Is Your Cat Over-Attached?

How to Keep the Affection Without the Cling

Is yours a cat that wants to stay by you nearly all the time? Does he demand constant physical contact or communication from you? If so, he might be a dysfunctional clingy cat. Or, he might be lacking the normal stimulation he needs.

Karen Overall, VMD, says that such cats were recognized only during the last decade. Previously, the belief that cats were simply solitary, with no social needs, still influenced veterinary thinking. Dysfunctionally clingy cats, that are usually the only cat in a home, were not thought possible. In fact, we now know that cats do require social contact and demonstrate relationship needs, says Overall, who is board certified by the College of Veterinary Behaviorists.

Whose problem is it?
Cats vary in their outgoingness and needs for affiliation. Overall points out that it is now known that paternal genes influence the level of each cats demonstrativeness, and that their affiliative (social or relationship) needs vary, all within a normal range.

When affiliative need becomes aberrant, cats can be called clingy or over-attached. But the precise label is unimportant to Overall. What matters to her is the question of whether they are distressed or whether the human companions are distressed because their kitty doesnt fit their expectations. Do they leave at 6:00 am, return at 11:00 pm to their single cat, and wonder why hes lonely or bored? asks Overall. Are their expectations of their cats needs realistic? And are they making room for this cats particular level of affiliative need?

To answer this, Overall observes how a cat responds to an unfamiliar environment and to others during the absence of his people. She watches to see if a cat ever warms up in either circumstance. In a new environment, most cats start off anxiously, usually cowering. How long they do so spans a wide range, but all normal cats will eventually begin exploring by sniffing and looking over the new space.

Some cats, however, remain distressed with anxiety and never relax.

A truly clingy cat will remain behaviorally paralyzed or, if their person is present, never stop clinging, burying his face into that person, at no point showing a feline curiosity. If separated, he may cling to someone else. When left alone, he never relaxes into a feline mix of slumber, movement, and relaxed watchfulness. He anxiously looks at the door his person exited, perhaps frozen in a sphinx-like pose; he may self-mutilate by licking himself incessantly, creating lesions; or he may suck or chew on his tail and even snarl at it. Others may self-barber – that is, trim their hairs by chewing. A small number of genuinely clingy cats will mark their owner or her possessions with urine or feces.

Loosening the grasp
To alter a distressing pattern, one goal is to increase the cats activity level. Exercise becomes valuable, as does other active stimulation. You can tie a ribbon to you that drags on the floor so your cat can play with it as you move, or you can play with him with a fishing pole toy. You can teach him to watch birds at a bird feeder outside a convenient window or buy him a video specifically produced to entertain cats. Teach him tricks (see February 2002 CatWatch). Many clingy adult cats that are not elderly can benefit from the company of an energetic second cat. Or you can arrange, with careful preparation, for a responsible neighbor to come play daily with kitty while you are away.

When arriving home, you should avoid making much of your arrival. Avoid giving attention to demanding behavior, so it doesnt seem as though youre rewarding the behavior. Your goal then is a continued attachment, but one expressed in a more relaxed, less clinging relationship.