Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
Hi. I am taking care of a 14-year-old orange tabby cat named Nick. Nick is my significant other’s cat. My SO is in the military and is currently deployed, and I think that has to do with the problem I am having with Nick. He won’t let me pet him. Whenever I try, he bites me. But he will lay down next to me or climb into my lap and give me kisses. I’ve read that biting when being petted could be because of over-stimulation. But if that were the case, wouldn’t he bite everybody who petted him? He only bites me. I have had friends come over, and he lets them pet him as long as they want. My SO can pretty much do whatever he wants to Nick, and Nick doesn’t try to stop him. What do you think is the problem? I’ve been living with my SO and Nick for over a year now.
Siouxsie: Well, Becca, this is a quite unfortunate situation for you and for Nick. But we do have a few suggestions that may help you figure out what’s going on, which may help you and Nick improve your relationship.
Thomas: First of all, you didn’t mention how Nick’s physical behavior is. Is he eating well and doing his business as usual? If his appetite or litterbox behavior has changed, it would probably be a good idea to get him to the vet for a checkup to rule out any illnesses.
Dahlia: Now that we’ve gotten the “common sense reminder” out of the way, here are a couple of questions you can think about as you consider what’s going on with Nick.
Siouxsie: First of all, has Nick had previous experiences of being put in the care of others when his person was deployed? If so, it’s possible that one of these experiences might have been traumatic to Nick — not necessarily because anybody deliberately hurt him, but because he got a frightening surprise or something happened that he associated with his caretakers.
Thomas: How long were you living with your SO before he was deployed? If you moved in shortly before he was sent overseas, Nick may somehow be associating your presence with your SO’s absence.
Dahlia: Did Nick let you pet him while your SO was at home? If Nick never was particularly affectionate with you while your SO was there, he may not be ready for love-fests quite yet.
Siouxsie: Our final question may be a little uncomfortable for you, but we have to ask: Have you and your SO been having any difficulties in your relationship? The reason we ask you to think about this is that cats, like children, have a knack for picking up on the emotional “vibes” in our homes and reflecting that energy back through our own behavior.
Thomas: In a multi-person household, a cat will tend to act out relationship dynamics by mimicking the behavior of the person to which he was most closely bonded.
Dahlia: And then, of course, there’s just the fact that Nick misses his daddy terribly and may even be grieving or depressed because of that. That doesn’t mean he won’t be nice to anybody, but he’s more likely to reject your gestures of affection because he doesn’t understand why you’re there and his person isn’t.
Siouxsie: Hopefully thinking about these issues has helped you get some ideas about why Nick is behaving as he is. Now, here are some things you can do that might help.
Thomas: Since Nick will sit with you and give you kisses, we think that means he still loves you, even if he rejects your petting. Maybe some evening while he’s sitting in your lap, you can just have a quiet talk with him. Tell him you miss your SO, too, and you’re really looking forward to the day he comes back home.
Dahlia: Some people feel silly talking to cats and wonder why they should bother. Do they honestly think we can’t understand them? Humph! What arrogance! We understand People Language much better than most people understand Cat!
Siouxsie: We don’t know if you have any chances to communicate with your SO by phone or web chat on a non-emergency basis, but if you do, try giving Nick a chance to hear his daddy say hello to him. It might do a world of good.
Thomas: If you don’t, maybe you could ask your SO to make a tape, CD, or MP3 message so that Nick could hear his voice. And you too, of course, because we imagine you miss him just as much as Nick does!
Dahlia: If you have any items of clothing or towels that still smell like your SO, you could put those things somewhere that Nick can have access to them. Once he’s used to the item of clothing, try stroking him gently with it.
Siouxsie: If Nick doesn’t want you to pet him, even with something that smells like your SO, you may just have to let him be. Enjoy the affection he gives you and don’t try to force more on him than he wants.
Thomas: While it is sad that Nick doesn’t want you to pet him, in the long run he’ll be extremely grateful that you respected his boundaries and were willing and able to meet him where he is.
Dahlia: Please let us know how things work out with you and Nick, and whether you were able to enlist your SO’s help in improving your relationship with his cat.