I’m jealous of dog people. You can meet a dog by just walking up to it on the street. A typical dog trusts you instantly. But the average cat must be won over. I talked to three cat behaviour experts, who explained why cats are like this, and walked through strategies for making friends with someone else’s cat, even in a single sitting.
Treat It Like A Wild Animal
Why are cats, even those that have only known humans to be kind and friendly, so standoffish? I knew they don’t have all the selective breeding of dogs. But I didn’t appreciate the scope of this difference until I talked to science writer Tom McNamee, author of The Inner Life of Cats.
Humans have been breeding dogs for 100,000 years, he says. Cats have only lived with humans for 5000 years, ever since North African wildcats started hanging around as ratters. And until the last couple of centuries, “they’ve been hanging around barns,” says McNamee, with none of the selective breeding that turned wolves into hundreds of specialised dog breeds. We’ve only kept pet cats in the house for the last couple of centuries.
So they’re not that different from each other, or from their wild ancestor. “You could steal a North African wildcat kitten,” he says, “and it’d make a pretty decent cat.” And because cats are basically still wild, they can’t be trained, at least not the way dogs can.
“Cats are not dogs,” says Jackson Galaxy, author of Total Cat Mojo and host of Animal Planet’s My Cat From Hell. “I know that sounds insulting to say, but we always default to looking at cats through dog-coloured glasses. We have to afford cats the same sort of dignity we do with a human.”
That means a much slower introduction process, and respecting that a cat is still programmed to be a self-sufficient hunter.
A cat starts picking up signals as soon as you enter a home. It can smell other animals on you, even dogs you recently walked past, says cat behaviourist Mieshelle Nagelschneider, author of The Cat Whisperer. So if you know you’re about to meet a cat, try not to show up reeking of other animals.
If you’re really going all-in, you could spray your shoes with a pheromone such as Feliway. These are usually sold as sprays or diffusers to discourage territorial behaviour, but they do this by calming the cat, not irritating it.
Once you get inside the home, avoid blocking any perceived exits, says Galaxy. Cats are territorial and wary, so “they’re looking at the whole room strategically”. You’re trying to classify yourself as an ally instead of a threat. That should dictate all your behaviour around the cat.
Act Like A Cat Hater
Allergic people and spurned cat lovers agree: It feels like cats always head toward the one person who doesn’t want their company. This makes sense, says McNamee, because all the usual moves that cat-lovers make, such as walking toward the cat making kissy noises, are counter-productive.
Here’s how to avoid seeming like a threat:
Don’t look the cat in the eyes. And don’t come straight at it. Wait for the cat to come to you, while you look down at the floor.
Don’t tower over the cat. Slump your shoulders, hands in your lap, or sit down on the floor. “Have the owner sit with you,” says McNamee. “The cat gets the idea that you’re an ally.”
Don’t make noise. Talk very quietly. Keep away noisy kids or dogs.
Don’t thrust your hand out at it. Once a cat gets used to your presence, you want to gently offer it a finger to sniff, but you need to do this stealthily. Don’t point or hold your palm out.
Galaxy recommends a move he calls the “Michelangelo”, where you dangle your hand with a finger hanging out. Your fingertip looks like a cat nose, says Galaxy. “And you can introduce your nose to their nose.” Watch him demonstrate the move:
Don’t rush. Watch for the cat to demonstrate confidence with you, says Galaxy, by walking through the middle of the room or rubbing up against you. Take your time building up to a pet. “You don’t want to pat them on the side or bop them on the top of the head,” says McNamee. Go for the cheeks and behind the ear — spots with glands, where kittens get licked by their mother.
Even when a cat is rubbing up on you, “that isn’t necessarily an invitation to pet them,” says Nagelschneider. If you reach too soon, you can break the cat’s trust.
Don’t give up. “If the cat runs away, you haven’t lost the game, but you’ve lost a round,” says McNamee. Galaxy adds, “In my show, you’ll see my first encounter with these cats seems to go horribly. I can always get them to forgive me.”
Activate Hunter Mode
Nagelschneider suggests a more proactive method: Play with the cat using a wand toy or laser pointer. “It’s a preemptive strategy to keep that fear out of the equation,” she says. “It helps them feel confident and relaxed around you.” You want a confident cat, and not just because that is the cutest thing to imagine. A confident cat isn’t as afraid. “You can trick their little cat brains.”
A wand toy lets the cat keep their distance while interacting with you, especially if you slide it behind couches or in other spots to make the “prey” more realistic. “The one little trick is to trigger what’s called their seeking circuit,” says Nagelschneider.
Galaxy is sceptical of this approach: “Confidence only comes on their terms. There is no way to bypass what their ancestry is telling them to do.” You might try the play method after you’ve established some trust. It doesn’t instantly win over every cat, but I’ve certainly gotten more love from a friend’s cat after giving it some laser pointer action.
You can also go for straight-up bribery. Put a treat on the floor, “maybe three feet out,” says McNamee. Then leave treats closer and closer. Galaxy suggests dropping treats like “pennies from heaven”, again avoiding direct contact that could feel too much like confrontation.
Feeding the cat its normal meal is another great opportunity, says McNamee. “Put the food down in their usual place and then sit next to it.”
Make Your Cat Visitor-Friendly
There’s only so much you can do to win over a new cat. But if you’re a cat owner, there’s a lot you can do to help your cats get along better with visitors.
A treat works better if the cat only gets it for special occasions, says Galaxy. “Nothing wrong with bribery.” In fact, he believes bribery should be more fundamental to treat-giving. “I’m not a fan of just doling out treats for nothing. Food is all we’ve got. They don’t give a rip about making us happy. It’s just not part of their wiring, as opposed to dogs.”
He suggests reserving one “jackpot” treat for guests alone to hand out. Ideally, a visit from a guest should be like a visit from Santa.
As an owner, you can advocate for your cats and give visitors all the advice above. “We feel uncomfortable telling people what to do or what not to do,” says Galaxy, but “it’s OK for you to protect your cat in that respect.”
You don’t want to freak out your friend — if they feel anxious, the cat will read that and get anxious too. You want to help them understand what appeals to your cat. In his book, Galaxy even recommends that guests ignore a cat on the first visit, and wait for later visits to establish trust.
Raise A Friendlier Cat
“Fear is always present” in a cat, says McNamee. “They’re very easily spooked. So if you can arrange their lives so that they don’t get scared, it makes life a lot easier.” That includes taking care of their litter box, their feeding habits, and more that’s explored in all three of these experts’ books.
A lot of cat behaviour is set during its childhood. “There’s a certain way of raising kittens that will give you a much more friendly, domesticated cat,” says McNamee. An under-appreciated study, covered in his book, indicates that kittens handled as early as one or two weeks old (instead of the standard seven weeks) are better socialised as adults. He also recommends that cats stay with their mother for the first 12–16 weeks, instead of being taken away after seven.
Short of breeding cats for friendliness — which McNamee feels would rob them of their appealing wildness — a well-socialised kittenhood is the best way to make a friendly cat. After that, it’s a lot more work for the cat lover.