Why doesn’t my cat like me? Six ways to put your pet at ease
“Most cats prefer interactions to be on their own terms.”
Cats are unfathomable creatures, even to the human owners who know them best. That’s because cats display affection and communicate in different ways than humans — we don’t all do a slow-blink when we want to tell someone we tolerate them, after all.
This mismatch in communication can sometimes make it hard to bond with your cat or get acquainted with a new feline but fear not. Inverse asked three different pet experts to get their science-backed tips on the best ways to win your cat’s affection and learn their love languages.
How can you get a cat to like you?
Each of our experts hit on several different ways to get to know your cat better, and in turn, get them to like you more, too. Spoiler: Most of these strategies revolve around ceding control of the situation over to your cat.
1. Provide a sense of control
“Providing a cat a sense of choice and control can help bolster your relationship together,” Katherine Pankratz, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, tells Inverse.
“Most cats prefer interactions to be on their own terms.”
In other words: let the cat decide when and how it will interact with you.
Pankratz adds that some cats prefer to play “hard to get” and want you to ignore them, allowing them to approach you of their own will. It’s their way of building affection.
Mikel Delgado agrees that giving cats ownership over interactions is crucial.
“I’d say the biggest mistake that most of us make is wanting to handle our cats more than they want to be handled,” Delgado says.
Delgado is a cat expert at Feline Minds. As a feline expert, Delgado also stresses “cats are much more sensitive to touch than we are, and can overstimulate quickly.”
2. Let the cat choose
If you’re unsure whether your cat is OK with something you’re doing, just stop and take a step back.
“Oftentimes, it can be helpful to intermittently perform a "consent test" by stopping the interaction, giving the cat space, and seeing what they do next,” Pankratz says.
One of two things will typically occur at this point.
- The cat stays still or walks away, indicating the end of the interaction.
- The cat approaches, rubs up against you, meows, or makes other gestures that indicate they want to continue interacting with you.
“It's often best to ‘leave the cat wanting more’ than to carry on an interaction with a cat longer than the cat may want to interact,” Pankratz says.
3. Appear less threatening
Delgado suggests a few ways you can help keep your cat open to interactions by appearing less threatening:
- Get down on the cat’s level and gently extend a hand.
- If the cat rubs your hand, that’s a good indication it may be open to petting.
- Pay attention to signs of irritation and give the cat a break if you observe them. Signs include: tail swishing, a cranky meow, or a quick head turn to stare at your hand
- Let them sit next to you without pets, or try playing with them with an interactive toy as an alternative to cuddles.
4. Maintain predictability
DeVoss stresses that predictability is key to avoiding making cats feel insecure in their surroundings. Try to create a low-stress environment and avoid creating sudden noises in your home.
“Cats really dislike change so keeping a routine and ritualistic schedule is very important when trying to build trust with a cat,” DeVoss says.
Pankratz agrees. “Avoiding speaking loudly or [making] large movements or gestures can help you appear more predictable” and make it more comfortable for cats to interact with you
5. Understand a cat’s likes
Ultimately, paying attention to what your cat likes and their body language — just like you would do for a human friend — is the best way to grow closer to your feline.
“If the cat you're wanting to interact with has certain things they enjoy, such as brushing, playing or treats, you can offer them the thing they enjoy,” Pankratz says.
6. Feed and play regularly
“Feeding is the most important opportunity to bond with your cat,” DeVoss adds.
DeVoss suggests feeding a cat “multiple small meals a day” so they associate you with food (which is, perhaps, surprisingly, a good thing!).
Also, make sure to prey play with your cat using expert-approved gestures and toys that mimic the sensation cats get when hunting for prey in the wild.
“Cats in the wild will spend upwards of six hours a day hunting, so when we keep them indoors, they get pent-up energy that needs to be diffused through a hunting simulation play sequence,” DeVoss says.
When all else fails: follow the science. A 2021 study finds there are three best approaches or CAT guidelines humans should follow to increase the chance of better interactions with cats.
C - Provide the cat choice and control
A - Pay attention to cats' behavior and body language
T - Limit touch to their temporal (head and neck) regions
Oh, and limit petting to when the cat wants it — not when you desire to pet them. The study’s lead author who specializes in cat behavior and welfare, Lauren R. Finka, said in an interview with Phys.org:
"The results demonstrate a clear preference amongst cats for a more 'hands off' approach to petting, which ultimately lets them call most of the shots," Finka said.
