Earning Cat Trust

Different cats need different reassurance tactics, but all cats need a way to know they can trust us so we can help them.

By Janiss Garza | Posted: August 4, 2014, 10 a.m. EDT

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Earning Cat Trust
Fake enthusiasm and insincere extra warmth don't work to entice Sparkle to take a pill.
Earning Cat Trust
Boodie couldn't get to the vet without some trust in the fact that she'll return home.
When I have to pill Sparkle, she doesn't run away from me in terror. She does try to sneak off when she hears the pill container sometimes, but all I have to do is ask her where she's going and she stops and meows at me, like, "Aw man, do I really have to?" And I pick her up, stick the pill in her mouth, put her down and give her a few pats, and it's over. Whether I've pilled her, taken her to the vet, or done something even worse, like taken her away from home overnight, she gets past it once it's over with and doesn't hide or avoid me. She trusts me — all three cats trust me, in fact — and that's a gift I do not take for granted.

I know I'm fortunate, and many cat companions don't have that. They have skittish cats, or cats who run in fear when the doorbell rings or the cat carrier comes out — cats who are dangerous to pill, or whose claws can't be handled for trimming. I wonder how I managed to luck out, and I've come to the conclusion that it's a blend of a couple things: I tend to gravitate towards self-confident cats, and I am self-confident myself when I handle them. Eventually they learn that I never mean to do them harm, and that some good usually comes out of my actions.

I don't coddle my crew or sweet-talk them when I have to do something unpleasant to them. That would be dishonest and cats sense fakery. I just try to be efficient and matter-of-fact about it. I don't hesitate, because the moment I do, I know that gives them a window to act out. And I don't give myself time to be nervous either — that would just make them nervous. The less emotion I attach to an unpleasant act, the less trouble it becomes. When it's over, I do offer praise and rewards, whether it's a treat (Binga and Boodie) or a quick brushing or butt-patting (Sparkle). I've noticed that if I don't make a big deal out of it, neither do the cats.

Even Boodie, who started off semi-feral and has remained a little shy over the years, has slowly come out of her shell. I was really surprised at a recent vet visit that involved all three cats that she was the one who wanted to wander around the room and explore. She looked into the carriers where Binga and Boodie were, wondering why they didn't want to join her. They just hissed back. (It was all very minor problems, and they are fine now.) Once I got them home, I rubbed each one with catnip as I took them out of their carriers (this works better for me than pheromones), and soon everyone was back to normal.

I also know my limits. Binga tends to be fussy when I trim her claws (which is why I usually do it when she is sleepy — less fuss), but when one missed claw had grown into her paw pad, I knew I couldn't handle the job, not even with my fiance's help. So I had her claws clipped at the clinic while I was addressing the other issues. I warned the vet that the techs might have to pull out the heavy armor to get the job done, but surprisingly, when they returned with Binga, they told me that while she had been vocal, she had otherwise been well behaved. I really do think that when you teach a cat trust, it makes them easier to deal with for everyone.

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