-Bennett, “because your cat will see it happen often enough and the scent of your spouse will be on the dishes he [or she] handles.”
What matters most is that your SO is genuinely willing to become part of Life with Cat(s). If not, then there could be some awful consequences. “That’s one of the first questions I ask,” my friend Barbara told me. “‘Do you like cats?’ If the answer’s ‘No,’ then I’m like, ‘Later.'”