A few days ago, I received an email from a frustrated new-cat owner, Olga, who’s struggling with her first cat ever as he hasn’t completely integrated well into her home, even though it’s been months since she first took him in.
There’s been progress, there have been setbacks, lots of issues that compound.
There’s quite a lot going on that I’m not going to bother to summarize. Instead, have a read over her email for yourself:
Olga’s Story: The 5-Month Struggle With Her First-Time Cat
Hello. I am absolutely at a loss of what to do with my cat, and I’m hoping you can give me some advice. I really enjoy your blog and think that not only is your writing really informative, it’s written in a way that’s easy to read with info easy to grasp. Thank you for that.
My bf and I got our cat in February from a very strange man on Craigslist who claimed to know everything there is to know about cats. He runs a cat sanctuary out of his own home. I spoke to him on the phone for about an hour when deciding on our cat, being very clear on what kind of a personality we are looking for and what kind of personality and schedule we have at home. He came over to our apartment and assessed every corner and gave us tips on how to make the place safe for the cat, and sent us documents of the cat getting all of his necessary shots. That was almost 5 months ago, and our cat still hasn’t allowed us to touch him. He spent the first month hiding, and we did everything possible to make sure he has a comfortable welcoming space. I only feed him quality wet food, and occasionally raw food and milk too. I’ll give him some treats every single day. I got him a comfortable bed and a heating pad since he likes to sit on top of warm areas. We let him wander wherever he pleases (unless it is unsafe, like when we’re cooking), and went through 3 litter boxes to decide which one he likes best. He would pee all on our bathroom rug constantly, and after multiple washes we figured it was just because he thinks it’s the same as the litter box and can smell his scent from before. Month 2 he started to walk around when we were out. Month 3 he was crawling all around the apartment freely. Month 4 he got on top of me, crawled around me, constantly meows at me (when he wants food) and brushes up around me when I’m cooking or eating. But he also started to scratch. He plays a game where he grabs our ankles from under the couch. He scratches us with his hand whenever I walk by him. He scratches us when we try to pet him. Now, he even started biting. He bites my leg whenever I’m cooking but won’t feed him. I don’t know what to do. When I spray him with water to discipline (something my cat owner friends recently recommended) he hisses, growls really intensely, Lowers his ears to the side, and looks like he’s ready to pounce. I don’t know what to do. I want to make his life better by genuinely feel like he hates me with all of his heart. At this point I just can’t stop crying and think other people might be better suited to care for him, since he is so miserable in our home. Is there anything I can do??? It’s month 4 and I’ve never been able to pet him. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.
My Gut-Reaction to These Cat Problems
The first time I read your email over and began to respond to it, I was about to tell you that your issue may be that you have a particularly anxious cat. I started a draft giving advice on that, then I read your email over.
At which point it clicked – a lot of the things you complain about are things I’ve written articles in entirety about on this blog before – things regularly pet parents struggle with, but you just so happen to be dealing with quite a large number of them all at once.
So, quite frankly, while I think there’s probably a ridiculous amount of frustration on your part with regards to having to tackle such a massive list of problems, I also think that it’s possible that a large number of these issues you’re having are happening in your household because there’s basically a gap – a misunderstanding and miscommunication – between you as humans in your household and your new pet.
I can’t confirm this is all that’s going on. There could be stress and anxiety, and even abuse (who ever really knows?) in your pet’s past that could be causing him to misbehave. But since a lot of these behaviours are honestly ever so common and not at all unusual amongst pretty well near all cats, it leads me to believe otherwise, and that you just so happen to be tackling a much higher number at once than most pet parents ever have to deal with in a single cat.
If I’m right and there’s a miscommunication issue, it means there’s likely nothing wrong with your pet or you and what you’ve been doing. It just so happens there are a lot more kinks in your relationship than with most cats adopted in.
Ideally, all your problems can be fixed with a little bit of stubbornness on your part in terms of being really set on fixing the problem and not letting the issues continue.
But before I get into what you can do, I want to showcase what you actually fixed on your own to show you an example of how it literally was an example of miscommunication between yourself and your pet, and how ridiculously well you handled that situation once you knew what was going on.
