Some animals seem to love every human they meet. Think of the dog at the park who can’t get enough attention from passersby, always ready with a sloppy lick and a paw to shake.
On the other hand you have cats, who seem to have much higher standards for the people they permit to interact with them. Even if a cat allows strangers to pet it or dangle a toy in front of it, chances are that there’s one person they prefer above all others.
A feline’s favorite person enjoys many privileges: the ability to give the cat belly rubs or pick it up, the presence of the cat in their lap or at the foot of their bed at night, the honor of being greeted with rubs and meows upon returning home. For other people, however, this favoritism can hurt a little, causing them to question what they did to make the cat dislike them.
Cat behavior is complex, particularly their modes of attachment and displays of affection. To understand why cats tend to get attached to just one person, we need to explore the psychology and thought processes of our feline friends. Let’s get inside the head of the housecat and discover the ins and outs of feline-human bonding.
Setting Standards: What Cats Want from Humans
With Time Comes Trust
Generally, cats like to take things slow. Rushing into things is a recipe for disaster; you have a lot to prove as a new person in a cat’s life, and the first thing the cat wants to know is that you’ll respect its boundaries.
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This means refraining from picking it up and going for a belly rub as an introductory move. Letting the cat come to you on its terms is a good first step towards establishing trust.
Even with time and space, some cats will just never trust certain people at all, let alone allow them to become best friends. Cats with histories of neglect or abuse may be distrusting of people who remind them of their difficult pasts. A cat that was mistreated by a man may want nothing to do with men, or a cat that was injured by a child’s rough play may avoid all children.
Cats tend to be skittish creatures even without a history of mistreatment, and the antidote to skittishness is security. A consistent calm demeanor, a steady routine and a gentle hand will go a long way towards establishing a feeling of stability. A cat that feels safe and stable in its environment will feel more comfortable forming bonds with humans, and will likely gravitate towards the person who was most available (but not forceful) during its period of acclimation.
Food: The Ultimate Motivator
The quickest way to a cat’s heart is often through its stomach. Chances are that a cat’s favorite person is the one who feeds it most often. The association between the delicious food and the person providing it is so strong that the cat can’t help but spend more time with its chef, whether in hopes of getting more food or simply out of gratitude.
Beyond simply satiating the appetite, food delivered on a regular basis tells the cat that the person delivering it can be depended upon. Cats love routine and find great comfort in knowing that they can count on someone to provide them with consistency. If you can prove yourself to be that person, you’ll quickly rise to the top of your cat’s list of favorites.
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The Cat Whisperers
Communication is important in all relationships, and it’s no different for cats. You don’t have to meow and purr to communicate in a way your cat understands – body language goes a long way. Often a cat will form its strongest bond with the person who comprehends it best.
Speaking loudly, approaching quickly and towering above the cat are surefire ways to prevent the formation of a bond. Think about it from the cat’s perspective: how scary it must be for a large, loud stranger to corner it and reach out to grab it!
You don’t have to be a cat behaviorist to communicate effectively with a cat. Get down on the ground so your eyes are level with the cat’s, but maintain a respectful distance and let the cat come to you if it wants. Gently speak to the cat while closing your eyes – cats won’t close their eyes unless they feel comfortable and safe, so you can lead by example.
Diverse Personalities: No Two Cats Are the Same
First Come First Served
Most cats tend to be aloof and choosy about their human companions. Building trust takes time, and even once it’s built it’s still apparent that the cat prefers someone else.
These cats would rather have one best friend than many acquaintances, and attaining “bestie” status requires a large investment of time and effort on the part of the human. Only the finest friends can appease these connoisseurs of companionship.
Often the cat ends up bonding with the first person who devotes the necessary time and energy to gaining its trust and providing it with what it needs – food, space, and attention. Once that bond is formed, the cat sees no need to put much effort into bonding with other people. The initial attachment is so strong that it completely satisfies the cat’s desire for human companionship.
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You’re All I Need
When a cat gets attached to one person, it can seem as if they’re the only two creatures in the world. The cat may spend all day sitting by the door waiting for its best friend to come home, ignoring other people and animals and sometimes even exhibiting anxious behaviors like crying, pacing and destroying things. Upon the return of its beloved human, the cat transforms, suddenly becoming lively and playful, meowing and showering the person with affectionate rubs and nuzzles.
In this way, cats are remarkably similar to human children, who often exhibit the same types of attachment towards their parents. They may have friends at school and relatives they like, but there’s nobody more important than Mom and Dad – reliable, caring and trustworthy. That’s how a cat sees the person it bonds with, and like human parent-child bonds, once established it’s tough to break.
Exceptions to the Rule
Of course, not all cats play favorites. Some seem to trust new people right off the bat, so eager to receive treats and head scratches that you’d think the stranger was a lifelong friend. For these social butterflies, the bonding process is barely a process; everyone’s a pal until they prove themselves otherwise.
Some breeds seem more inclined to bond with multiple humans than others. British Shorthairs, Burmese, Ragdolls and Maine Coons are known to love people and get equally attached to many individuals rather than choosing a favorite.
On the other hand, some breeds consistently attach to just one person and can seem wholly disinterested in getting to know anyone else. These breeds include Himalayans, Siamese, Russian Blues and Norwegian Forest Cats.
"In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this."
-- Terry Pratchett