In animal psychology, imprinting is any kind of phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular age) that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behavior. It was first used to describe situations in which an animal or person learns the characteristics of some stimulus, which is therefore said to be ‘imprinted’ onto the subject.
Cat imprinting behavior is unique, but as it is with every animal species, it’s important to understand what imprinting is, how it happens, and the biology of the process. All mammals with strong survival instincts will first learn what species they are after they are born when they first see their parents. The first glimpse, or imprinting, creates a bond with that parent. The kittens then trust the parent to provide sustenance and shelter, and eventually equip them with the necessary skills to survive on their own.
Can Older Cats Imprint As Well?
To put it simply, yes. But it may take a bit longer and manifest in distinct ways. The initial imprinting stage for cats tends to occur between two and seven weeks after birth. However, the stimuli that they are and aren’t exposed to during this time can also shape their behaviors and personality for the rest of their lives. Socialization for an adult cat is possible but also more challenging. Having said that, cats, like humans, imprint throughout their lives.
Cats Imprinting On Humans
Cat imprinting on humans is a complex psychological bond between a cat and its human. It is not easy to describe the process, but there are visible signs that a cat has imprinted on its human. Essentially, a cat imprinted on you has accepted you as another cat in their family. This bonding is an instinct that can be traced back to the basic instinct of wild animals and is found across many animal species.
A recent study into feline hormone levels showing states of happiness and stress suggests that cats recognize the importance of forming relationships with people. It could be inferred from the study that a strong bond with a human can improve a cat’s well-being and quality of life. For us, this imprinting is a wonderful behavioral adaptation to the bond we share with our cats that can really enrich our lives. For the cats, it makes them feel like part of the family and leads to contentment and happiness.
It is also important to note that a relationship with their human owners is vital for a cat’s survival. They rely on us for food and shelter, two important resources that animals struggle for in the wild. As a result, their dependence on us can create a complex relationship— similar to a parent and a child.
Signs That Your Cat Has Imprinted On You
A kitten will imprint on its mother when it is born, learning to become a cat by first seeing her and then carrying out similar actions. In this case, imprinting on a human for the second time is rare and of great importance.
After imprinting on you, your cat welcomes you as another member of their family and begins to treat you as a member of the group. Some actions that show you your cat has made you part of their family are grooming you and going on ‘hunting’ excursions for you.
Some of the most common signs that your cat has imprinted on you include:
They Enjoy Your Company
Cats don’t spend time around people they don’t like. If they stick by your side, it means they approve of your company. They may lay nearby, like on the back of the chair you are sitting on, or even go as far as to lay on your lap. Sleeping in your bed is particularly special because a cat’s natural instincts make them more vulnerable at night. They may feel more protected by you or they may feel that they have to protect you. Nevertheless, your cat being in your close proximity means it has undoubtedly imprinted on you.
Kneading is when your cat gently presses their front paws into your thighs in a rhythmic pattern. It is another instinctive behavior for cats that starts when they are kittens. The action helps stimulate a mother cat’s milk production. Scent glands in their paws allow them to mark their territory and fill their environment with their scent, both of which are calming for the kitten. This cat behavior is relaxing and stress-reducing, but it’s also a sign that the cat is perfectly content with you.
They Communicate With You
Communication for cats differs from dogs and other pets. Certain breeds may be more vocal than others, but meows, chatters, purrs, and other sounds can give clues about how they feel and what they need from you. Purring especially holds a lot of meaning as it proves the cat’s happiness, specifically if they’re lying on your lap or are in your company.
They Rub Against You
Like in their paws, cats also have scent glands throughout their bodies – including along their sides and tails. They use these scent glands to mark their territory by rubbing against things, especially your legs and any objects you might use regularly. Being ‘marked’ by a cat means they’ve claimed you as theirs. Some cats may do this to several people, but when done with other things on this list, it most likely means the cat considers you one of its own.
They Love Grooming You
Grooming is an important part of a cat’s routine – mothers groom their kittens and littermates also take up the practice. Even wild cats do this. However, this is purely a cat behavior and not one that many cats will do with humans unless they’ve created a solid bond. If you find your cat licking you, you can consider it a sign that it has successfully imprinted on you.
They Bring You Little “Gifts”
When mother cats bring food back to their kittens as they are starting to wean them, they are providing for their family. Adult cats continue to do the same, and bringing gifts of dead birds or mice is their way of telling you they’ve brought supper for the night. While it may not be what you had in mind, remember that they only do so to show their love for you. Hunting prizes can also be considered a sign that your cat wants to play with you. If your cat is not a hunter, it might bring you toys instead.
They Show You Their Belly
The belly is a vulnerable area of the body for a cat. Pay attention to your cat’s posture and body language. If they show you their belly, it’s a sign that they’ve given you their trust. While many cats won’t like having their belly rubbed, your cat allowing you to touch their belly is a sign they’ve fully imprinted on you.
You will also notice this sometimes when your cat changes its position while sleeping. If they feel very comfortable and safe with you, they may often sleep with their belly exposed. Felines that live in the wild never engage in this behavior. If your cat does this, consider it a sign that they have imprinted on you. It is also a testament to how well you treat your cat, so don’t hesitate to pat yourself on the back!
Do Cats Imprint On More Than One Person?
Cats gravitate towards different people for different reasons and it is sometimes hard to understand these preferences. They will often imprint on the person they spend the most time with and who tends to their basic needs such as food and comfort.
Cats are often drawn to quieter people who are relaxed and calm and might be more nervous around children who can be unpredictable and louder. Some cats like attention, such as petting and grooming, whereas some prefer to just be near someone who doesn’t give them as much attention. Cats are curious little beings and each of them has a unique and distinct personality!
With that being said, most cats will only imprint on one person, even if they accept and love others in the home. This is similar to imprinting behavior in kittens; when they are born, kittens imprint only on their mother, although they show affection, play with, and protect their littermates. If the cat likes one person more than it likes the rest of the people at home, it means that it has imprinted on that one person. This person is usually the one who tends to its basic needs and can read the cat’s body language better than the others.
Cat imprinting is undoubtedly a complex phenomenon and it’s hard to pin down a simple definition for it. Most questions about it are best left to feline behavior psychologists. However, we know the signs of cat imprinting and that this is a special bond you share with your cats throughout their lives. One must cherish and nurture this bond with plenty of pats, cuddles, scratches, and interactions with their cat!