Holy “Twilight” — Can Your Cat Imprint on You?
This has nothing to do with werewolves named Jacob, but here are 10 signs this is happening.
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We’ve all seen videos of dogs reuniting with humans they haven’t seen in weeks (or even years) and going into absolute paroxysms of pleasure. But what about cats? They tend to be less demonstrably affectionate than dogs, but their imprinting instinct is still strong, says Los Angeles-based certified feline training and behavior specialist and The Wildest Collective member Cristin Tamburo (a.k.a. The Cat Counselor). Recognizing it is just a matter of knowing what to look for. Here’s what Tamburo says about imprinting.
First off, what exactly is imprinting?
Imprinting is something that happens during the sensitive, early development period of an animal’s life. During this stage, an animal will (hopefully) build bonds or attachments — usually with their (cat) parents or the person who is taking care of them.
Can older animals imprint as well?
Yes, although it may take a bit longer and manifest in different ways. For cats, the initial imprinting stage tends to occur between two and seven weeks after birth. Though a very short window in a cat’s relatively long life, the stimuli that they are and are not exposed to during this time can really shape their behaviors and personality for the rest of their lives. Additional socialization also occurs through their first four months, which is why, in the rescue world, we generally try to get kittens socialized and trusting humans by this four-month mark. Socialization after this point is still possible, but more challenging. That said, cats, like humans, imprint throughout their lives.
So a person shouldn’t try to adopt a kitten before it is weaned from their mother, in the hopes of getting them to imprint with them more strongly?
No. Kittens need and deserve time with their mothers and siblings. It’s important for their overall development. And, as I said, cats, like people, can and do imprint throughout their lives. [Once] properly socialized, cats will often become imprinted on a human, even if they were not together during that early, sensitive period. Often, this will occur with whichever human in the home provides the cat with the most care and attention.
What are the signs your cat has imprinted on you?
Communicating with you — meows, purrs, and all the other happy noises a cat makes.
Kneading you (a.k.a. “making biscuits”).
Choosing to be close to you — following you around, cuddling and sleeping with you, being on your lap whenever they get the chance.
Greeting you when you come home.
Rubbing on you, marking you with their scent.
Enjoying playing with you and even instigating play.
Bringing you “gifts” and going on “hunting” excursions for you.
Slow blinking at you.
Showing you the ultimate trust by showing you their belly! (Although this may not be an invitation to touch said belly.)
Are certain breeds more likely to imprint than others?
Siamese, Ragdolls, Sphynx, and Maine Coons tend to be needier and are more likely to imprint.
Is it possible for your cat to be too attached to you?
Separation anxiety can be a real issue for cats (just like for dogs), especially for those adopted during the pandemic, who got used to having their humans around all the time and now have to adjust to them spending more time out of the house.
Is it possible for a cat to imprint on you, but still not be demonstrably affectionate?
This is something we usually see in stray or feral cats, who may have missed their socialization period but still trust that one human who cares for them. For instance, a colony of feral cats will likely run from most humans but will be excited to see the person who feeds them and cares for them. In some cases, they may show affection, but often they will accept the food and go back to their daily routine.
Every cat is different, though, and thus how they express affection or demonstrate their bond with their person is different too. But the desire to imprint — to connect and trust — is hardwired into cats (and humans). It’s a survival instinct. It’s deep, deep in there.
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Charles Manning is an actor, writer, and fashion/media consultant living in New York City with his two cats, Pumpkin and Bear. Follow him on Instagram @charlesemanning.