When I began to search for a second cat, a brother for our Siamese Sebastian, I took many things into consideration. I knew that I wanted a cat that was playful and energetic–because that’s what Sebastian was at the time. I wanted them to be around the same age. And I wanted a Russian Blue. I quickly found Valentino on Petfinder and put in an application.
A few days later, a representative from the rescue center called me to give me more info on Valentino (fka “Cuddles”). She said he had been in foster care for some time, and that he had been returned before because he was “too active”. None of that bothered me and we proceeded with the adoption process.
However, a few days after bringing Valentino home, I realized that the new-cat jitters didn’t seem to be dissipating. He would run whenever we would walk into a room and hide under the couch at any loud noise. When I would try to cuddle him, he would pull his face as far away as possible and push me with his feet.
This saddened me. I wanted so desperately to connect with my new cat; but I wasn’t about to give up on him. So if you have a new cat who is skittish, what can you do? A little psychology and a lot of patience and you’ll have him purring in your lap in no time.
So first thing is First, find out what is reinforcing for him. Does he like toys? High-pitched praise? Chicken? Whatever it is, you must find out what it is and equip yourself.
Second, pair the reinforcer with a the first phase of your bonding experience. This first phase will look different for every cat depending on their baseline. For Valentino, he would tolerate my presence but didn’t want me sitting right next to him. His reinforcer? High-pitched praise…who would have known? So, for example, I would sit on one end of the couch, and inch closer to him on the other side of the couch. Each time he would calmly tolerate my presence near him, I’d praise.
Third, build consistency. If your cat won’t tolerate you in the same room, now he does–don’t jump straight to bear hugs. Stay in your lane. For Valentino, this meant several days of practicing the inch-closer game and lots and lots of praise. Eventually, he began dropping his head and rubbing his cheeks on the couch in my direction. A very good sign!
Fourth, once he tolerates it consistently for a good amount of time and shows signs of accepting more…take it to the next phase. For Valentino, this meant very short, very gentle petting sessions filled with high-pitched cooing (his reinforcer). Continue to practice this level and move on to the next phase of bonding accordingly.
It’s now been about 6 months since I’ve been working with Valentino. I am now working on having him ask for kisses. That’s right, he not only tolerates hugs, and kisses, he’s now asking for them by raising his head to your face. Success.