Meet Your Cat Where He Is

By Beth Adelman, MS

Owners may sometimes feel disappointed when their pet does not ‘live up to’ their expectations

“The problem many people have with their pets is simply that it’s not the pet they want,” said the veterinary behaviorist at a lecture I was attending. And an explosion of insight went off in my head. Sometimes, accurately naming a problem really does help you understand it.

What did she mean? Sometimes we want a lap cat, and end up with a cat who likes to be in the same room (or even on the same piece of furniture) but not touching us. Sometimes we want an independent cat and end up with one who is clingy and constantly asking for attention. Sometimes we want a cat who is just like the cat we had when we were a kid. Sometimes we want a cat who is like Morris or Garfield or Spot (Star Trek fans, you know who that is).

We want a cat who is not the cat we have, so we’re disappointed. We start labeling the cat with words that show our disappointment: aloof, selfish, whiny, sneaky, stubborn. We say the cat has behavior problems, because we find her behavior disappointing. Disappointment turns into dislike. The bond is broken.

We often adopt cats at what is the worst time of their lives: They’re in a shelter or a foster home or a rescue facility. Even in the very best of rescue circumstances, they’re disoriented and confused and scared. They’re living in close quarters with cats they don’t know. They’re not themselves. In fact, they may not be themselves for weeks. We don’t know what we’re getting. No wonder we end up disappointed.

My husband and I adopted a kitten last winter from the city shelter. He was born in a feral colony and wasn’t very social; he adored my other two cats, but ran away from us. A few weeks after the adoption, the shelter called to ask how he was doing. “We adore him,” I told the adoption counselor. “He’s totally fabulous.” By this point, I had managed to pet him only a few times. What made him so fabulous?

Well, he’s ridiculously cute. He’s got a very dense orange coat, and looks like an Ewok (Star Wars fans, you know who that is). He’s super funny and has a squeaky little voice. He follows my other two cats around with something akin to hero worship. He’s very smart about figuring out how to work his food toys. And he’s totally fearless about new objects we introduce into the house.

We actually had no expectations when we adopted him, so he had nothing to live up to. As a result, he made us laugh every day and we quickly grew to love him. We were also able to meet him where he was—with his fears and limitations—and just wait him out.

We started by petting him a little while we were also playing with him: pairing something fabulous (play) with something he wasn’t sure he wanted (touch). We always stopped touching him when he moved away, because I know the more you let a cat decide how much to interact with you, the more he will choose to interact with you. And we always touched him when he stood still and asked for it.

Now, less than a year later, he has pet-me spots around the house—places he jumps onto and then looks back at us, waiting for his body rub. He follows us from room to room. We still can’t pet him in some situations, but in many other situations he asks for contact. And of course, he’s still funny and ridiculously cute. We really do adore him. He will never be a lap cat. But I know I’m a big part of his world, and he’s become a big part of mine.

The bottom line here is just to meet your cat where he is. Think about what you like about him, and don’t assume what you don’t like about him is all there is. He doesn’t sit with you on the couch? Yes, but he’s always in the same room with you. He doesn’t play like a crazy man? Yes, but it’s kind of funny the way he carries the little mousey toy around. He hides when strangers come over? How much sweeter, then, that he trusts you.

About the Author

Beth Adelman, MS, is a Cat Behavior Consultant in Brooklyn, New York. She currently is a regular speaker on cat behavior at New York’s Meow Parlour and sits on PPG’s Cat Committee.'

About Pet Professional Guild Cat Committee

A group of Pet Professional Guild members who are feline behavior specialists have formed the PPG Cat Committee. The Cat Committee aims to help members who are interested in feline behavior add to their knowledge about this species that shares its life with so many people throughout the world. They provide webinars and educational information on many feline topics and encourage everyone to learn more about the fascinating feline!


  1. All around America today, little cats and grown-up felines in a large number of creature safe houses and accommodating social orders are holding up to locate a cherishing home. Tragically, just around 24% of
    the felines in safe houses are ever adoption

  2. Wonderful post, Beth!
    Loving the animal you are with, looking at its wonderful qualities and celebrating them is what sharing one’s life with a companion animal is all about. This equally goes for dogs after trying to match energy level and drive with one’s own, accepting the animal’s individuality and putting aside one’s expectations is key to having a wonderful relationship. Labels really can break the bond. Thank you for a thoughtful and insightful article. Your Ewok is a lucky kitty!

    1. Thanks Linda!
      I adopted all 3 of my cats because at some stage in their lives they ended up being considered “undesirable.” Each one is an amazing cat in his own way. Really, I just stepped back and let each cat show me who he is.
      I do believe that we can guide and even change an animal’s behavior (after all, I work as a behavior consultant), but we can’t change who they are. That’s true of all animals–even us humans!

    2. Love the article, Beth and your comments, Linda. Cathy (from the Florida Keys SPCA, see comment above) helped me when I adopted a fearful anxious dog by teaching me how to work with her at HER speed addressing HER needs, which of course meant putting aside all expectations. As a result, I share life with a wonderful dog I deeply respect. Seeing her blossom into the dog she was meant to be is an ongoing gift I wouldn’t trade for anything. I now understand that if you can let go of your expectations, you will end up with so much MORE than you ever could have imagined.

  3. Beth,
    This is such a wonderful column! I work at a shelter, and your words are music to my ears. Such wise counsel! I intend to share this on our shelter facebook page because it expresses what we all wish for all our animals. Expectations are relationship killers and when we are able to let go of those expectations, we open the door to all kinds of wonderful surprises and gifts.
    Thank you,
    Florida Keys SPCA

    1. Thanks Cathy! And thanks for offering to share this blog post. I know your shelter–like all shelters–is full of amazing animals who can’t wait to show people who they are and be loved for it.

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