While I can’t deny that some people seem to have an innate knack for getting animals to like them, I can’t say that I am necessarily one of those blessed beings. Instead, I’m one of those sad creatures who grew up in a painfully pet-free household.
My girlish soul yearned for encounters of the non-human (preferably fuzzier) kind. The next-door neighbor’s shy gray cat, a friend’s oddly-agreeable hamster, and even a distant relative’s illegally-kept hen found themselves targets of the affection bursting from my critter-starved heart. Through trial and error, I learned to ingratiate myself with the animals I encountered.
Step 1: Kill Your Assumptions
My childhood notions regarding pets came from television, where the hamsters run in wheels only and exactly when the leads want to be amused, the bunnies love gnawing on carrots, and the cats and dogs exist to be caressed. After all, I reasoned, dogs and cats are called “pets,” right?
Not quite, as it turns out. Hamsters are naturally nocturnal, meaning they will generally sleep hidden away in a nest of bedding all day and run in that (noisy) wheel when you’re trying to sleep. Rabbits can develop all kinds of health problems from overconsumption of sweet foods, including carrots, and would much rather munch on the leafy carrot-top than the carrot itself anyway.
Though dogs and cats vary wildly in temperament, even the most mellow animal will not want to be petted all the time.
Even if you’ve had a certain type of animal as a pet, you might still be carrying misconceptions about them. Making a list of all the things you think you know about that animal and comparing it to reputable sources of animal behavior (i.e. not Cesar Millan) can help to dispel those.
Step 2: Get Some Perspective...
It can be hard to really conceptualize what it’s like to be smaller, weaker, and closer to the ground than we human beings are.
You can, if possible:
- Get on all fours and crawl around a bit. You can save your pants -- and your dignity -- by watching a YouTube perspective video about the animal of your choice instead.
- Indulge in some audiovisual masterpiece or other where the people are puny compared to the dominant species, perhaps one featuring a god-like Idris Elba. If you’re trying to relate to a super small animal, you might have to go for one of the big guns, like Cosmos, to feel truly tiny.
- Spend some time with someone much bigger and stronger than you are.
At the very least, think about what it would be like to have your life entrusted to someone who doesn’t inherently understand the ways in which you communicate. That’s where the vast majority of non-human animals are at in terms of life situation.
More than a little scary, no?
Step 3: ...But Without Projecting
Pareidolia is only human nature, but avoiding projecting human communication onto non-human animals is crucial to understanding them. For example, most of the non-human animals you’ll encounter use facial expressions minimally, if at all, to communicate -- in stark contrast to human reliance on facial expression.
A dog’s smiling-looking face does not signal happiness. Similarly, vocalizations are not the way by which most non-human animals primarily communicate. Cats only meow in adulthood because we infantilize them, not because that’s how they “talk.”
A special note about cats: I’ve found that many people project dog behaviors onto them. A cat “wagging” his tail is not a sign of positive excitement, but of terseness. A cat showing you his belly is not necessarily an indicator that he wants you to pet him, but is more a sign that he trusts you.
Don’t go and break that trust.
Step 4: Get Consent
All animals have feelings, moods, and preferences. You can learn them by leveling with them and letting them control the interaction. They will often make their wishes known to you using non-verbal cues.
A good rule of thumb is to crouch down and extend your hand to the animal. Most non-human animals navigate the world using scent cues, so they will want to get a sniff before they approach. Giving the animal a treat is almost never a bad move, as long as your hands don’t smell like food. That could lead to confusion that’s painful to you.
Jackson Galaxy, of My Cat From Hell fame, has a video that demonstrates consent with cats pretty well. In it, he lets the cat guide his petting rather than forces his hands on the cat.
Step 5: Keep Those Expectations Realistic
Not all animals are going to love you, even if you do everything right. Maybe you remind the animal of someone who is mean to them, they aren’t very fond of most people in general, or they’re simply in a bad mood. If they want to be left alone, you can preserve your chances for future positive interaction with the animal by respecting their wishes to be left alone.
I can personally attest to the success of respecting animals. Last spring, I stayed with some friends of mine. As soon as I entered their house, two of their three cats were all over me begging for playtime and attention, but I hardly caught even a glimpse of the third.
When she peeked in at us with curiosity, I resisted the temptation to chase or pester her by reminding myself that I was in her territory and probably smelled weird to her. The second evening I was there, I got out of the bathroom only to find her standing in front of me. I lowered myself to the ground, maintaining distance, and slowly stretched my hand out to her in greeting.
She rubbed herself on it and even treated me to a few purrs. Though she never quite played with me or sat in my lap the way the other two did, I felt incredibly honored by the acceptance and affection of a notoriously-reclusive cat.