What you’ve managed to figure out so far on your own – the litter box issue and peeing repeatedly on the rug. For the record – you totally nailed it! You figured out what he was thinking – that he kept smelling his scent on the rug and using it as a litter box because of that smell – and then the fix was as simple as removing the rug. Once that was gone, your entire problem with that one thing was fixed in a single go.
Because you understood what he was thinking and how he was feeling toward the rug, you worked around his thought process, fixing the problem entirely. You didn’t insist the rug stay, trying to make him change, you just worked around his (pretty weird from a human perspective, but completely normal for a cat) thought process, and the problem vanished.
I’m hoping (and it sounds to me like it’s possible) that everything in this list is just another form of miscommunication, where he’s thinking in cat and you’re thinking in human. And so I’m going to tackle each problem you’ve listed head on and give you explanations of what he’s likely thinking/feeling, as well as actionable tips you can use to fix the problem, and hopefully these issues will start to fade away completely.
Will each and every single problem you’re still having be able to be resolved so quickly? No, because some of the issues you’re having are behavioural, and all humans know from experience that breaking a bad habit can be pretty hard to do sometimes. But I’m hoping you’ll get enough wins from little things that are being fixed quickly and easily that you’ll be able to stick it out for the tougher fixes.
One last thing I want you to feel very clearly from now on that you probably understand already, but I want to spell out to be certain you understand nonetheless: see each of the problems you have with your new cat as separate issues. Each and every problem is a separate problem from the others. Every problem can be worked on, but they’re all individual issues nonetheless.
Also this bit:
I don’t know what to do. I want to make his life better by genuinely feel like he hates me with all of his heart.
I can almost certainly guarantee the answer is no. He doesn’t hate you, let alone hate you with all of his heart.
I’ve written articles before for pet parents who think their cats hate them, or think their cats dislike them.
I pointed the following out in the article about pet parents who think their cats hate them and I’ll point it out again:
But even if you haven’t had your cat long at all – if you’re a new cat owner concerned your recently adopted cat’s personality just isn’t meshing well with yours, possibly even to the extent where you’re regretting your decision to adopt, hold off worrying for a second. I wholeheartedly believe even if you’re not currently on the same page, there are plenty of things you can do to remedy the situation. Strengthening your bond, or creating one where none previously existed, is possible with any cat – no matter his or her temperament.
What I think is happening when pet parents believe their cats hate them is the following:
I’d like to state for the record here: I will never personally believe any cat that acts in a way that resembles hatred toward a human actually does hate that person. I believe hostility can spring up in pets, but when it does, it hasn’t got much to do with the human. Rather, I think negative behaviours can become the norm when a cat’s needs are somehow being misunderstood or going unmet. In my opinion, there’s always something happening behind the scenes, something triggering a cat to behave in hostile ways to one or more people, and therefore there’s always plenty that can be done to rectify the situation. Identification is the first step, then fixing the problem. After that’s done, there’s no way in my mind a cat will continue to act like he or she hates you. But let’s start at the very beginning..
I.e. It’s not about you. It’s about some kind of a problem with the environment, some kind of want or need that’s not being met that’s happening. It’s not you. It’s not something that can’t be improved or changed. It’s got to be fixable.
Let’s get started, going point by point through all the issues you brought up in your email (& if you have more, take a moment to leave them as you remember them or as they come up in the comments down below, and I’ll try to help you tackle those too!).
Fixes for Particular New Cat Issues Faced by a First-Time Cat Owner
My Cat Scratches/Bites My Ankles & Feet
But he also started to scratch. He plays a game where he grabs our ankles from under the couch. He scratches us with his hand whenever I walk by him.
Ah, the ankle scratch/ankle bite. Oh so common and yet oh so undesirable because, pointing out the obvious here, we’re not cats – and as a result, we don’t have that lovely layer of fluffy fur to protect us if we’re scratched or bitten gently, as cats typically behave with one another if they’re comfortable enough with the other cat in their lives.
First, kudos to you for putting two and two together and realizing this is a game. I’ve written an article on ankle and feet biting, and while there are a few explanations for this behaviour, the number 1 most common is exactly what you’ve identified as your cat doing: trying to play.
I know it’s frustrating and I know it’s really painful at times, but if you start to see your cat as literally just not understanding you’re human, you might have a little more empathy for your cat that will help long enough for you to solve this problem (and yes, you can solve it).
