My cat ignores me – why?

Unlike dogs, who generally want to be involved in every situation and activity and often follow their human around constantly, cats are known for being independent, and even aloof. While some cats can be quite social, it can be hard to take when your favourite feline seems to take absolutely no notice of you – unless it’s dinner time. So
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15th September 2022

Unlike dogs, who generally want to be involved in every situation and activity and often follow their human around constantly, cats are known for being independent, and even aloof. While some cats can be quite social, it can be hard to take when your favourite feline seems to take absolutely no notice of you – unless it’s dinner time. So why is this the case?

Cats can be the most enigmatic of creatures. While dogs are much easier to read – that soppy smile, high, wagging tail and playful behaviour tells you when they’re happy, while a tucked in tail, lip licking and pinned back ears reveal they’re worried – cats tend to keep their emotions to themselves. Cats Protection says: “The cat has limited visual social signals and facial expressions and so can be difficult to ‘read.’”

That’s why it can be rather baffling when your cat gives you the cold shoulder, leaving you trying to figure out what’s going on, particularly if they are usually sociable and affectionate.

Each cat is an individual and there may be all sorts of reasons why they ‘want to be alone’. Some breeds of cat, such as Norwegian Forest Cats, for example, don’t tend to demand constant attention, while Russian Blues are often content with their own company much of the time.

And of course, as cats get older, they could, just like humans, start to lose their hearing which is why they don’t respond when you call them. Cats hate change, so has something altered in the day-to-day running of the household that’s upset them? Perhaps they’re not feeling well and are doing their best to hide it – in which case it’s well worth taking them to the vet for a check-up.

But is it possible that cats sometimes simply make a conscious decision to ignore their puzzled human?

What happens when you call your cat’s name?

According to a new study, the answer is yes. Research published by the University of Tokyo suggests that cats really do choose to ignore their human.

In the study, cats' names were called by their owners and by strangers' voices to see if they reacted. The cats knew their names were being called, because they showed signs of listening behaviour – such as twitching their ears, head and tail movements, along with a few meows.

Despite showing clear signs that they recognised their names being called out – they showed a bigger response when they heard their owner calling their name than they did when their name was called by a stranger – the cats did not move or come over to where the name was being called out from.

Why cats call the shots

One reason, according to the study, that cats are this way – in contrast to dogs who are highly responsive to human interaction – could be that cats never evolved a domesticated relationship like dogs did with their humans, because felines actually domesticated themselves.

The study's authors said: “Historically speaking, cats, unlike dogs, have not been domesticated to obey humans' orders. Rather, they seem to take the initiative in human-cat interaction.”

The study highlights that housecats have a common ancestor, Felis silvestris – a cat that first came into contact with humans around 9,000 years ago. Research suggests that these cats domesticated themselves in human societies by catching prey that was hanging around rice stores – a relationship that had mutual benefits for both felines and humans.

This is in stark contrast with canines, who have been bred over many centuries to respond to commands. Felines, because they domesticated themselves, have never needed to follow orders and, to this day, have subsequently retained their independent nature.

Humans love the independence and curiosity of felines

And, of course, this is why we find them so appealing. Cats Protection says: “It is the very nature and behaviour of cats that makes them one of the UK’s most popular pets today. Their independence, playfulness and curiosity are among the traits that make many cat-lovers melt.”

The charity also recommends taking time to understand your cat’s behaviour, stating: “By understanding the behaviour the cat has developed to enable it to thrive in a changing world, we can learn how to best provide for our cats, meet their needs, maximise their welfare and ensure long-lasting friendships for happy cats and owners.”

What influences your cat’s behaviour?

Individual cats have different characters – and their differences are due to a variety of factors. Cats Protection suggests that the way your cat behaves around you is influenced by:

  • Genetics
  • Stress levels of the mother when pregnant.
  • Learning during the early part of life, including experiences during their socialisation period, behaviour learned from siblings – such as how to play, behaviour learned from the mother – for example, how to deal with frustration, such as during weaning.
  • Later learning experiences, including a cat developing an association between its own behaviour and the consequence of that behaviour. For example, miaowing leads to my owner letting me in, so I will miaow when I want to be let in. A cat developing an association between something that originally meant nothing to it and associating it with meaning something new. For example, a cat learns that the sound of a tin opener means they are about to be fed, so will come running when they hear the tin opener being taken out of a drawer.
  • Medical conditions
  • Current environment

Improving your relationship with your cat

While you might long for lots of cuddle time with your favourite feline to show just how much you love them, it’s important to note that not all cats feel the same way.

Cats Protection advises: “Cats like quite brief, low intensity but frequent interactions. When cats that get along greet each other, it tends to be a brief head rub. Unfortunately, humans are the opposite! Our interactions are generally less frequent, but when we have them, they are generally of high intensity and prolonged. This can sometimes be a source of confusion between cats and their owners.”

So, what you can do to improve frosty feline/human relations? The answer is to learn to understand your cat by reading their body language – which will take some time and effort.

Cats Protection says: “Cats can be very subtle in their body language and can be difficult to ‘read’ as they have not evolved the many visual communication signals that are seen in social species, like dogs. Spend time watching your cat – see how they move and interact with their environment, their facial expressions, body postures and vocalisations in different situations – and you can start to build a picture of how your cat is feeling.”

While all of this is great advice, it doesn’t change the fact that cats do things on their own terms – and we humans are highly privileged when they choose to be our loving and affectionate companions.

CARE MORE Get more advice on caring for your cat from Burgess, the pet experts. Training, nutrition, grooming and general care. It's all here >>

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