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How can I make my mean cat happy?

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Question: “How can I make my cat happy?”

AnnMarie writes, “My ten year old cat Mischief always seems so angry.  My niece calls him "mean kitty" because he is always hissing at people. 

My 95 year old father died, so Mischief and I had to move in with Mom who has dementia. The move wasn't fun for either of us, having to combine two households. His two siblings are living outdoors as well as another drop off.  I have tried to bring the other cats indoors. Mischief's brother likes to come inside and will sleep with me, so now Mischief won't. Before he would only sleep at the foot of the bed, but with no closeness, no cuddling---ever. Mischief tolerates his brother's presence.  I have managed to get the other 2 cats inside against their will on occasion. He'll hiss at them sometimes, but can tolerate them for the short term they're inside. 

My niece lives in an apartment adjoining our living space. Her very active four year old wants nothing more than to have Mischief like her, but all he does is hiss at her (and her father who hates cats). It seems he is calm around calm people and hissy around everyone else. 

I try to get kissy and huggy with him, but if I'm not careful he will hiss, scratch or bite. He’s not at all affectionate.  He just always seems angry. Once Mom passes (she's currently in nursing home till I can see if she can be brought home with homecare) I want to take all four cats with me as indoor cats.  I love them all so much.  I want them all to be happy and safe because they are my family.  Is there any way I can find out why he seems so distant and how can I possibly make him be happier?  I love him very much even though he's a brat. He hates to be held for more that 30 seconds.  What can I do?  He doesn't need more food...I already had to put him on a diet because he had gotten so  heavy. Does he need a pet shrink? 

Amy’s Answer 

You obviously loves Mischief and the other cats very much, AnneMarie. The living situation surely has been stressful for you, your human family members and the cats. The H.I.S.S. Test, which stands for health, instinct, stress, and symptom solvers, can be helpful to understand what’s going on with Mischief. 

H=Health

Cats can become withdrawn when they don’t feel well. A health check is always a good idea when a cat’s behavior changes suddenly.

I=Instinct

Cats are creatures of habit. They also learn what is safe and what is scary very early in life. Anything “new” such as a strange house or people, can put their tails in a twist when they feel uneasy or even frightened. 

S=Stress

The stress of living in a new place, with strangers and an altered schedule often can cause upset kitty feelings and a change in behavior. Cats that have a close bond with their human owners also can be sensitive to YOUR feelings of stress and act accordingly.

S=Symptom, Signs & Solutions

AnnMarie, you have a couple of things going on here. Mischief (and you!) have a right to feel stressed. Has the cat ever been around a four-year-old human child before? If he grew up around adults, Mischief very likely doesn’t recognize a toddler as human—because your niece smells different, acts and moves different, and sounds different than adults. The best way to have a cat accept a toddler is to ask the child to sit still on the ground, and have the cat come to her. Mischief needs to feel like he controls the interaction and can get away from your niece and the reaching hands that might accidentally pull a tail or fur and hurt. 

I’m so pleased that you want Mischief to be happy. But I’m also concerned that you may not be interpreting his behaviors in an accurate manner. Please read this article on how cats show love and affection in ways that humans don’t always understand. 

In a similar way, humans show love and affection in very distinct ways that cats don’t understand! Humans are primates. We hug, we touch and cuddle, we want to be near to each other. But to a cat, a hug feels like being smothered! Remember that Mischief is much smaller than you, and a hug is a confining and scary sensation to cats. Especially when a kitty already feels under stress, he’ll want to control the interaction. So instead, show Mischief love in ways he'll appreciate.

If Mischief fears you’ll scoop him up and confine him, he’ll keep his distance. A hiss actually is a warning and sign of fearfulness, that Mischief wants you to keep your distance. Your cat needs to learn to understand what you mean, and you need to learn some basic cat communication.

I suspect that Mischief isn’t nearly as unhappy as you think. Give him some space, protect him from the highly-active four year old child, and let him approach you. A cat sleeping on the bed, even without touching you, is a clear sign of affection and trust—and he wouldn’t do that unless he was happy with you. 

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