Like so many other humans, you might find cats to be mysterious creatures. But believe it or not, it’s not that hard to make friends with a feline if you know what to do. Here are some tips on how to effectively buddy up with a kitty, drawn from scientific studies and my own experience as a researcher and cat behavioral consultant.
1. Let the cat call the shots.
When we see cats, we really want to pet them—but according to two Swiss studies, the best approach is to let kitty make the first move.
Research done in 51 Swiss homes with cats has shown that when humans sit back and wait—and focus on something else, like a good book—a cat is more likely to approach, and less likely to withdraw when people respond. (This preference explains why so many kitties are attracted to people with allergies—because allergic people are usually trying to not pet them.) An older study from 1991 found that interactions last longer and are more positive when the kitty both initiates the activity and decides when it ends. Play a little hard to get, and you might find that they can’t get enough of you.
2. Approach a cat the way they greet each other (sort of).
Felines who are friendly with each other greet each other nose to nose. You can mimic that behavior by offering a non-threatening fingertip at their nose level, a few inches away. Don’t hover, just bend down and gently extend your hand. Many cats will walk up and sniff your finger, and may even rub into it. Now that's a successful greeting.
3. Pet cats where they like it most ...
They're very sensitive to touch, and generally, they tend to like being petted in some places more than others. A small 2002 study demonstrated that cats showed more positive responses—like purring, blinking, and kneading their paws—to petting on the forehead area and the cheeks. They were more likely to react negatively—by hissing, swatting, or swishing their tails—when petted in the tail area. A more recent 2021 study validated these findings with a larger sample size—and many owners can testify to these preferences.
Of course, every animal is an individual, but these studies give us a good starting point, especially if you're meeting a cat for the first time.
4. … and if you get negative feedback, give the cat some space.
There are plenty of signs that a cat doesn't like your actions. These can range from the overt—such as hissing and biting—to the more subtle: flattening their ears, looking at your hand, or twitching their tails. When you get one of those signals, it’s time to back off.
Many of the owners I work with to correct behavioral issues don't retreat when they should, partially because they enjoy the experience of petting their cat so much that they fail to recognize that kitty isn’t enjoying it too. You can’t force a feline to like being handled (this is especially true of feral cats), but when they learn that you’ll respect their terms, the more likely they will be to trust you—and come back for more attention when they're ready.
5. Don't overfeed your cat.
Many think that food equals love, and that withholding food might make your kitty hate you, but a 2016 study of obese felines from Cornell University showed the opposite is true—at least for a period of time. About a month after 58 overweight kitties were placed on a diet, three-quarters of their owners reported that their dieting felines were more affectionate, purred more often, and were more likely to sit in their owner's lap. This adorable behavior came with some not-so-cute side effects—the cats also begged and meowed more—but by week eight, both the good and bad behavior had abated for about half the animals.
Regardless of whether a diet makes your pet cuddlier, keeping your pet on the slender side is a great way to help them stay healthy and ward off problems like diabetes, joint pain, and uncleanliness. (Overweight animals have difficulty grooming themselves—and do you really want them sitting on your lap if they can’t keep their butt clean?)
6. Play with them—a lot.
Most of the behavior problems that I've witnessed stem from boredom and a lack of routine playtime. No one thinks twice about walking their dog every day, but many people fail to recognize that felines are stealth predators who need a regular outlet for that energy. A 2017 study suggested that cats prefer human interaction over food, but a closer look at the data demonstrated that what really attracted them to humans was the presence of an interactive toy. One of their top choices is a wand-style toy with feathers, strings, or other prey-like attachments that evoke predatory behavior. Daily interactive play is a great way to bond with them when they’re not in the mood to cuddle—and will help keep them fit.
7. Keep your cat indoors.
A study conducted in Italy and published in 2013 showed that felines who stayed mostly indoors (they had one hour of supervised access to a small garden each day) were more “in sync” with their owners than felines who were allowed free access to the outdoors. The indoor kitties were more active during the day, when their owners were likely to be active, and less active at night, when humans like to sleep. (Many people believe cats are nocturnal, but they are naturally crepuscular—active at dawn and dusk.)
8. Socialize cats when they're young.
Multiple studies have shown that just a few minutes a day of positive handling by humans helps kittens grow up to be friendlier and more trusting of humans. The ideal age to socialize kittens is when they're between 2 and 9 weeks old. One 2008 study found that shelter kittens that had been given a lot of "enhanced socialization"—additional attention, affection, and play—were, a year later, more affectionate with their owners and less fearful than other kittens adopted from the same shelters.
You can help socialize kittens by volunteering as a foster caretaker. Fostering ensures they get plenty of interaction with people, which will help them will be comfortable around potential adopters. You'll also be doing your local shelter a huge favor by alleviating overcrowding.
9. Take the cat's personality—and your own—into consideration when adopting.
If you want to adopt an older animal, take some time at the shelter to get to know them first, since adopters of adult cats report that personality played a big role in their decision to take an animal home permanently and had an impact on their satisfaction with their new companion. Better yet, foster one first. Shelters can be stressful, so you'll get a better sense of what an animal is really like when they're in your home. Not all cats are socialized well when they're young, so a cat may have their own unique rules about what kinds of interactions they're okay with.
It's also key to remember that a cat's appearance isn't indicative of their personality—and it's not just black cats who get a bad rap. In 2012, I published a study with 189 participants that showed that people were likely to assign personality traits to felines based solely on their fur color. Among other things, they tended to think orange cats would be the nicest and white cats the most aloof. (Needless to say, these are inaccurate assumptions.) And it's not just the kitty's personality that matters—yours is important too. Another study I conducted in 2014 of nearly 1100 pet owners suggested that self-identified “cat people” tend to be more introverted and anxious when compared to dog people. (We’re also more prone to being open-minded and creative, so it’s not all bad.) If you’re outgoing and active, a more playful feline could be for you. If you prefer nights spent snuggling on the couch, a mellow, shy-but-sweet lovebug could be your perfect pet.
10. Be a keen observer of their behavior.
Overall, use your common sense. Be a diligent and objective observer of how they respond to your actions. Feline body language can be subtle—something as small as an eye-blink can indicate contentment, while ear twitches might signal irritation—but as you learn their cues, you'll find yourself much more in tune with how they're feeling. And if you adjust your behaviors accordingly, you'll find soon enough that you've earned a cat's trust.
Mikel Delgado received her Ph.D. at UC-Berkeley in psychology studying animal behavior and human-pet relationships. She's a researcher at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and co-founder of the cat behavior consulting company Feline Minds.
This article was originally published in 2018. It has been updated for 2022.