Q: My 12-year-old cat, who I adopted two years ago, won’t sit on my lap or sit near me on the couch. She also doesn’t want to be picked up. She does like to be brushed and meows me to the area where I keep the brush. She also likes me to shoot treats across the room (as you might shoot a marble). How do I get my cat to be more friendly, and sit with me?
A: You can help your senior cat overcome her reluctance to both sitting on your lap and hanging out next to you on the couch. Both treats and her fondness for grooming are effective social motivators and can influence your cat to sit next to you and eventually on your lap.
Prepare a handful of cat treats and then make yourself comfortable on the couch. Place your cat’s favorite brush within easy reaching distance. Shoot a treat across the room for your cat to chase. After your cat eats it, toss the next treat slightly closer to where you are sitting. Keep shortening the distance until the cat treat is near the end of the couch and then toss it on the couch. Gradually decrease the distance until your cat is right next to you crunching her treat. Doubly reinforce her closeness to you by gently brushing your cat. Do not force her to stay next to you or to be brushed. As a willing participant, your cat will feel in control of the situation because she can leave if she wants. The freedom to choose will help build feelings of security and safety. After a few sessions, your cat will want to hang out with you because she will realize that something wonderful always happens when she sits next to you or in your lap.
In addition to helping your senior cat enjoy lap time, you can change her attitude about being picked up by gradually building the behavior and reinforcing each step that takes you closer to the goal behavior of picking her up. Arm yourself with your cat’s favorite treats. While she stands on the floor, position your hands around her as if you are going to pick up your cat. Place one of your hands behind her front legs; cup the other around her back legs in scoop position. Do not pick her up. Instead, leave your hands in position for an instant. Release your hands and immediately give her a treat. Repeat this several times.
If your cat walks away, consider your session over for the time being and start another session later. It may take a few sessions until your cat does not complain about your hand position. After your cat is comfortable with your hands in the pick-up position, increase the criteria by taking a little of her weight into your hands. Again, release your hold and immediately reward your cat. Gradually take more of her weight until you can pick her up without her complaining. Always reinforce your cat’s behavior with a treat when she does not show any stress or nervousness. The goal is for you to pick her up and hold her without her complaining; at the first signs of stress, stop the session and conduct another one later.
It may take a few weeks and multiple sessions until your senior cat enjoys her times in your lap and you can easily pick her up. In order to be successful, you will need to be patient and proceed according to your cat’s level of acceptance.