No cat wants to be pet all day, every day. Even cats that enjoy a good neck scratch need time to be undisturbed. Other cats might be fearful and don’t want to be pet at all. We can give them control over our interactions by asking the cat if they want to be pet, using a consent test. This can deepen our bond with our cats and, when paired with food, can teach a fearful cat that being pet can be enjoyable.
We first need to imagine the cat’s perspective. An unwelcome hand – whether the cat is fearful or just not in the mood – can be scary or upsetting. How would you feel if you were at a party and someone walked over, grabbed your hand, and vigorously shook it? Meanwhile other party guests calmly offer their hand and wait for you to accept their handshake. Which situation would you be more comfortable with?
The first encounter might make you feel surprised, scared, or violated. Most people would prefer the second scenario where you are given the option to engage with the other person. It’s the same with our cats. Instead of diving right in to a petting session, we need to give the cat the choice to accept our metaphorical handshake. We can do that by teaching a “start button” behavior.
A start button behavior allows a cat to give consent to something that might be a little scary. It is a way for the cat to say, “yes, I’m ready.” When we ask for the start button and the cat doesn’t do the behavior, they’re saying “no.” The ability to choose will build confidence in your learner and trust with you as their teacher. If they know you will honor when they say “no,” they will be more willing to say “yes” in the future.
The easiest start button is a nose touch to your fingertip. Start by holding out your pointer finger. When your cat touches it with his nose, click and give him a treat. Repeat that over and over for the next few days. After plenty of repetitions, your cat will learn that touching your finger gets him tasty rewards.
Once he is confident with this, you can add in a touch with your hand. Ask him to touch your fingertip, then briefly (just 1-2 seconds) scratch his neck or anywhere you know he might like to be pet. Then click and give him a treat. Repeat that many times so he learns that the sequence is: nose touch-pet-treat.
Here’s the most important part of using the start button behavior: if he chooses not to touch your finger, he’s saying, “no, thanks.” You need to respect his choice and withdraw your hand. Tempting as it may be, never try to touch him after he turns away from your finger. You can wait a few seconds and try again, or give him space for the moment and try another time.
When he is comfortable with being touched for 1-2 seconds, gradually increase the length of scratching. As you build up to longer periods of petting, remember to stop frequently and offer your finger again to give him the choice to continue or not. As your cat gets more and more comfortable with you, you may be able to fade out the treats. Eventually their choice to interact and the comfy scritches themselves might be enough of a reward!
Giving cats the ability to communicate whether they want attention will further improve their confidence and your bond with them. It’s all about having two-way communication where you ask and listen to what your cat has to say.