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My girlfriend has an indoor cat that now lives together with us. I never had any pets before, so I have a hard time interpreting. Sometimes, she will approach me and meow in a voice that sounds like “I desperately want attention”.

So I slowly reach down to her and try to pet her. Then she turns around and moves away, so that I can barely reach the lower back. She will stop there, notice that I am not petting and make another meow that sound accusatory to me. She turns back around, I pet her sides or her head, and she moves away from me again.

This just happened after I wrote the post. She came to me, got petted a little but, went away and rolled over. We often pet her when she lies of her side or her back, but she is getting up directly afterwards today. This is new to the behavior I have described already.

14 MB animated GIF showing me petting her

Most of the time, food and water are just fine, so that is probably not the issue.

Trying to pick her up works at some times, often she will jump away like I scared her. If I managed to set her onto my lap, she will stay for some 20 seconds and jump off.

Usually she will come back five minutes later and sit on my mousepad or in front of my keyboard. Then I am able to pet her a minute before she goes away. Now she is sitting on a pillow next to my desk and dozes.

What does she want when she approaches me and meows like that?

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The gif looks like how one of my cats likes to be petted. He can't stay still for some reason. He'll pace back and forth while you pet him. –  Matt S. Mar 17 at 22:17
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When the cat wants to sniff your hand, let her do that. Looks fine altogether though. –  Esa Paulasto Mar 17 at 22:22
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All cats I know that do this (the majority of them) do this when they don't really know you, but are curious, and want attention at the same time. –  Jason C Mar 18 at 7:16
    
Oh, a 14,3 megabytes GIF is what all mobile device users want. –  sharptooth Mar 24 at 12:13
    
@sharptooth Sorry. I made it just a link. –  queueoverflow Mar 24 at 13:39

6 Answers 6

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Odds are, the cat's as wary of you as you are of her. She wants to know if she can trust you. These cautious approaches are very typical, and you're handling it very well. As she starts to get more comfortable with you, she'll stick around longer for more attention. Not chasing after her or holding her in your lap when she wants to go are very good things, as she knows that she can get attention from you when she wants and also leave when she wants.

From the video you included, I'd say you have nothing to worry about. She clearly likes the attention you're giving her. She just wants to have it on her terms.

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The cat knows me for over a year, but we moved together two months ago. Se was more trusting before the move, I think. –  queueoverflow Mar 17 at 16:27
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Any kind of change like that can shake a cat up, so she's backed off until she can reassure herself that everything's still okay. –  Roger Mar 17 at 17:12

Try following her. My cat will sometimes meow incessantly until I get up and follow her to a dirty litter box, empty water bowl, or a closed door.

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That's a good one too. Especially the closed door issue. –  Esa Paulasto Mar 17 at 22:22

Another option: If this cat tends to be rather vocal, she may just want to have a "conversation" with you. My cat will do this; what she wants is for me to just talk to her, and she will meow back. What's entertaining is she meows with the appropriate intonation in response.

Since she's wary of you, here are a few tips that may help. When you pet her, don't reach down from above. Try instead to bring your hand in from the side. A "giant" hand coming down from above is a little frightening. Also, when you pick her up, do so with an exaggerated amount of gentleness, as if she were a very fragile egg. She will probably love it!

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I noticed that she does not shy away at all when she is on my desk or jumps onto the bed. If she is around my height, it seems to be way more comfortable for her. I have the impression that this is the primary issue. –  queueoverflow Mar 26 at 11:37

I agree with Roger. The animated gif (and to a lesser extent the text) suggest the cat wants to be friends but is also very stressed out.

The body gestures are a mix of "pet me" "I'm afraid" and "don't attack me".

A sudden strident meow is probably just it being worried.

If you just moved- note that is VERY stressful for a cat. They may know they can get food from a human but they assume that their territory is where the food comes from. Moving is like you loosing your job and getting a new one where you have no idea what the salary is. As time goes on the cat will get used to the new territory.

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Some cats (actually many, in my experience) find it difficult to sit or stand still when they are being petted. These cats typically pace back and forth. It can be frustrating when you're trying to pet them, and they keep moving just out of reach, but this doesn't mean the cat is unhappy, or even mistrustful.

We had a cat that was rescued before fully weaned. She was very affectionate, and sweet by nature.

However, she consistently demonstrated the exact same behavior you describe (and show). She would walk up to you, clearly asking to be petted, and the moment you started petting her, she'd walk just out of reach, sit down, and turn to look at you over her shoulder, as if she couldn't understand why you'd stopped petting her.

This wasn't a trust issue, as she would happily sit in our laps, or even let me (and only me) carry her.

I did notice other peculiar behaviors with her that eventually led to a "solution". She very clearly liked to be petted in certain places, or under certain conditions. It sounds odd, but she would sit quite contentedly in one place while you pet her if any of the following conditions were met:

  • She was on the top step of the staircase leading down to the basement
  • She was in a basket (any sort of basket; we kept several around the house for her), or a cardboard box.
  • She was lying in the window perch we installed for our cats
  • She was lying or sitting on a piece of paper

The last one was the most useful. Whenever she went into her routine of walking up to be petted, and then walking just out of reach, I'd pick up a piece of paper, lay it down on the ground in front of me, and she'd immediately walk over and sit down so I could pet her. The behavior of walking away would cease as soon as the paper went down.

What I suggest is that you pay close attention to your girlfriend's cat's behavior, looking for patterns as to where she seems most comfortable. If she seems to have favorite spots, try moving there whenever she seems to be asking to be petted, and see if that changes the behavior.

Once you've identified what it is that she's looking for (assuming that it is a similar situation to my cat), try recreating elements of it in more convenient spots. If she likes to be on a particular blanket (one of my current cats has a favorite blanket), bring the blanket to where you want to pet her. If she likes to lie on the kitchen floor, try bringing out a cardboard box or box top. Experiment, and you may find that she's just trying to get comfortable while she enjoys being petted.

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Dogs have masters, cats have staff, or subjects. Cats need just the right amount of attention and always on their terms not yours. It's really about control. So when this interloper (you) came into her kingdom she feels she has to bend you to to her will.

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She already made me like her. I was not really fond of pets before, now it is nice to have a cat around. So that “bending” is going well from her perspective :-) –  queueoverflow Mar 18 at 16:29

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