How should you approach a strange cat?
While you probably feel comfortable approaching your own cat, it’s harder to get acquainted with an unfamiliar feline, like your friend’s tabby or the neighbor’s Siamese cat. But it’s far from impossible, according to experts.
DeVos offers a five-step process for getting familiarized with strange cats:
- Extend your knuckle for the cat to smell.
- Allow the cat to “pet himself” by rubbing into your hand.
- Keep your hand low; don’t reach over the cat’s head.
- Proceed at the cat’s pace.
- If you see any signs of discomfort, withdraw your hand and let the cat dictate what proximity to you is comfortable.
How do cats show love?
We wrote an entire article on how to know whether or not your cat “loves” you, so check that out here.
But here’s a quick primer on some of the basic ways cats display signs of affection, also known as “affiliative behaviors.”
“Cats are more comfortable around things that smell like them,” DeVos says. “Rubbing their cheeks on you is scenting you with a pheromone that smells like them.”
A common body posture is bunting, which occurs when a cat “approaches and rubs their head against an object — in this case, likely against a person's leg,” Pankratz says.
She adds, “They may continue the interaction by rubbing their body against you and wrap their tail around you.”
Grooming, sleeping in close contact, and licking
“Some cats may lick people or sleep in contact next to or on a person,” Pankratz.
She also mentions that cats will often groom other cats — known as allogrooming — as a way to get to know them.
Cats will also display other gestures, such as turning their rear end toward you as a show of love and vulnerability, DeVos explains.
Delgado mentions that slow blinking is often a sign of feline affection.
“Other cats will greet you with a chirp, by stretching and scratching a post, or by showing their belly,” Delgado says, though you shouldn’t take that as an automatic cue to rub their belly.
Some cats are more explicit when it comes to conveying emotion and may jump in your lap or meow for attention, Delgado explains.
Are cats happy when they purr?
The expert consensus: purring cats are often happy creatures, but not always.
Pankratz says that while purring is often an indication of cat contentment, it can also be a common way for cats to self-soothe when stressed.
Pay attention not just to a cat’s purring, but to other body language cues to get a better read on whether your cat is purring because they’re pleased — or displeased — with your actions.
“Purring can certainly mean a cat is relaxed and comfortable, but purring can also mean a cat is in pain, so evaluate with the whole body language in perspective.”
Which cats are the most affectionate?
You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you also can’t judge a cat by its breed. Well, not completely.
“Personally, I find orange male cats to be more laid back, confident and affectionate – however, that is purely anecdotal from handling thousands of cats in shelters,” DeVoss says.
There are some scientific studies that explore the connection between cat breed and personality. A quick summary of the studies’ findings:
- A 2016 study finds that Abyssinians and Tonkinese cats display greater sociability toward people
- A 2019 study finds British Shorthair cats were least likely to seek out human contact, while Korat and Devon Rex cats were the most likely to seek out human contact.
- A 2021 study finds Korat, Oriental breeds (Siamese, Balinese), and Abyssinian more social than British, Sacred Birman, European Persian, and Exotic, but that’s subjective and dependent on how the researchers define sociability.
Some contradictory evidence: While previous research ranked Persian cats as less sociable, the 2019 study found they were most likely to seek out human contact — but only when researchers compare breeds that have been previously studied for sociability.
The 2019 study also determined Abyssinian and Oriental cats were more likely to initiate human contact, contradicting previous research. On the whole, scientific evidence is somewhat mixed when it comes to determining affection by breed.
“The impact of breed on behavior has not been as extensively explored in the domestic cat compared to domestic dogs,” Pankratz says.
Delgado adds: “The general thought is that breeds are more similar to each other than different.”
Experts say that other factors, like a cat’s prior history with people, can be more influential than breed or genetics in determining their behavior.
“There are different reasons that cats may or may not be cuddly, including how they were socialized as a kitten and how comfortable they are in their current living environment,” Delgado says.
DeVoss adds, “For instance, a kitten that has experienced abuse, neglect or trauma might not be as social as a cat who developed in reliable, comfortable surroundings.”
At the end of the day, each cat needs to be treated as an individual with its own unique personality and naturally shifting affections — just like any human.
“Rather than judge, allow them to show you love however works for them, and do your best to make them happy,” Delgado says.