4 steps to build trust with your Cat

Author: Chris O’Neil, Founder, Catology – Cat Behaviour Solutions

A cat – human relationship can be extremely rewarding.  In fact, many studies show that pet ownership has lots of beneficial health effects – everything from lower blood pressure, stress reduction and longevity, not to mention the positive mental health effects!

To get the most benefit out of your relationship with your cat, you have to make sure that she trusts you! I have many cat guardians tell me that they love their cat but it seems their cat doesn’t love them – she avoids them!  The owner then feels they need to force their love on their cat to make them “understand” their feelings!

The world and mind of a cat can be a fragile one.  This forced love doesn’t get received the way it was intended!  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  A forced cuddle or getting picked up when she doesn’t want it, will only make your cat learn to avoid you – especially when you’ve got that look in your eyes!

Sometimes, there may already have been a warm, trusting relationship, but something happened that the cat mis-interpreted, which has caused some mistrust.  This may be something as innocent as accidentally stepping on her or hurting her in another way.  It will be very important after this to rebuild that trusting bond.

Either way, the trust-formula is the same.  It’s all about understanding, respect and keen observation.

I like to joke with cat owners that a dog HAS to love their owner, almost by default.  Their owner is the most important thing in their life!

Then I explain that a cat is different.  It’s not written in the cat rulebook that they have to love you!  In my eyes, this is what makes a bond with a cat more rewarding in some ways, because you have to “work at it”, like a human – human relationship.

So, how do we build trust with our cat?  Here are a few pointers:

1) Learn about and respect your cat’s body language

Cats are often telling you how they feel.  You just have to listen (watch).  Body language is used extensively in the world of cats, and if you ignore it, your cat may feel wary around you. 

Cat body language is a long topic and can’t be covered in this blog post.  I will write one in the future, but feel free to use your google skills in the meantime!

For example, if you’re on the couch and your cat comes and curls up near you, it doesn’t necessarily mean she wants a pat.  If you pat her, and her tail starts lashing and her ears go back, you need to stop!  This is her telling you that she wanted to be near you but she didn’t want any physical contact right now! 

Also, a cat laying in the ray of sunlight coming through the window doesn’t necessarily want to be picked up and cuddled either.  She will tell you when she wants interaction. 

Which brings me to the next point:

2) Let her tell you when she wants to interact

This is a big one.  Often, we force our interactions on our cats, even when they don’t want it.  Think about it – your cat is calmly relaxing on top of the couch, and you decide that you want a kitty-cuddle!  So you head over, pick her up and wrap your arms around her.  In her mind, you’ve just disturbed her from her nap, and will probably decide it’s safer to nap further away from you next time!

Instead, let her interact when she’s ready.  This means keeping your hands away from her unless she approaches you!  And even when she does approach, put your hand gently towards her nose and let her sniff.  If she sniffs, and then rubs up against your hand, she’s in the mood for a pat!  If she sniffs and walks away, she wasn’t coming to you for a pat.  Easy.

3) Respect her space

In the same vein as the above point, you need to respect her space.  Don’t invade it unless you need to. 

Your cat may have a favourite spot she likes to sleep, or perhaps likes to perch herself and observe the world from the top of her cat tree.  Let her have this as her own.  Don’t pick her up, pat her, or annoy her in any way while she’s there.  As she learns that you respect her space (and let her define the interaction as discussed in the previous point), she will trust you far more and likely feel comfortable being around you!

See, this is one of the concerns I get from attention-starved cat owners – “If I don’t force my love, I’ll never get any!”.  Often the opposite is true – once your cat learns to trust you not to “accost” her, she will likely want to spend more time in your company!  Especially if you…

4) Make interactions positive

With the above points, it’s all about your cat learning that your respect her.  The other half of the equation is to ensure that when she does approach and want your lovin’, good things happen!

Firstly, you need to understand where she like (or more importantly, doesn’t like) to be pat.  Most cats don’t like being touched on the belly or legs.  It’s far safer to focus your patting attention on and around her head and neck.  Note: some cats appear to be comfortable with belly scratches but this is usually a result of extensive human handling and conditioning from a young age.

Secondly, don’t pat for too long.  Petting-induced aggression is a thing, and it usually caused by patting the wrong location or patting for too long.  Learn your cat’s threshold, and don’t pass it.  If after 10 seconds of patting, she shows signs of discomfort (tail wagging, back skin twitching, ears back etc), just stop and let her lie there next to you.  She may just want to be near you without being pat (which is a sign of affection in itself).

Lastly, use treats to your advantage.  Food is a primary reinforcer for animals and some tasty treats will help associate you with good things!

Randomly throughout the day, just grab a treat or two and call your cat over.  Over time, you be will automatically seen as a good thing, especially if you respect her space and interactions as discussed in the previous points!

There you go, the formula to building trust.  It’s all about respect and positive associations.  The more she can consistently depend on you to respect her boundaries, the more she will trust you, making it more likely she will be comfortable being around you (especially if there are some tasty treats involved!).