Cat with Man

Q. I’ve started dating a nice woman with a very shy cat. He didn’t make friends with either of the last two men she dated, and I’m hoping he will decide to be friends with me. How can I get him to like me — and is this even possible?

A. First of all, you have my respect for your willingness to invest in the relationship by caring about what matters to your girlfriend; in this case, her cat’s well being. Working to befriend a significant other’s pet is a wise choice: The opinion of pets seems to matter in a relationship. According to a survey of customers conducted by PetSmart Charities, 70 percent of singles think their dates’ reaction to their pet is important.

Ultimately, your girlfriend’s cat may be very skittish and never fall in love with you, but the efforts you make to befriend him will strengthen your relationship with her — and that’s good for everyone.

Her Cat May Not Appreciate Your Efforts, But She Will

The most important factor at this stage in the relationship (with the cat and with the girlfriend) will likely be how you respond to the cat. Your openness to trying different ways to win the cat’s trust, your patience with the process and your respect for your girlfriend’s bond with her cat will all be appreciated — although it may only be your girlfriend who appreciates your effort, not her cat.

Despite your best efforts, you may not succeed in making friends with the cat. I know a couple whose cat is terrified of the husband. After 10 years of marriage, the cat will still dash out of the room when he walks in. This couple said they never put any effort into changing the cat’s behavior or response to him, though; they just accepted the situation for what it was.

This doesn’t mean that the husband doesn’t like the cat or respect his wife’s bond with her cat; over the years, he has paid some extravagant medical bills without complaint and has supported his wife emotionally when the cat was ill. While he has never formed a relationship with the cat, his efforts have been meaningful to his wife and have strengthened their marriage.

Good Things Happen When You Show Up

Your girlfriend’s cat may come around in time and make friends with you on his own terms, but a little bit of training will most likely increase the odds of success. I’ve found that even the biggest scaredy cats will open up if patient efforts are made. Better yet, you won’t need to bathe in tuna or wear catnip cologne to win the feline’s stamp of approval.

To get a cat to trust and like you when you’re visiting, it’s important that the best life experiences happen when you’re around. This means that small amounts of the cat’s favorite treats — meaty and smelly treats, canned cat food, meat-based baby foods or licks of tuna — only come out when you’re visiting. Your girlfriend can dole out these treats in the beginning; once the cat becomes more comfortable with your presence, they can come directly from you. In this way, your arrival becomes a signal of good things.
Feed the cat his treat in a way that will help him to feel comfortable: Place the treat close to you, but at a distance with which he’s comfortable and ignore him while he eats, or have your girlfriend feed or place the treats near him. Another option is to place food in multiple bowls or scattered around the room and on perches, which creates a kind of hunt for the food; this turns the treats into part of a game and can help release any tension the cat is feeling. If the cat is relaxed by catnip, this also can be used to entice the cat to move closer to the area where you are sitting.

For cats that hide, place the special treat at the edge of the space where the cat lurks, such as by the bed, outside the closet or in the doorway of a favorite room. This teaches the cat to associate the smell, sound and sight of you in the house or apartment with tasty rewards, and can help relieve any anxiety or fear. Be careful not to force an interaction, though; instead, move away when the cat comes out to eat.

Whenever possible, be the one to feed the cat his meals or have your girlfriend serve him special meals, like canned cat food or low sodium broth, during your visits.

Make Friends on His Terms

Once the cat is used to your presence, work on getting him to play with you. This will mark a major milestone in your relationship. Movement during play releases tension and builds a positive association with the human player. Feather and wand toys are ideal because they will allow you to interact with the cat from a distance. Use the toy as a lure to bring the cat nearer to you — but stop if he is unwilling to engage.

How you act around the cat will also affect your relationship with him. Use slow and predictable movements. Avoid making prolonged direct eye contact, which may be seen as a threat. Instead, watch him with your peripheral vision or frequently look away. Keep your body turned slightly away from the cat, rather than directly facing him. The cat may feel more comfortable if you sit at his level, either on the floor or the couch, or if he is up higher than you, such as on a perch.

For some cats, the more familiar you smell, the better — and the most comforting thing you can smell like may be the cat himself. Have your girlfriend pet or rub the cat with a towel. Then, disperse the cat’s scent on yourself by rubbing the towel on your clothing when you come in. It sounds outlandish, but this may help the cat view you as someone safe. You can also help the cat get used to your scent by having your girlfriend place something you’ve worn, like a T-shirt, next to the cat’s meal or a special treat; this will help reinforce the idea that good things happen when you’re around.

Sometimes cats become upset when routine is changed or the attention they normally get is diverted to someone else — like a new boyfriend. Help your girlfriend keep her cat’s life predictable while meeting all of his needs, including exercise, rest and socialization. If the cat has difficulty adjusting to your presence, seek out a veterinary behaviorist or a cat specialist that can work with your girlfriend’s veterinarian. Advanced behavior modification tactics may be helpful, or the vet may recommend supplements or medications to help ease the cat’s fear and make adjustment and learning easier.

Recently, I worked with Vetstreet editor Kristen Seymour on ways to help her cat, Trixie, be more at ease around her feline-adoring husband, Jared. It took some adjustments, but now Trixie is much more confident and enjoys being with Jared. You can follow along on their journey here

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