By Kate Hughes
Unlike dogs, cats as a species are not known for their friendliness. They can be aloof and quick to retreat from love and snuggles, which in turn makes one of the greatest joys of cat ownership earning the attention and affection of your fluffy companion. But this joy can be fleeting, and Mittens can and will go right back to ignoring you the moment it suits her.
So why are cats so mercurial? It’s because they are not obligate social animals. This means they can take or leave social interaction. “Every cat is different, and some cats have more of a desire than others to interact with people, but social contact is not necessary to cats’ lifestyles,” explains Dr. Michael Nappier, an assistant professor of community practice in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences.
However, humans are obligate social animals. We want to interact with our kitties and give them love, attention, and treats. Here’s what you should know if you feel like you’re getting the cold shoulder.
Can My Cat Understand Me?
He most certainly can. “Cats are a highly intelligent species that can be trained to respond to not only their name but also basic commands,” describes Dr. Michelle Matusicky, assistant professor of practice at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State University.
Additionally, many cats will respond vocally to their owners when being spoken to. “Cats have at least one particular vocalization that is only reserved for communicating with humans,” Nappier notes. “So not only do they understand you, but they will talk back.” Case in point – the meow. While it is used extensively by kittens, adult cats typically only meow when interacting with people.
However, unlike dogs, cats do not feel a need to respond if they aren’t interested in what you have to say. “A simple way to get along with your cats is to recognize that it’s all about them,” Nappier adds.
Did My Cat Hear Me?
Absolutely. Cats have excellent hearing and are able to hear and track sounds as soft as mice moving around in grass. So if you call your cat’s name and she doesn’t respond, she definitely heard you (unless she has a hearing impairment), and she’s just not into social interaction at the moment. There are some physical clues as well. “A cat is generally quite aware of her surroundings,” Matusicky says. “You may know she heard you by a head turn, an ear movement, or even a tail wag.”
Why Is My Cat Not Responding?
There are a few reasons a cat might ignore you when you speak to him. First, like Nappier notes, he might not be in the mood for socializing. “It’s not that we’re deliberately being ignored, it’s that cats just don’t need social interaction to be content,” he says. “We’re just perceiving it as a negative reaction because humans are obligate social animals.”
However, your kitty may not be answering because he’s on edge. “He may not respond because of a perceived threat in the environment, like another person or animal, or because the person giving the call or command has proven themselves to be untrustworthy,” Matusicky says. “Cats have great memories and will remember if they have been yelled at, chased, or sprayed with a water bottle,” she adds.
But cats definitely know how to get your attention if they want it and you aren’t giving it. This is why you might see your cat doing something she isn’t supposed to do if she wants you to notice her. “Cats don’t really differentiate between positive and negative attention, so if your cat really wants human contact, she’ll do something that gets it,” Nappier says.
Is My Cat Being Spiteful?
Not at all. Humans will often feel like their cat is being spiteful by ignoring them, but this is anthropomorphizing. Cats don’t have the capacity to be spiteful in this way. “It’s not spiteful behavior so much as the cat simply saying, ‘I don’t feel like it right now, so I just won’t do it,’” Nappier says. “I put it on the same level as someone asking if I want pizza for dinner, but I’m just not in the mood for pizza.”
Can I Win Back My Cat’s Affection?
You can’t make a cat do anything, but there are some methods that will attract your kitty’s attention. First is ensuring that your cat trusts you. “A human can build trust by first proving themselves to be ‘safe’ to the cat. That means no sudden movements, and no grabbing at cats or forcing them to do things they do not want to do,” Matusicky describes. “They can also build trust by providing for both the cat’s basic needs such as food, water, and multiple litter boxes, as well as mental enrichment. This could include toys, vertical heights, pheromones, and visual stimulation (i.e., being able to see outdoors).”
Matusicky notes that every cat is an individual and reacts differently to different things, so owners should be ready to go through a period of trial and error as they figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Nappier adds that people shouldn’t rely too much on one method, as cats can quickly get bored. “If you discover your cat’s favorite thing—whether it be treats or a certain toy—and you rely on that thing too often, it dilutes its value and it’s not special anymore,” he says. “In that case, the cat may not respond to that favorite thing, and you have to find a new way to grab their attention.”