Don’t hold me!

Don’t hold me!

One more question from our subscribers

Q: I have a 5-year-old cat (Maggie) that was hand-fed by her rescuer from about 3-weeks-old until I adopted her at the age when kittens are normally adopted. She was an extremely hyper kitten (more so than any I’ve ever had) and seems quite intelligent. She has always hated to be picked up, but I could do so until very recently. She didn’t like it but would tolerate it. I have tried to handle her gently but regularly, knowing she was inclined to be unmanageable.

Within the past 3 months, she refuses to be picked up at all. She seems healthy and unhurt, just sort of spooked. When I try to pick her up she screams and fights like a little hellion – but doesn’t scratch me. I simply need to be able to manage her so she can make her usual veterinary checkup, shots, etc.

She is actually quite affectionate, on her own terms. I have a second cat (10-year-old calico) who tolerates Maggie (and who Maggie tolerates) and seems unfazed by Maggie’s nuttiness. After pitching a fit, Maggie hides, then tries to make up with me as if she knows she has misbehaved.
How can I help her tolerate handling?

A: Many cats are not fond of being picked up and held, regardless of their early experiences, although desensitizing them to such conditions early in life can be helpful in fostering a positive experience. Maggie may be less tolerant of being held now because it has been forced on her for so long. It sounds as though she hides from you after the negative experience because forcing uncomfortable conditions has instilled fear.

Part of the beauty of having a multi-cat household is experiencing a variety of different personalities, and we as the caregivers must accept that not all cats like/tolerate the same things. If Maggie is happy sitting next to you on the sofa rather than on your lap, accept that. She is clearly showing you affection and telling you that she wants to be close, just not on you. If you insist on trying to be able to sling her over your shoulder and carry her around the house then it must be done in very short bursts and with positive reinforcement (i.e. a food reward). If every time Maggie is picked up she gets a teaspoon of her favorite canned food then she will soon start to associate the experience with something she enjoys. Keep in mind a few things, she has had 5 years of struggling to get away from this interaction and it will take time and a lot of patience to make it positive. If she is not food motivated this will be challenging. Finally, you need to train her in very short bursts (30 seconds at a time to start gradually building to longer intervals).

As for getting her to the vet, again this does not require a lot of carrying either. One of the best things you can do is to leave your cat carrier out in your house 365 days a year, in a room where you can live with it. This helps the cats to desensitize to its presence and allows them to sleep in it, eat in it, and even to become a cozy hiding place for most. When they only see the carrier once a year and it always equals a trip to the vet, you will very quickly have a magically disappearing cat when the carrier appears. Another trick is to get her into a very small room where she cannot get under the furniture (bathrooms are best) and have the carrier already in that room to make it the easiest to get her into it.

The long and the short of it is, let Maggie be Maggie and show you affection and cuddle with you on her own terms, use positive reinforcement when you can, and remember that not all humans are physically affectionate people and not all cats are either!

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