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- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Whether you’re a new cat parent, fostering a cat in need, or just looking to improve the bond with your furry roommate, anyone interacting with a cat wants to know how to earn their trust. Some common ways to get a cat to trust you include learning to read a cat’s body language, letting your cat sniff you, and minimizing stressors whenever possible. Earning a cat’s trust doesn’t have to be hard, but it can require patience.
“I like to say that cats don’t see species,” says Linda Hall, co-founder of Cat Behavior Alliance and a certified cat behaviorist who helps new cat parents and experienced ones build better bonds with feline friends.
Instead, she likes to tell cat parents that cats put other animals and people into three categories: “You are a predator—you’re going to eat me. You’re prey—I’m going to eat you. Or you’re part of my social structure, my family.”
If you’ve recently adopted a cat or want to be best buds with the stray down the street, it takes time for cats to figure out which category you fit into. The category you are in can determine whether a cat will trust you within a day, a week, or a month. “They need to sit back and observe you, decide, and build their trust,” Hall says. “They need to be in charge of the interactions.”
Let’s look at a comprehensive list of ways to get your cat to trust you.
1. Let Your Cat Sniff You
To introduce yourself to a new or shy cat, sit down and let the cat come to you and sniff as they please. Cats use scent to say hello. They have tiny scent receptors all over their body that release pheromones, or chemicals that communicate friendly greetings and swap information between cats.
But don’t move too quickly into more interactions other than friendly scent swapping, like picking the cat up. “When you pick a cat up, you’ve just killed all of their defenses,” Hall explains. “Of course, he’s not happy with this, it’s something you have to work up to. Everything must be a cat’s choice.”
2. Use Calming Pheromones
Pheromones are chemical signals produced naturally by cats to communicate. When cats rub their faces against you, they release pheromones that mark you as safe and trustworthy. Hall doesn’t recommend using pheromones with new kittens since they don’t tend to have a strong you might eat me reaction—with one exception.
“Kittens are more moldable and are usually easier to assimilate. Unless they are or were feral,” she says.
So, if you’re hoping to become part of the social structure of a feral, stray, or shy cat, try a plug-in pheromone diffuser or spray the calming pheromones directly onto your hands. The chemicals will work the same way a cat’s natural pheromones work.
3. Frequently Speak In A Calm & Soothing Voice
The more you talk to a cat, the more likely they are to recognize you and associate you with positive outcomes. Cats might not understand exactly what we’re saying, but they can recognize familiar voices and associate tones with positive or negative behaviors. This is especially true if you talk to a cat while feeding them, playing with them, and cuddling.
What you say doesn’t really matter. Read them your emails or read them this article—just aim for a soft, soothing tone!
When you’re not home to talk to your cat, research suggests playing species-appropriate music to destress and soothe scared cats — aka music for cats that uses the frequency range and similar tempos that cats use in cat-to-cat communication.
4. Establish A Routine
Cats crave predictability, and you can help a new or shy cat settle into their home and trust you by creating a reliable routine. That means setting a feeding schedule, playing with your cat around the same time each day, and cuddling or grooming them around the same time each day.
If you’ve befriended a stray, you might be surprised to find your new friend waiting for you when you visit and feed them on a set schedule.
“Routine is so important to cats,” says Samantha Bell, a cat enrichment and behavioral specialist at Best Friends Animal Society. “Providing an activity that they love on a consistent basis will help them feel so secure in their lives.” When a regular schedule isn’t feasible, consider using an automatic pet feeder or hiring a pet sitter to help out.
5. Minimize Any Stressors
One of the best ways to begin the trust-building journey with your cat is to remove any possible stressors. When bringing a new cat or kitten home, start them out in a small room. Without a big, overwhelming space, you and your cat can focus on getting to know one another. Choose a room that doesn’t have startling appliances and if there are other pets in the house, keep them separate until your cat is comfortable enough for a slow introduction.
