How to Earn Your Cat's Trust and Affection

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to earn your cats trust

Story at-a-glance -

  • Since cats remain a bit of a mystery to humans, we’re not yet sure if the affection they show for us is part of their feline nature, a result of how we care for them, or both
  • Fortunately, more feline studies are being conducted these days, and the results so far suggest our cats actually enjoy interacting with us
  • One requirement for successful human-feline interactions is that they must be initiated by the cat rather than the human
  • Researchers observed that, given the opportunity, cats will choose interactions with humans over treats and toys
  • If your cat seems unapproachable, it’s important to continue efforts to interact with her, and there are specific steps you can take to encourage her

Compared to dogs, who are fully domesticated and a constant source of scientific study, our less-studied, semi-domesticated feline family members are often best described by the old phrase, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Every time I write about new cat behavior research there’s always a segment of cat lovers that are frustrated by the results.

One of the more fascinating questions about cats that stirs controversy in the feline behavioral world is, “How much of their behavior is nature, and how much is nurture?” Are some kitties genetically programmed to be affectionate with humans, or do they develop the trait only under certain environmental circumstances?

According to veterinarian Dr. Shannon Stanek, owner of the Exton Vet Clinic and Stanek Veterinary Housecalls in Pennsylvania, it’s both. As she explained to PetMD, like humans, both personality and upbringing — especially during the first four months of life — play equal roles in determining a cat’s level of affection.1

“Cats raised with people during that time tend to be more affectionate and attentive,” says Stanek. “We get scared, feral kittens all the time. They’re not affectionate because they’ve never had human interaction. As we handle and love them, they learn to enjoy and even seek out human contact.”

Cats Enjoy Human Affection (as Long as It’s Their Idea)

An Oregon State University study published in early 2019 expands on the specifics of feline affection, suggesting that cats actually look forward to interacting with humans, especially those who stroke and pet them.2 In groups of both pet cats and shelter cats, the researchers observed the kitties spent significantly more time with people who paid attention to them than people who ignored them.

The study, which was conducted in two phases, was designed to test the theory that cats have a preference for interactions with humans that they (the cats) initiate. In phase one, 46 cats — 23 shelter residents and 23 privately owned kitties — were individually put in a room with a stranger who sat on the floor and remained still. The person ignored the cats for two minutes, and then spent two minutes calling them by name and petting them when they approached.

Phase two of the study involved only pet cats and their owners (vs. the stranger), in the same two scenarios described just above. According to lead study author Kristyn R. Vitale, on average, the cats spent much more time near their owners when the owners showed them lots of attention.3

“Even in the attentive phase, the cat had a lot of control, and that’s really what we think they like — the ability to leave,” Mikel Delgado, a postdoctoral fellow who studies cat behavior at the University of California at Davis’s School of Veterinary Medicine, told the Washington Post. “It’s not that they’re aloof. It’s just that they want choice.”4

Interestingly, the shelter cats in the study, whose stay at an Oregon shelter ranged from 3 to 455 days, spent more time than the family cats interacting with the person who ignored them. According to Vitale, this could be because the kitties really needed attention. It could also be that shelter life had conditioned them to unfamiliar people.

John Bradshaw, a University of Bristol biologist and cat behavior expert, cautioned against reading too much into the differences in behavior between pet and shelter cats. Cats are territorial, and only the privately-owned kitties were tested in an environment that was familiar to them.

“Cats behave quite differently depending on whether they know the place they’re in,” Bradshaw told the Washington Post.5

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If Your Cat Is Standoffish, Keep Trying

In an earlier (2017) study conducted by the same Oregon State researchers in which they set out to determine what types of things stimulate cats, and to what degree, the results indicate kitties seem to like humans a lot more than they appear to.6

As in the 2019 study, there was a group of pet cats and a group of shelter cats. They were isolated for a few hours, after which they were presented with three items from one of four categories: food, scent, toy, and human interaction.

The researchers mixed up the items so the cats could better evaluate which ones they found most stimulating and determined the kitties’ level of interest for a given stimulus by whether they went for it first, and how and how long they interacted with it.

The researchers observed considerable variability from one cat to the next, regardless of whether they lived in a home or a shelter. But overall, the cats preferred interacting with a human to all other stimuli, including food. They spent an average of 65% of their time during the experiment interacting with a person, leading the researchers to conclude that cats really do like being with their humans, despite how they might behave around them.

Vitale’s advice for cat guardians is to try making the first move even when faced with the most standoffish kitty.

“In my opinion, it’s very important to go out and try to interact with your cat and see what happens,” she said. “I think there’s this idea that dogs are this way, and cats are that way. But there’s a lot of variability in both populations.”7

From Aloof to Affectionate

Feline experts have observed that friendly cat parents tend to have friendly cats. It’s also well established that early socialization and handling are important in shaping the personality and temperament of kittens. This means giving them positive experiences with lots of different people, animals, unfamiliar cats, new environments, and human handling.

Kittens exposed to these things during the critical developmental period of 8 to 15 weeks are more likely to be friendly and social adult cats. They’re also better equipped to handle the everyday stresses of life, such as a change in their human's work schedule, or the arrival of a new member of the household.

If your kitty is an adult and for reasons either known or mysterious doesn’t seem interested in being physically close to you, there are things you can do to earn her trust and help her learn to love being a lap cat:

Avoid direct eye contact — Many kitties are uncomfortable with eye-to-eye contact from their humans. This is because most animals view prolonged eye contact as an act of aggression and staring at your cat can make him feel anxious and fearful. A better approach when gazing at your cat is to close your eyes for a few seconds, then slowly open them and look away, or simply glance away once he meets your gaze. This will reinforce for him that you’re not a threat.

Practice feline-friendly petting — Cats are exquisitely sensitive to touch, and are often quite particular about touching they enjoy vs. touching they don’t. As a general rule, most kitties enjoy a nice scratch at the base of the chin, on the cheeks behind the whiskers, and at the base of the ears. Some cats also like to be rubbed around the base of the tail.

Most cats (though there are exceptions) don’t enjoy tummy rubs. This is because if your kitty lived in the wild, predators would be a constant threat. The most vulnerable spot on her body is her belly, because just beneath the surface of that tender skin lie all the organs that keep her alive.

Don’t skimp on snacks — While you’re working to convince kitty to spend time with you, be sure to keep a supply of his favorite treats within reach at all times. When he approaches you, offer him one. If he jumps up next to you, or better yet on your lap, offer another. The trick is to help him associate being in physical contact with you with delicious snacks.

Help with grooming chores — Cats are big into grooming. They groom themselves, other cats, the family dog, their humans, and even the occasional inanimate object. Because they’re so into cleanliness, many kitties also really enjoy a gentle brushing. If yours does, she’ll show you through body language.

Make brushing sessions a time to quietly bond with your cat, and if you see her tail start to twitch or she suddenly walks away, she’s telling you she’s had enough for now.

Be a calm presence — Most cats are very rattled by sudden noises or movements, or anything that can be interpreted as aggressive or even assertive. Speak softly and move quietly and slowly around your cat. Focus on being very Zen and entirely nonthreatening while you’re in his environment. Calming pheromone sprays can be beneficial for scared kitties.