As is often the case with cats, Fuzz picked me, rather than the other way around. I was walking down a hall at the Washington Humane Society when a white paw reached out and tapped me gently on my face. Fuzz, a skinny tuxedo cat with a teardrop goatee, peered through the wire grid of his cage. “That’s him,” I told the volunteer. “That’s my cat.”
A week later, I worried that I had made a mistake. I had wanted a lap cat, but Fuzz acted more like a polite roommate. He stayed out of my way and largely out of sight. When he did hang out on my bed, he sat well beyond my reach.
“Here, Fuzzy Fuzz Fuzz,” I said, patting the mattress. “Come here!”
Eventually, I tried to relocate him by force. Scooping him up, I plopped him on the pillow next to mine. Dignity bruised, Fuzz stalked back to his corner and smoothed his fur.
I complained to my dad about my predicament.
“What did you expect?” he said. “If you wanted love, you should have gotten a dog.”
He had a point. Aloofness, self-possession, an agenda of one’s own – these are all pretty typical feline traits. Indeed, they are qualities that many people admire in cat companions.
Still, I wasn’t ready to give up. If you can train a cat to skateboard or use the toilet, surely you can train one to cuddle, I thought.
One day, I sat down on my couch with a small container of treats. When Fuzz happened to come near me, I made a “clicking” sound with my tongue and tossed him a piece of dry cat food. When he made a second pass that was even closer, I clicked my tongue and gave him another. After about 10 minutes, he was practically glued to my side.
(Clicker training, by the way, is a tried-and-true way to tell your pet that it has performed the correct behavior and is about to get a treat. It works better than verbal commands because the noise from a clicker or your tongue is so distinctive and easy to hear.)
The next day, I repeated the first lesson and raised the bar, giving him a treat only when he put a paw on my lap. Eventually, he stepped on me by accident and was rewarded with a three-treat jackpot. I upped the ante again, only giving him treats for two paws on my lap, then three – and finally, all four.
In less than a week, Fuzz was acting like a born lapcat, so I started rewarding other kinds of affectionate behavior. These days, Fuzz meets me at the door when I get home from work. When I’m near a counter, he jumps up and rubs his head against mine, and he always keeps me company when I read. Over time, I’ve reduced the number of treats he gets to one per about every five cute behaviors, but Fuzz continues to cuddle, and he’s even started rhythmically pressing his paws into my skin before settling down – a behavior known as kneading.
Even so, my boyfriend was not impressed.
“Fuzz doesn’t love you, he’s just looking for food,” Steve said.
“You’re just jealous,” I countered.
But my faith in Fuzz’s love had been shaken, so I called a few animal behavior researchers to get their thoughts on the issue.
“It reminds me of when I adopted a second dog,” said Barnard College professor Alexandra Horowitz, author of “Inside of a Dog.” “He didn’t look me in my eyes the way dogs usually do, so I just trained him to do it.”
Once the dog made eye contact, Horowitz says, she was able to bond with him. Similarly, teaching Fuzz to cuddle with me may have laid the groundwork for true affection.
“If the cat suddenly realizes that you’re something that gives them pleasure to be around, they may start to love you,” Horowitz said.
Mikel Delgado, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley who studies cat behavior, agreed. She pointed to Fuzz’s kneading as further evidence that he likes me for more than just treats.
“You didn’t train the kneading, but he started doing it because you tapped him into an emotional state.” she said. “He acted loving, and then maybe started feeling it.”
Acting your way into feeling also works for humans, Delgado noted. Researchers have found that if you fake a smile, you’ll feel happier. Stand tall, and you’ll feel powerful. You can even begin to feel the stirrings of love if you stare into a stranger’s eyes for long enough.
A cat behavior consultant, Delgado said she has noticed that we humans often see cats as secretive or shifty – perhaps because they have such blank, inscrutable facial expressions.
“People are so ready to accuse cats of trying to trick you or of just pretending to like you,” she said.
Dogs, on the other hand, have highly mobile faces and mouths that often seem to be smiling, which allows us to project happy, open personalities onto them, Delgado said.
But if either animal is capable of deception, it’s probably dogs — social animals with a long history of living side by side with people. Cats, on the other hand, are still quite similar to their wild, solitary ancestors. They don’t wear their emotions on their faces, but their mere presence in our lives speaks volumes, Delgado said.
“When your cat shows you he trusts you by sitting next to you on your lap, purring, that’s a pretty huge commitment,” she said. “You should feel honored if your kitty does that.”
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Video link: Her cat wouldn’t cuddle with her, so she trained it to