But building trust through a calming environment isn’t just about removing stressors. Providing your cat with basic needs like scratching posts, cat trees, and appropriate litter boxes will all reduce a cat’s stress and anxiety. If you suspect your cat IS stressed or anxious, it’s important to look out for the following symptoms or body language signs including:
- Ears pointed back
- Wide eyes and dilated pupils
- A crouched, tight body posture
- Aggression, such as scratching, biting, or hissing
6. Utilize Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement isn’t just a useful tool for modifying behaviors and training cats, it also creates a wonderful bond between you and your cat, says Bell. Positive reinforcement helps to build trust and bonds between cats and their humans by making you the bearer of fun and rewards. It builds confidence in timid cats and encourages cats to try new things with their trusted human.
“With positive reinforcement, you’re giving your cat control,” she explains. “When you see them do a behavior you like, you reward them. When you see them do a behavior you don’t like, you create a better, alternative behavior and reward them for this.” Rewards can be anything your cat finds enjoyable—treats, play, verbal praise, or affection.
7. Respect Their “No Touch” Areas
You’ve earned enough trust that your cat is signaling they would like to be pet—now what? Start with the areas we know cats love to be pet, like their cheeks, head, and under their chin. By letting a cat come to you, they’ll likely direct you to those areas by bunting you with their head and rubbing your hand with their cheeks.
When they really start to feel the love and trust you, a cat might even roll over and show you the most vulnerable part of their body—the belly. But don’t be fooled. The stomach, limbs, and tail are all vulnerable areas where most cats don’t enjoy being petted.
8. Slow Blink Or Squint At Your Cat
When a cat feels safe and trusts their environment (including you), they’ll relax their eyes, slowly closing them or squinting. Send your cat the same signals by sitting near them, squinting, and slowly closing your eyes. Also called squinty eyes or the slow blink, this cat communication is sure to send positive vibes to any cat.
9. Play With Them Often
Playtime is essential for getting a cat to bond with and trust you. “Play really bonds you together and makes you friends,” Hall says. If your cat is skittish or timid, use a fishing pole-type toy or a wand toy for play. “You’re a distance away, so the cat knows they’re safe but still interacting with you,” she explains.
10. Provide A Safe Space For Your Cat
Just as important as scratching posts and cat trees, cats should all have a safe place they can call their own and retreat to when they need it. Giving your cats space is an important pillar of building trust. “Hiding is a major coping mechanism for stress in cats,” explains Dr. Julie Liu, DVM, Elite Fear Free Certified Professional, and Cat-Friendly Veterinarian. “So, provide additional hiding options throughout the house, like cubbyholes.”
Even well-adjusted cats will choose a quiet escape now and again, and that’s completely normal. But if your cat is hiding for more than a day, is lethargic, has a loss of appetite, or is sleeping more than usual, then it’s a good idea to check in with your veterinarian and feline behavioral specialist since cats are notoriously good at hiding when they’re ill.
How Do Cats Show They Trust You?
After some time following these tips, you should see changes in your cat’s behavior—but you might still be wondering if you’ve earned your cat’s trust. The signs of love and trust in cats can be subtle and surprising. But once you learn the ways a cat says I love and trust you, we think you’ll feel all warm and fuzzy.
Signs a cat trusts you include:
- Squinting or closing their eyes at you
- Head bunting you
- Rubbing their checks on you
- Grooming or licking you
- Lounging next to you
- Sitting on you
- Sitting with their back to you
- They show you their butt
- Exposing their belly
- Sleeping with or on you
- Rubbing against your legs
- Making biscuits on or near you
- Playing with you
- They bring you toys or other gifts
- Responding positively to your voice
- They follow you around the house
- They have a happy tail and body language
How Long Does It Take Cats To Trust You?
According to Dr. Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior expert and consultant at Feline Minds, a cat’s critical socialization period is between two and seven weeks of age. It’s important that during this time, a kitten is socialized with littermates and humans. They’ll learn to play, be handled, and experience stimuli that will spark curiosity rather than fear.
Whether a kitten is in the shelter system or born into a feral colony, their experience during this stage will play a huge role in how long it takes to trust new humans or environments. Depending on their upbringing, it may take days, weeks, or months for a newly-befriended cat to trust you.
Bonding with cats can occur naturally through feeding and daily interactions, but some cats need a little extra attention and time to feel safe. And keep an open mind about how cats might show trust. Some cats are lap cats, while others prefer to slow blink at you from the recliner across the room. With time, we bet that you won’t just gain the trust of your cat, but you might even become their favorite person.