Your cat thinks you’re like him. He doesn’t understand that a wee scratch will hurt you. He has plenty of fluff protecting his skin so he thinks that a little scratch or nip on you’s gonna feel on you the same way it feels on him.
Start yelping, crying “Ouch!”, grabbing the place your cat bit or scratched, and looking really dramatically hurt and in pain whenever your cat does this, then say “No!” even if he isn’t biting or scratching very hard at all.
Honestly, over time, even just this over-dramatized “I’m in pain!” behaviour may be enough to get him to switch to more favourable behaviour (for you) when he’s trying to get you to play.
What kind of behaviour could he switch to? Grabbing you with a paw with no nails out, or meowing over and over (insufferable, but effective! And after all cats do need to be played with so they need to somehow get their point across) instead to tell you he wants to play. If you still don’t understand after ages of him desperately trying to get you to play he may give you a gentle swipe with no nails out at at that point to clarify, but his behaviour should change.
I don’t know what other cat owners have to say about the matter, but as far as I’m concerned, I firmly believe most cats do begin to grow fond of their humans slaves, who toil to get all their needs met and treat them like kings.
And part of this, in my experience, involves beginning to understand their humans’ likes and dislikes better, if they’re given the chance to with repeated communication from the pet parent (“No!” versus encouraging positive speech when a good behaviour is done, like being cuddly, peeing in the right space, meowing instead of scratching for play, etc.).
Communicate well enough over time with your cat in terms of your likes and dislikes, reward the good behaviours and say “No,” then ignore the bad, and honestly, in my experience, cats almost always change their behaviour enough so that everybody lives peaceably.
In this particular instance – your cat understands pain. If you show you’re in pain when this behaviour happens, that’s the first step in getting your cat to understand you’re human and you’re not a cat – or at least you’re a far more sensitive and fragile, complete wuss of a tall cat that needs to be treated even more gently than a kitten 😉
By the way, in terms of fixing this problem, I have it spelled out in my article on ankle and foot biting here, so check that out for the full explanation. The steps (besides spelling out the pain of the scratch/biting with over-dramatization) include:
- Step 1: Training Your Cat Foot Biting Means Being Ignored
- Step 2: Having More Frequent & More Intensive Playtimes
- Step 3: Making Sure Your Cat Is Able to Self-Play & Keeping Kitty’s Environment Stimulating
This behaviour is almost guaranteed to take time and work to resolve. But if you think about it from the perspective of your cat seeing you as a cat he now wants to play with, when before he just would have avoided you or hid from you, you should take his newly acquired behaviour to mean you’ve actually gotten a lot closer to your cat (from his perspective) than you may feel.
Again, he started off hiding from you and now he’s trying to get you to actively play with him like you’re his companion. That’s progress, even if it’s currently not being let out in a way that’s desirable to us fur-less beings of unprotected skin.
My Cat Misbehaves to Get Human Food
He bites my leg whenever I’m cooking but won’t feed him. I don’t know what to do. When I spray him with water to discipline (something my cat owner friends recently recommended) he hisses, growls really intensely, Lowers his ears to the side, and looks like he’s ready to pounce.
Okay here, it’s one of those straightforward, take away the rug techniques. Take away the rug, Olga – stop giving your cat human food.
Maybe one day you can start up again. Once you and your cat have a closer relationship, one where he understands what you mean when you say the words “No” or “Stop,” and when he listens and will be understanding of the fact that bad behaviour isn’t going to make his life a happy one, and he needs to be nice to get what he wants.
This is gonna take a hot second, however, for literally any new cat brought into any household, no matter how experienced the cat owner. And human food? Human food is like level 10 expert mode level of trust you have to be on to be able to share. You’re not there yet with him, not even close.
Why? Human food smells so good (you think we’re the only ones who notice?) and when you give your cat human food, it leads to the expectation that every time that oh-so-good-grub smell comes wafting through the house or apartment, your cat’s gonna get some.
And then all hell breaks loose because self-control goes out the window. And cats who are new to a house, new to being trained, honestly don’t have much self-control to begin with. But in the face of this massive temptation, it’s practically impossible to behave.
Kitty gets desperate to get their hands on some, okay a lot, of human food regardless of whether you’re even cooking a meal kitty can actually partake in (say, like pasta bolognese because it has onions).
