No matter what type of cat you have or what her personality is like, mutual trust in each other must be learned so that you can both enjoy a happy, healthy, relationship. Whether your cat is shy or fearful, bold or aggressive, there are things you should do to foster her confidence and faith in you. It’s much easier to build your cat’s trust from the get-go then to try to re-build it after you’ve broken it; however, cats are often forgiving creatures and they don’t hold grudges (and they never act out of revenge or spite – cat’s just don’t think that way). With time, you can improve (or repair) the relationship with your cat to one of comfort, ease, and predictability. Here are a few things to keep in mind when trying to build your cat’s trust:
- Respect your cat’s space. Your cat will need some time to settle in if she’s new to the home; some take longer than others to do this. Let your cat find comfortable spots to hang out, and don’t invade those spaces. This general rule will continue even after she becomes comfortable in her home. Cats enjoy their independence and will let you know when they would like your attention (or give you clues as to when they don’t want it, if you are a space-invader!).
- Observe body language. Your cat will communicate first and foremost with her body language (see cartoon below). Respect what she is telling you. Is she crouched away from you or is her body oriented towards you and more welcoming? Is she flicking her tail as a sign of annoyance, or is it relaxed? Pay attention to her ear positions, how wide her eyes are, and body position.
- Let your cat come to you. Don’t force a friendship – let your cat decide how comfortable she is and when she wants to interact with you (although you can do some things to encourage interactions, see below). Cats learn a lot just through observation, so even though you may not be directly interacting with her, she’s learning a lot about you if she’s simply watching you from a window perch or the couch. Let her watch and learn about your movements, smells, and sounds!
- Learn your cat’s limits to being touched. Take a gradual approach to learning where and how your cat likes to be touched. Never poke or tease when attempting to touch or pet your cat; always use predictable movements. Be aware of her body language to learn where and how your cat likes to be stroked or petted. If your cat has petting aggression, try to limit petting sessions both in terms of where you pet her and for how long.
- Give your cat choices and respect the choice she ends up making. Whether it’s a place to nap or perch, or an opportunity to play (or not), letting your cat decide what she wants to do will build her confidence and help her learn that you are not going to force her to do anything. Cats become stressed when they have no control over their environment (that’s one reason why animal shelters can be so difficult for them), and enjoy having choices about when, what, where, how, and who to interact with. It’s no fun when someone constantly tries to control what you’re doing, so why would your cat enjoy that?
- Be predictable. Try to move and speak in ways that won’t surprise or startle your cat. Don’t lunge suddenly or stomp on the floor, and try to keep a steady, calm voice. This applies to all times, not just when you’re directly interacting with your cat. It can be difficult if you have children or other pets (DOGS) in the house, but if you have a shy kitty, this could be important. Some cats are very easy-going and don’t really care what’s going on around them and can pretty much nap through anything. But with a more sensitive kitty, this is a good opportunity to teach children about empathy and the needs of others.
- Decide how to make each interaction a positive one for your cat. You have control over whether or not the interactions you have with your cat will be positive or negative. Play-time can be really fun for both of you, for example, but be careful – what you might think is playing might be interpreted as aggressive teasing or taunting by your cat. Always use toys to play, and let her catch the toy occasionally. Before interacting with a particularly sensitive cat, really try to think about what you can do to make that interaction positive so that you build your cat’s trust. Take every opportunity you can to create a positive association with you!
- Use positive reinforcement to reward positive interactions. You can use treats, a soothing voice, play, or even petting (if she likes it) to reward any good behavior. Further, you can use any of these things to encourage your kitty to do something (like coming out of a hiding spot, for example)…but respect her decision to not do something as well (just don’t provide the reward). Positive reinforcement, given consistently, can be a great way to build your cat’s trust and communicate that she’s done something good. It’s also a great way to train your cat to do anything, including tricks…your kitty will appreciate the mental stimulation, and it will give you another great way to bond with her.
Here’s a graphic that I love, from Catsu. Perhaps it will help you interpret some of your kitty’s body language in terms of her levels of trust!