When we visited relatives in Albuquerque, N.M., a couple of years ago, we received two different receptions from their cats. Lucy struck up a friendship with us right away, but Lilu was more cautious.
Maybe it was the lingering scent of dog clinging to our clothes. By the next morning, though, she sat next to me on the kitchen island while I prepared my tea.
Last month, I visited my mother, who had recently acquired a new cat. Tracy, a pretty but shy lynx-point Siamese, ran as soon as she saw me walk in the door. She continued to do so anytime I made a move. By the next evening, however, she was content to stay in my presence — and even jumped up on my chair and let me pet her.
So, what’s my secret to getting a cat’s attention and trust?
Play hard to get.
That’s right. Ignoring a cat is the quickest way to gain its interest and display your expert-level knowledge of feline etiquette.
Let them come to you
People who dislike cats often wonder why cats seek them out. It’s because cats appreciate people who don’t approach them and instead let cats make the first move.
Dr. Wailani Sung, a veterinary behaviorist at San Francisco SPCA, explains why. She says that while cats are predators of small creatures, they are also prey to larger predators. To protect themselves, they prefer to wait and watch when strangers enter their territory.
“They like to take a step back and assess the newcomer to determine if the person exhibits any threatening body language toward them,” she says.
Feline body language is subtle. While humans consider a direct glance an indication of polite interest, in “felinese” it’s an act of aggression. Reaching toward a cat can seem threatening. So, when I visit a home with cats I haven’t met, I’m careful to avoid eye contact with them. Whenever possible, I take a path through the house that won’t take me near them.
Sweetening the pot
There are a few other things you can do to improve your relations with a new-to-you cat.
When I was staying with my mother, I volunteered to feed her cat, setting down her food bowl when it was mealtime, still careful not to look at her. I refilled her water dish and scooped her litter box. I turned on her favorite plaything, an electronic spinning toy that she enjoyed batting. The next evening, when I was standing by Mom’s recliner, Tracy jumped onto it, seemingly unconcerned by my proximity.
“When the cat decides to come over, I usually stick my index finger out and allow the cat to sniff,” Sung says. “The cat can get my scent and decide if he is going to be friendly or not.”
Cats that decide to be friendly may rub your finger with their cheek. If a cat allows you to pet him, stroke the side of the face, beneath the chin or along the side. Those are the areas cats focus on when they interact physically, greeting each other with nose touches and rubbing with the sides of the face and body. Cats that are still unsure about you may pull back or, if they’re especially uncomfortable, hiss before moving away. Give them more time.
With an especially reluctant cat, it’s rarely a bad idea to offer treats to gain favor, but keep a polite distance.
“Instead of expecting the cat to take the treat from your finger, allow the cat to sniff the treat and then place it on the ground,” Sung says.
Some cats require multiple visits before they become accustomed to your face, not to mention your scent and the sound of your voice.
Be patient, and there’s a good chance that sooner or later they’ll favor you with their attention. But only on their terms, not yours.