Doesn’t matter. Kitty will want to be fed. Every time. Every single time he smells human food. Not just while you eat. For the entire duration of the cooking and the eating of the meal, so it’s a never-ending begging – even if there isn’t any biting involved.
I have an entire article on how humans accidentally train their cats to beg for food. This is the entire problem. Giving cats human food. And the entire fix is so simple (yet so ridiculously hard for some people). Just stop. Cold turkey. No human food for kitties.
This may sound cruel, and your cat will almost certainly be in withdrawal once this rule takes effect, throw a tantrum, a complete and utter hissy fit, not just for the first day, but likely for at least a week or two.
Keep that line drawn, don’t give in. You’ve gotta play the role of the strict parent. It’s what’s best for your relationship, and for his peace of mind – not always wishing for food, leading to an uncontrollable desire every time human food is smelled.
And if a tantrum results (meowing like crazy, biting, whatever), scold your kitty with a simple “No,” give your cat a chance to behave, and if it doesn’t work out, give your cat a time out by send kitty to his or her room (i.e. move your cat to another room that’s got water, a litter box, toys, everything he or she could need, and close the door, letting your cat out once you’re done eating and have put all the dirty dishes away).
This is an effective form of punishment in my experience. Removing your cat from the situation if he or she is being bad and giving them a time out. They hate not being able to do what they want, to move freely around the house and thus they hate things like closed doors, let alone being trapped in a room if they didn’t want to be in that room.
So they get the picture clear as day, but without any shock, discomfort or pain that might be brought about by something like being sprayed with water (I’d say that’s about as shocking and uncomfortable as it would be to be sprayed with a hose out of the blue for a human).
I had to move my own first cat, Avery, to a room each day after never-ending crying fits for what felt like months (though it was probably just a week or two) of him never ceasing to whine when we were cooking/setting up/eating dinner.
For ages the pattern was: us cooking, him meowing insufferably, me putting him away in his room until we were done. He cried in the room at first, but when he realized there wasn’t anybody coming to get him and he’d just have to wait it out, he’d give up.
Rinse repeat this process until he finally stopped meowing when he was put in the room, then finally stopped meowing before he was put in the room, understanding that the meowing led to him being stuck in a room for an hour, which wasn’t fun.
So he eventually gave up and just hung out with us, no meowing, when we started to cook, understanding full well that the second he begged, he’d be back in the room. And eventually through time and time again of not getting any people food, he got used to the fact that this food is for people and just watched us eat.
If you start to give your cat people food eventually, which I don’t personally recommend until you’re probably a year into a solid “he understands what no means” relationship, only give food to your cat once you’re completely done your meal. That way your cat will understand he doesn’t get fed all the time, just once, and just once the humans are totally done – so patience is key.
But no people food. For now. It just has to be done. For you, but also for him. It will reduce his anxiety over food by setting a clear boundary. A clear “not for me so there’s no use pining after it.” Life’s much more peaceful after this changes.
Oh another thing, remember how you were talking about spray your cat with water? That hissing, growling, ear to the sides, behaviour – you’ve scared the sh!t out of him with the water and he really can’t handle it.
Some cats dislike getting sprayed with water, others honestly barely notice when they’re sprayed with it and will practically “laugh it off” (not literally) when you do it to them; your cat by contrast hates the living daylight out of the sensation of being sprayed. It freaks him out like mad, much more than a typical cat, and so bottom line, it’s way too much for him to handle. I’d say when it comes to this particular cat, this behaviour “fixing” technique is outright not on the table – don’t use the spray bottle on him.
It’s not particularly good for building a healthy, trusting rapport with cats anyways. I’ve used it before on multiple cats, it has never seemed to work for me.
In my experience, there are two reactions I’ve gotten out of cats, neither worth using it for. Either cats ignore the sensation completely, the clever ones who have a lot of courage/balls. Or you have a softy on your hands, and the poor cat’s just downright confused at why the experience is happening, like with my first cat, Avery. Avery now listens to me every single time I say, “No” – no questions asked. He’s a ridiculously well behaved cat but it did take time to get here.
Give your cat the benefit of the doubt and say the word “No,” instead of spraying. Then if your cat doesn’t cease a bad behaviour, remove him from the situation by picking him up and moving him to another room. Your cat may end up like my Avery over time.
