Not everybody is familiar with cats. Here are some tips and advice for those of you who might find themselves a little at loss with their first adopted cat (or first “real” cat you have the full responsibility of).
1. Cat psychology
The main thing to understand about cats is that they are naturally shy animals. They like sheltered places (under then bed) rather than big empty spaces (in the middle of the living room).
If your cat is spooked, leave it alone. It will end up exploring and coming to you, even though it might take weeks. The worst thing you can do is chase after a spooked cat to try and make friends with it. It’s said that cats like those who don’t like them, and there is some truth in there: people who don’t like cats leave them alone.
Cats don’t either like loud noises or brusque movements. To make yourself cat-friendly, avoid speaking too loudly and making scary noises. Move gently. (This is why cats often have trouble with children, who traditionally make a lot of noise and tear about the place ;-))
2. Cat language
Some cats are talkative and meow, others don’t. Meowing is a way of communicating with humans, so if a cat is meowing, chances are it wants something. Usually one of:
- to be let out of where they are
- reassurance (which might not necessarily mean being scooped up and carried, but maybe just visual contact and hearing your voice)
Cat body-language is unlike the dog’s: tail flapping is usually sign of annoyance or discontent (again, some cats have more wavy tails than others and might whip their tail around even when purring — but generally less tail movement = better). Ears backwards is fear. Big dilated pupils too. (Or anger.) Purring is usually good, growling and hissing isn’t.
3. How a cat explores
Most cats will explore only at the speed they’re comfortable. They might spend a lot of time exploring with their eyes/ears/nose first before coming out of their hidey-place. They’ll explore a little and then retreat to safety.
You and other humans are part of the territory to explore. If you’re away during the day, be sure the cat is making good use of that time to explore — or sleep!
4. Food, drink, and litter
At the beginning make sure that food, drink, and litter are close at hand for the cat. You don’t want it to go days without food because it’s scared (cats actually don’t do well without food for anything more than 24 hours). If the cat is not eating try and tempt him with something specially tasty.
Keep the litter tray as far as possible from the food and water. The cat might take a while to use it (they’re champions at “holding it in”, specially the “big business”, for what might be days). If you’re worried about time passing by and not enough going in or out of the cat, call a vet for advice with the specifics, they’ll be able to tell you if the cat needs medical attention or just a bit more time.
Most cats don’t like their water near their food. More than one water bowl is a good idea (I spread them around the flat). Avoid plastic for food/water bowls as many cats are allergic and develop acne on their chins.
Keep the litter tray very clean (remove whatever the cat does in it as soon as you see it). Open litter trays are more appreciated than covered ones. A few drops of bleach in the litter will encourage the cat to use it. (Remember, what smells nice to you doesn’t smell nice to the cat, so go gently on those litter deodorants or perfumed litter.)
5. Petting and carrying your cat
Cats usually like to be petted once they’re comfortable (and it can reassure them). Not all cats like to be carried. Scratching under the chin, on the head, stroking on the shoulders is usually safe. Scratching the lower back can be either much appreciated or set the cat off. Bellies are best avoided until you know for sure the cat wants it (rolling and showing you its belly does not always imply it wants you to touch it).
When you carry a cat, make sure you support its behind with one hand. Cats have their habits, so maybe your cat has been used to being carried a certain way. Try and see what your cat does when you pick it up and listen to its body-language, it might give you hints.
If your cat hits you or bites you when you pet it, it might mean
- that it’s not comfortable enough with you yet (specially if it’s at the beginning and it’s still scared)
- that it’s “over-stimulated” — there is a fine line between pleasant contact and contact that feels like an agression. In that case, learn to stop petting before it becomes unpleasant for the cat. Watch out for flicking tail, ears backwards, dilated pupils. With time (months/years) you will learn to know when to stop, and the cat will gently stretch out its comfort zone.
6. Approaching your cat
If your cat is shy, and even if it isn’t, avoid standing full height when you first approach it. Also avoid looking at it directly (staring is an agressive attitude). Look at the cat, look away, look at the cat, blink, look away, etc. Gently stretch an arm forward as far as you can and point your index finger at cat-height in direction of your cat — as if your finger was another cat’s nose.
Cats greet each other by touching noses, and you can mimic that with a finger. Approach your cat with your finger, very gently, and let it do the last bit (don’t ram your finger in its nose, leave your finger a few centimetres away and let your cat do the last bit). If your cat is scared and retreats, retreat too and try again later. Speak gently/softly when you do this.
Once the cat has touched your finger it will probably retreat a bit, or come and rub its head against your hand. Let it do it a bit, and then see if you can pet it a bit with a finger or scratch head or cheeks!
7. Enrichment: toys, outdoors, cat tree
Cats are hunters. They sleep a lot (upto 16 hours a day, mostly when you’re not around). If your cat is an indoor cat you are going to have to play with it every day. Here’s an article (in French) about how to care properly for an indoor cat. Expensive toys are not necessary (they bring more pleasure to you than the cat, so spend wisely). A piece of string or a rolled ball of paper you can throw are fine. Corks on a string and ping-pong balls are great. Fishing-rod style toys are good as they really help you be active with your cat. Clicker training is also something you might consider, as it’s a nice cat-human activity, and it can do wonders in getting a shy/less-sociable cat to bond with you.
