It begins innocently enough. You can’t walk without getting your feet tangled up in the feline version of a shoestring tackle. Then you notice difficulty breathing at night because your cat won’t get off your neck. But when you start hand-feeding your cat because it won’t eat any other way, you realize you have an over-dependent cat.
Cats are some of the most independent creatures around. Most cat lovers acknowledge that if cats only had thumbs they wouldn’t need humans at all. These creatures can entertain themselves without any visible means of support; can meditate comfortably in the midst of extreme chaos; can drag themselves back from near death and look good doing it their entire nine lives. Dependent? Hardly.
Even people who don’t know cats assume that cats don’t require much in the way of outside help. Words such as “aloof” and “indifferent” float around as handy, if inaccurate, descriptions of feline behavior. Not words you would ordinarily associate with dependence.
But what of this cloying, needy, insatiable behavior that resembles dependence? It shows up in cats at times, and you can’t ignore it; the cat won’t let you.
Most cat lovers love cuddly cats. They adore the idea of the family cat sleeping at their side, twining themselves about their feet and sharing the couch during afternoon naps. But cat people also like some personal space so they can get some work done. When that part of “cat-ness” goes away, it’s time to start asking some hard questions.
Sick, or Something Else?
Cats that suddenly develop behavior patterns resembling extreme dependence need a quick trip to the veterinarian. Any radical behavior change can signal medical problems, so before you drag out the behavior books and try to psych out your cat, rule out the obvious.
If your dependent cat is a new household member, especially a rescued cat, it may simply need more time to adjust to the new home and routine. In either case, talk to your veterinarian.
“Rescued cats can often appear extremely needy at first,” says Diana Duncan, president of HART (Homeless Animal Rescue Team), based in Cambria, Calif. “By the time they get to you, they’ve often been through a number of hands and have had a pretty rough time. It’s not uncommon for them to either be very skittish or very needy.”
But watch out for the same symptoms you look for in a sick child, Duncan says. “When your child begins to act especially needy or whiny, you begin to suspect illness. It’s the same with cats. Let your vet have a look, just to be sure.”
Beyond illness or initial adjustment issues, however, the dependence label becomes suspect, says Debbie Lopeman of Pontiac, Ill.-based Karissimakat. Lopeman breeds Himalayans and Persians and finds very few cases of anything remotely like dependence.
“Dependent cats? I don’t think so,” Lopeman says. “Other than having me scoop their litterboxes and put out food, they could live without me. They depend on me for basic needs, but I wouldn’t call that needy or dependent.”
Needy or demanding? “You don’t want to confuse the two,” Lopeman says. “The majority of my cats are what I call ‘in-your-face’ cats. They’re in my lap all the time. They’re all over me. It’s ‘Mom’s here! Mom’s here!’ I have one little girl who knows exactly when it’s feeding time. She stands on the gate and yells at me. That’s not needy. That’s plain, old demanding.”
Who’s in Charge Here?
Like spoiled children, cats learn quickly that being demanding pays off, Lopeman says. “I have a friend whose cat rules the roost. When the cat meows, my friend jumps. Anything that cat wants, she gets. When the cat decided she didn’t want to eat with the other cats, she got to eat on the table by herself. To put it bluntly, the cat had my friend trained,” Lopeman says. “Cats do train people, so maybe the issue isn’t dependence. Maybe it’s co-dependence.”
John Achterkirchen, a social worker in Morro Bay, Calif., agrees. “I know more about humans than I do about cats,” Achterkirchen says, “but I’ve watched our two cats over the past 16 years, and I feel somewhat qualified to say that those two have done a fine job of training us.”
Achterkirchen says that the humans in the equation create the environment for cats that run the show. “My wife, Carol, is the enabler,” he says. “When it’s cold, she warms blankets for them in the clothes dryer that sort of thing. Of course, the cats respond to that kind of treatment over time and begin to expect it.”
The nurture vs. nature argument also comes into play, Achterkirchen says. “Cats, in general, are more independent than dogs, but some cats will just naturally be more independent than others. Tigger is about as independent as a cat can be. He could probably live on his own with no problem. He’s been like that ever since he was a kitten, while Gladdie probably should have seen a psychiatrist years ago. All the nurture in the world wouldn’t change that. They’ve both been treated identically, so I think nature is pretty involved in this case.”
But nurture works, too, Lopeman explains. “Call it needy or dependent or whatever you want, [but] most people want a cat who wants to be with them,” she says. “I want my cats to be social, so I raise them with that in mind. The kittens grow up with my grandkids. They’re used to the vacuum cleaner and kids screaming. They’ve been handled from day one. That doesn’t make them needy; it makes them social. It makes them want to be with people, and I don’t think there are too many people who want cats any other way.”