Again, this is an effective punishment because cats don’t often like to be told where they can hang out, so cats do typically stop the behaviour gradually over time so they can be where they like and not confined to a room. Keeping the cat in a room also stops cats from being able to get your attention, which is what a lot of cats seem to be doing when they engage in negative behaviours on purpose – trying to get a rise out of you because it’s fun.
Have a somewhat aggressive cat and need to move him safely? Throw a towel or blanket over him and carry him, blanket and all, to the other room.
My Cat Doesn’t Let Me Touch Him
The big one here. And one a lot of pet parents struggle with. But is it workable like the other issues? Absolutely.
That was almost 5 months ago, and our cat still hasn’t allowed us to touch him.
He scratches us when we try to pet him.
It’s month 4 and I’ve never been able to pet him. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.
Some cats just arrive at your doorstep cuddly as bugs. This is infrequent as all hell however, based on my experience.
Most cats need some time to warm up to humans and they’re good, they’ll become snuggly on their own over time, though with a little coaxing and training, this happens faster.
There are cats who never end up being cuddly as well, but I think these are few and far between, especially if you’re only considering indoor cats who (in my opinion) end up developing closer relationships to their humans than outdoor cats.
The way to train cats to be snuggly? In my experience, it’s pretty simple conditioning – try to get your cat to associate things he or she already loves to bits – food, play, naps, catnip, cat treats, or whatever else, with cuddles and pets from you.
Want more specific tips on how to implement this? I have an article published listing a slew of them as well as descriptions particulars in relation to how to do them fleshed out right here – in my article about training a cat to be more snuggly.
Basically your cat being food-motivated and loving food so much he looses it when you cook, loving food to the point where he runs laps around you and begs with his entire body when he’s hoping to get a snack – you are at a really major advantage here because you can use that food motivation like crazy in helping him become more snuggly.
Doing things like petting then giving a cat snack, petting gently while the cat is eating (only if he likes it), petting and giving snacks simultaneously, and placing a cat in your lap or picking him up, then immediately delving out the good goods as a reward for staying in your lap a second or being held for a second will really go a long way in helping a cat associate petting, human laps, human holding, and human touch as lovely things the way food is.
It’s how I got my Avery to be ridiculous levels of cuddly, and he’s needed no coaxing with food as a reward for snuggles for so many years, cause once they realize they love to cuddle, that understanding never goes away.
Also realize that picking up and holding your cat is a completely seperate issue from touching and giving pets out to your cat. I know so many cats who hate being held like crazy, but adore being stroked and petted.
Basically your goal is to get your cat to like being petted without being picked up first, then if you want to be able to pick up and hold your cat, train your cat in a similar way after you’ve got the petting accepted and well loved – with rewards, starting with short bouts of being picked up then rewarded with kibble, to longer and longer bouts of being picked up then rewarded with kibble. Same for sitting on laps, which is again, something that needs to be trained with many cats (again, I did this with my now super snuggly lap cat of a first cat).
The scratching when you try to pet him should disappear with the training. Or at least become more gentle. He’s using it as a way to tell you when he’s done. Over time cats develop more of a tolerance for petting, but if they have a threshold for it after which they can’t anymore, they typically tell you by biting or scratching initially, and later change this to walking away if they are trained this isn’t an acceptable way to say, “I’m done.”
You should start over-dramatizing the pain from the scratch and saying “Ouch” and “No” the same way as you do with the ankle biting so he knows he’s actually hurting you when he does it (he probably doesn’t realize it hurts you, again, because if you did that to him, it wouldn’t even get past the fur).
It would also go a long way to get his nails trimmed if you can, but I can understand if you feel you can’t do it or get it done at the vet’s or a pet store. Cat scratches barely hurt at all if their nails are trimmed, as again, they don’t usually intend on hurting us, they are typically just treating us like we’re cats. Getting his nails trimmed once a month would go a long way in helping you be more courageous about training and not being fearful of his gentle scratches in my opinion.
I think that’s all? At least for now. Though do let me know if there’s something else to tackle in the comments below.
Your Turn: Tips for First-Time Cat Owners Having Trouble With New Cats?
I’m sure I’m not the only one here with tips and advice to give Olga. Have any advice in terms of solutions to her particular problems, or to first time cat owners struggling with their new pets in general?