An indoor cat absolutely needs a scratching post. It should be really sturdy and tall enough for the cat to stretch out completely when scratching (that can be over 1m high for a big cat!)
If your cat is going outdoors, wait at least 3 weeks to a month before letting it out. More if the cat is still not comfortable with you, doesn’t come when called, or is not quite at ease indoors. Here is an article (in French) that explains how I proceed for letting my cats outdoors.
A cat is going to be happier in a cluttered environment than in a place full of open spaces. It doesn’t mean you need to live in a mess, but particularly at the beginning if you can leave paper bags and cardboard boxes lying around, or a chair in the hallway, etc., it will make it easier on the cat (you’re creating hiding-places). It’s also important that the cat has somewhere to look outside. They’ll spend a lot of time “virtually hunting” just by observing the outside world.
You can create more “space” for your cat inside by thinking in 3D: where can the cat climb? This adds surface to its territory.
And indoor cat should have access to “cat grass” (usually wheat). You can get it in supermarkets or pet stores depending on your area or plant it yourself. They use it to purge themselves of the fur they ingest while grooming.
The golden rule of education is: be firm and consistent. Imitate a mother cat with her kittens: if you decide your cat is not allowed on the kitchen table, a sharp “no!” and swift removal of the cat should work (just pick it up and put it on the floor, or if it’s skittish enough, chase it off with your hand — or it might just jump off as you approach). I usually continue saying “no!” in a stern tone until the cat is back in “permitted” territory. (Be reasonable though: a cat needs to be allowed on the furniture in general!)
It’s usually unnecessary (just sayin’!) to hit your cat. If you have a specially stubborn cat like my Tounsi you might have to swat it on the top of the head with two fingers (imitate a cat paw coming down sharply) but use this with care and circumspection.
What works better for cats who insist on getting into trouble (destroying your houseplants for example) is to run/walk fast towards them, yell or make a huge hissing sound when you get near (like an angry cat), and when they move, chase them away by running after them. This is really imitating what another cat would do.
This technique can also be used for a cat who does not know play limits and bites or scratches you. Stop interacting immediately, hiss and chase the cat away. Then ignore it.
Clicker training can also be a very useful tool for education. (Watch videos on YouTube if you don’t know what it can do.) It can help replace unwanted behaviours by wanted behaviours. Not to mention it can help with useful things like getting a cat into a carrier or having it let you examine its paws.
Open windows and unsecured balconies. Cats do fall from windows and balconies and injure themselves (the cat never getting hurt by a fall is a myth). Tilt open windows are dangerous for cats as they might try and get out through them and get caught in the crack (and die).
Some plants are toxic to cats (famously, lilies — Google will serve you umpteen lists). Antifreeze is very attractive to them, and deadly.
Be careful with power cords (risk of electric shock) and electric/ceramic cookers (burns). Don’t let them swallow string or ribbons (risk of intestinal occlusion).
Chocolate is toxic to cats. So are tomatoes and a whole lot of other human food that doesn’t agree with them well. Cats don’t digest milk, it gives them diarrhoea. They are strict carnivores and should normally not eat anything besides high-quality cat food. (Ask your vet for advice. Supermarket cat-food is usually suboptimal but some brands are good.)
Permethrin, which is found in some insecticides (including dog anti-flea products) is deadly for cats.
A cat which has not eaten for 24 hours is a medical emergency (risk of hepatic lipidosis).
10. Vet and carrier box
If you can, make sure you can get your cat into the carrier box before you need it (but don’t over-spook an already spooked cat by doing it unnecessarily). Leave the carrier outside for a few days instead of taking it out of wherever it is just when you use it. Lure the cat inside with treats. Let it come back out. Put a treat in the back of the carrier, close the door, give a treat, open the door again to let it out. With a bit of practice chances are you’ll have a cat that runs into its carrier to get a treat.
Ask your cat friends for a vet recommendation before you need one. If your cat seems to be settling ok, it can be a good thing to take it to the vet for an initial check-up. Like that the vet gets to meet the cat when it’s in good health and doesn’t need to be tortured too much 😉
Eye issues shouldn’t wait before seeing a vet. Cats are fragile with colds, so a coughing, sneezing, or sniffling cat should see a vet quickly. Cats hide pain very well, so often the first sign you will notice of a cat not being well is that it’s more quiet, doesn’t want to play, isn’t eating much — or simply doesn’t follow its usual habits. If you notice such changes in behaviour, call your vet for advice and probably a check-up. It’s better to catch something minor early than wait too long and end up with a dead cat (sorry to be dramatic but these things happen).
Have fun with your cat!
There, I think I’ve covered the essentials. If you have any questions, use the comments. And have fun with your new cat 🙂