Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I have a wonderful female spayed tuxedo cat named Penelope. I love her, but she makes working at home very hard. After breakfast she comes into my home office, lays down in front of the keyboard and rests her head on my left forearm. To type I have to rest my right elbow gently on her hip. She then starts purring loudly. I don’t get to type much or she’ll get restless and register her displeasure somehow. This really slows me down.
All I can really do is mouse around a little. Actually I move the keyboard off the keyboard tray and back onto the desk so she can have the keyboard tray to herself.
She’s an indoor-outdoor cat. She has four other kitties to play with, including her womb-mate Aphrodite. We live in the country in a house, and there are squirrels, moles, voles, field mice, lizards, and birds to chase. She lives with a very nice, respectful German Shepherd dog too.
But she cries if I try to pick her up and put her aside so I can read my papers and type like a normal person. If I ignore her very long she sits up on her haunches and starts to paw me on the shoulders and cheek. If that doesn’t work, she starts to scratch me. Then if I start to absent-mindedly pet her she’ll bite me to get me to refocus exclusively on her. There’s no compromise with this cat! She must be the center of attention.
If I put her out the front door she runs around to the back door and starts pounding on it. There’s no doubt this wonderful kitty loves me and is usually an affectionate, comical bundle of laughs — but I would like her to be more emotionally independent. Any suggestions?
Siouxsie: Rita, as you probably know, there are “people cats” and “cat cats.” People cats like Penelope clearly prefer the company of their humans to that of other cats, while cat cats tend to be more aloof with people. But we’d agree that Penelope’s behavior is a rather extreme example of people cat-ness.
Thomas: You didn’t mention how long Penelope has been exhibiting this behavior. If she’s been snuggly and cuddly with you since she was a kitten, then this is a behavior that’s grown over time. If, on the other hand, this behavior is a recent development, it could be that she was stressed or traumatized somehow and is turning to you, her person, for comfort.
Dahlia: It’s tricky to change a cat’s overly dependent behavior without causing her even more stress. The act of re-training a cat that’s overly dependent on a person for emotional support and comfort requires patience, because it can take quite a bit of time for the results to manifest.
Siouxsie: In some ways, the way you’ve responded to Penelope’s needy behavior has served as positive reinforcement. When you allow Penelope to have her way and keep you from doing what you need to do, or you rearrange your keyboard so that she can be where she wants to be, that’s telling her that it’s okay for her to be so demanding.
Thomas: The best way to address Penelope’s overdependent behavior is through a combination of positive reinforcement for the desired behavior, and the “no” and down (or out) method for undesired behavior. But as we said, this is going to require patience and consistency.
Dahlia: If you don’t mind Penelope being in the office with you, as long as she’s not on your arms or demanding attention, then you’re not going to have to retrain her all that much. But still, it may take patience.
Siouxsie: Positive reinforcement is the key. If Penelope learns to associate good things like treats or play or “mommy time” with staying out of your face, she’s more likely to undertake the behaviors you want. So before you undertake this positive reinforcement training, you’re going to have to get a few things.
Thomas: First, buy some treats that you know Penelope loves more than anything else, preferably treats that she doesn’t get on a regular basis. Then, get or make a special “thing on a string” toy that you can use to play with her. Keep this toy in a closet when you’re not using it. Finally, make Penelope a special place of her own where she can be near you and watch you without being on your lap — perhaps a special kitty bed on a corner of your desk or on a nearby shelf, or on a chair near a radiator or sunny window.
Dahlia: This special place shouldn’t be more than a couple of feet away from you, and it should be comfortable and warm. Perhaps you can even put one of your used shirts or pajamas in the bed so she can smell you when she cuddles up.
Siouxsie: When you’re working and Penelope gets in your lap, gently put her in her special place. Give her a treat (just one!) and lots of petting and love. Tell her what a good kitty she is for getting in her bed. When she starts to get out of her special place, reach out and pet her and tell her it’s okay, you’re here.
Thomas: Continue to do this, but don’t go crazy with the treats. We wouldn’t give Penelope more than three or four treats in a day. You can, of course, give her as much petting and love as you want. And make sure you adjust the amount of food she gets at mealtime to make up for the calories in the treats, or else you run the risk of her becoming obese.
Dahlia: If Penelope becomes demanding and continues to try and jump in your lap, that’s the time to say quietly but firmly, “no,” and put her on the floor. When she gives you a wounded look (and she will), pick her up and put her in her special place, give her petting and love, and tell her what a good kitty she is.
Siouxsie: When Penelope bites you, that’s another time for “no” and down. If she bites you to get your attention and she consistently hears “no” and is removed from your area, she’s eventually going to get the point that biting is not going to achieve the desired effect.
Thomas: And when she scratches, that’s also time for “no” and down (or out). If she keeps on scratching or biting, put her outside of your office and close the door. Give her a “time out” for 10 minutes or so, then let her back in. If she scratches or bites again, put her out again.
Dahlia: This method is all about reinforcing the behavior you want and consistently informing her in no uncertain terms about the behavior you don’t want.
Siouxsie: Penelope may and probably will cry, whine, pound doors and berate you until you think it would be better just to give in and let her have her way. But don’t give up; you still need to be consistent. It’ll be better for both of you in the long run.
Thomas: You can give Penelope a different and more constructive kind of “mommy time” by taking breaks from your work and playing with her using the “thing on a string” toy. If you’re doing a lot of keyboarding, you should take a couple of minutes every hour or so to stretch and take a walk around; it’ll keep you from getting repetitive motion injuries. And by playing with her, Penelope will get used to another style of interaction with you.
Dahlia: As an extra added bonus, a good play session will probably leave her tired and more inclined to curl up in her special place for a rest in a nice sun puddle.
Siouxsie: If you think Penelope’s behavior is due to anxiety, you might want to talk with your veterinarian and see if he or she has any other recommendations on how you can help her to feel calmer. Reducing anxiety may make Penelope more emotionally independent, too.
Thomas: Good luck, Rita. Changing Penelope’s behavior will take time and a lot of patience on your part. But the rewards will be worth it, for both you and Penelope. Please let us know how things turn out.