Ever had a similar experience you’d like to share? Going through something liek this yourself right now or know someone who is and are trying to help? Please take a moment to write about your experience below!
Anything and everything on this topic or other related ones, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences, and opinions on, so do take some time to leave these in the comments’ section. Your words could really help other pet parents out!
Having a cat as a pet is the most favorable thing for humans. They not only augment our lives and provide companionship, but also beneficial for our health. Although cats are known as independent animals, it doesn’t mean that you need not take care of them.
Like humans, cats are very particular about their hygiene, especially in bathrooms. If you have multiple cats, it’s better to have multiple litter boxes as cats don’t like to share their bathroom space. Otherwise, they feel stress and prefer to eliminate outside the litter. Moreover, litter box placement matters a lot to cats.
Its location should neither be too hard to find nor too far away. It should be kept far away from your fur babies’ food and water source because they don’t like to poop where they eat. Besides, cleanliness is another thing which you need to take care of. In order to maintain a healthy litter, scoop out every day and replace the litter fortnightly.
Cat’s parents should not expect their fur babies to follow rules from day one. They have their own way to live their lives. However, it doesn’t mean that you let your cat do mess in your house. Teaching your cat the right habits is one of the most arduous works to do. Rather than punishing or screaming at them for bad behavior, try to applaud them whenever they show good behavior. This will reinforce positivity in them and minimize the aggressive behavior. For instance, cats like to scratch things. If your cat is scratching furniture, instead of punishing her, provide some scratching posts to them.
Karen Standefer says
Cats sometimes growl and hiss even if they don’t hate you. My new kitten hisses and then growls. I put my hand out for him to smell and then he stands up, raises his tail and rubs all over me. but, every single time I come in his room, first he hisses and growls. He’s never bitten me or attacked me or acted like he would.
Beth Ortuno says
The cat defintely does NOT hate you. If the cat hated you, it would hiss and growl just at the SIGHT of you, it would never want to be anywhere near you for any reason, and it would wait for you to go to sleep or leave the house before it went anywhere near the food you put out. If it hated you, it certainly wouldn’t try to play with you (your ankles).
You can think of changing cat behaviours similar to how when humans have to quit smoking and they start chewing gum. Find a substitute you can live with that satisfies the cat’s craving.
Healthy cats don’t need wet food, raw meat, or milk. Just keep free access to fresh water. Dry food is better for their teeth, and many cats prefer it. If your cat likes both dry food and wet food, you can use dry food throughout the day & use a small amount of wet food as a special mealtime each day. This substitutes for how the cat is fixating on your human social-meal time.
At first just sit nearby, after a few days use the special cat mealtime to try petting the cat a little, and gradually turn cat mealtime into the kind of family-social meal experience the cat is craving.
Similarly, many cats try to play with your ankles first thing in the morning when you haven’t had coffee yet, or try to wake you up when they are feeling bored at 3am, and it really helps to have a big playful romp just before bedtime each day. Make it a habit that every evening you get a certain special toy out of a closet or drawer, play a while, and then put it away & go brush your teeth for bed, so the cat has a signal of when we start and when we stop. Even if the cat doesn’t pounce for the toy at first and just watches it, give it at least 15 minutes as a special playtime with you. The cat will start to understand special human playtime is for evenings not 7am. You can use other toys throughout the day, but save a certain special toy for that bedtime wild-time each day that the cat can look forward to and it knows its craving will be satisfied.
About toys — cats have their favourites. You can try different types. But you’ll see that the ones involving you in the playtime are always the ones they like the best. If you haven’t played much with cats before, try to imagine that you are moving the toy like a mouse darting for cover, or that it’s a bug buzzing up and down erratically.
Have confidence! The cat is showing trust in you that it thinks it’s worthwhile trying to tell you what it likes!
Beth Ortuno says
Just thought of another thing: conversation.
Say your cat’s name repeatedly and make silly little conversation with the cat while it’s eating. The cat then remembers those nice feelings whenever it hears you saying its name. You can then use this when you’re trying to touch the cat at other times of day, by talking to it gently and saying its name like you do at mealtime. You can also use a little noise like clicking your tongue.
When I’m busy working and the cats are trying to get my attention, I say their name and I talk with them. Sometimes it just makes them relax and lay down near me. Sometimes they talk back!