Ever gotten the cold shoulder from your cat? Of course, you have! Chances are if you live with a feline, you’ve had to kiss and make up more than once. The good news is, despite their reputations for being antisocial, cats love bonding and they do forgive and forget. So, if you’re at a loss as to how you’re going to rebuild trust and affection with your cat, don’t fret. We’ll walk you through it.
What did I do?
Some cats are predisposed to anxiety (they were weaned too early or it’s simply in their genes) while others experience anxious feelings after a traumatic event. Just to be clear: Traumatic events can be anything from an extended absence to a loud noise. Whether you head to Mexico for two weeks to avoid the polar vortex or drop a pan during naptime, your cat may shun you the same way in both instances.
How to tell if your cat is unhappy
Dilated pupils, flattened ears and a crouched body are all signs a cat is anxious and probably ready to run far away from whatever—or whoever—is freaking them out. Some cats are naturally fearful and tend to hide under beds or behind couches, but if this behavior is new, it’s a sign something’s up, and you might have to do some damage control.
Give them space
Whatever your transgression, giving your cat ample space is key to rebuilding trust and winning back affection. Let them come to you. For real. Be patient. Don’t pick up a cat that runs away from you or isn’t in the mood for it. And, if they let you pick them up, let them go the moment they start squirming. Older cats especially need extra space when getting reacquainted with you after a long absence, so take it slowly.
The same goes for petting your cat. As Dr. Marty Becker of VetStreet says, scratching cats along the spine, around the chin and between the ears is a winning combo. Even if your cat displays her belly (which is a huge indicator of trust), try to avoid petting there. It can make them feel very vulnerable. Also, since cats are constant groomers, brushing them in slow, methodic strokes can be incredibly soothing.
Initiate tons of playtime
There’s no better way to win affection points than mutually beneficial playtime. I say mutually beneficial because as Dr. Marci Koski, a certified feline behavior and training consultant, says, some cats may interpret mice dangling in front of their noses as teasing, not play (be sure to read about laser pointers, too). So, while playtime can be a great way to rebuild trust and remind your cat why they love you, make sure they are enjoying it (see below for body language indicators). Bonus points if you can provide toys that occupy your cat without you present. This will serve them well while you are out.
Return to routine
Dr. Koski also notes that cats like controlled environments with plenty of options. Basically, they love routine and want a bunch of different spaces to call their own so they can mix up their lounge time. The sooner you can get back into a regular routine, the better.
Treats are always fair game
Speaking from personal experience, cats may not understand the word “treat,” but they do know what the sound of a shaking treat bag means. Positive reinforcement with treats is a great way to establish a relationship and reward cats for good behavior (sitting on your lap, etc.). Since cats often give preference to the person doing a majority of the feeding and watering, take over these duties for a while to reiterate how much you care for them and their survival. If you’re their only source of sustenance, ensure these interactions are positive by sticking to a schedule and letting your cat come to you when he’s ready to eat. If he runs and hides, allow him space. He’ll eat when he’s ready.
How to know your cat is happy again
Voluntarily sauntering up to you and rubbing himself against your legs, chirruping, following you from room to room, and rolling over to expose his belly are signs your feline is happy and loves you. Well done!
How to do better next time (because there will probably be a next time)
Prepare yourself, your home and your cat to combat stress by providing plenty of soothing spaces, food and water. Cardboard boxes have been proven to ease anxiety in cats; if you don’t want tons of boxes laying around, make sure there are snug spots and comfy pet beds where your cat can retreat to if she needs space. Taller cat towers are also great since height gives cats a sense of safety. If you’re going out of town, try to set up a pet sitter who can stick as closely to your current routine as possible. Your kitty will be much more forgiving upon your return.