It’s no fun owning a pet cat if it doesn’t like you. But how can you make a cat like you, particularly if it’s scared of you, and even runs away when you get close?
How do you get a cat to trust you? Learn its body language so you can tell when it’s happy to be around you, and when you should leave it alone. Respect its space if it wants to be left alone, and let it come to you for interaction rather than chasing it around. Don’t push your cat to do things it doesn’t want to do, and move slowly and predictably in its presence. Remove stressors like other pets, loud TVs or radios, and frequent interactions with children/strangers to calm it down. With all these boxes ticked, spend as much time with your cat as possible for it to build up its trust in you.
The guide below first details why your cat doesn’t like you (e.g. mistreatment, bad previous experiences, and negative emotional reactions). It will also look at the signs your cat trusts you, and how to make a cat love you step by step, whether the cat is yours or somebody else’s.
Why Does My Cat Not Like Me?
The first step in identifying why your cat doesn’t like you is to check whether it dislikes you, or whether it’s just being a cat.
That might sound silly. But if you don’t have much experience with cats, you might not know how standoffish they can be. Some cats are cuddly and enjoy human company; some will come to see you when you get home; some will get sad when you’re away. Others seem like they couldn’t care less about their owners, and that’s perfectly normal.
The crux of the issue is that cats are solitary creatures. Everybody’s familiar with lions and prides, but lions are actually the exception rather than the rule. Other species of cat, including those that domestic cats are descended from, are all solitary: they don’t spend time with other cats in the wild, let alone people. And while cats have been kept as pets for a long time now, they haven’t been as broadly domesticated as dogs have been, meaning they haven’t learned to be trusting and loving quite yet. So, the reason your cat might not like you is simply its personality.
But that’s not the only reason.
Mistreatment, either on purpose or by accident, will teach a cat not to like a person. That can mean shouting at the cat, hitting it, or not feeding it regularly. These things will both make your cat unhappy, and teach it not to trust people… Particularly you! Mistreatment earlier in the cat’s life, before you came to own it, can also have this effect.
Cats Have Emotions Too
Cats can have emotional reactions to things just like we can. This is something that has been studied extensively, because of course, problem behaviors in cats are important to many people. This particular paper, published in the Journal of Feline Medical Surgery, has this to say:
Crucial to successful treatment of problem behaviour and optimising the welfare of the individual cat is determining which underpinning emotion(s) are involved in the presentation of the behaviour. Feline emotions are not feelings per se, but motivational-emotional systems that are responsible for instinctual emotional arousal.
In plain English, cats have emotional responses to different stimuli like we do. These may not have the same depth or complexity as ours, but they exist all the same, and they spur the cat to behave in certain ways. So if your cat is stressed, unhappy, nervous or mistreated then it may experience these emotions—just like you might. There are all sorts of reasons your cat might feel this way, from the introduction of a new cat, to residual fear from mistreatment early in the cat’s life.
Do Cats Experience Trauma from ‘Childhood’?
The period of life from birth until adulthood is critical in all mammals, cats included. It’s during this time that the cat develops both physically and mentally, and the cat’s quality of life during this time has a significant effect on it in adulthood.
According to the book The Welfare of Cats, the most sensitive period of social learning in a cat’s entire life is between two and seven weeks of age. It’s during this time that the kitten learns how to play and fight with other cats, how to express its emotions of anger or happiness, and whether certain things in its environment are threats. If a kitten is mistreated by people during this critical stage, it will grow up distrustful of people; if it is treated well, it should grow up to be friendly. As such, the reason your cat doesn’t like you could stem from this period of development.
How Can I Bond with My Cat? [Step by Step]
So, if it’s clear from the section above that your cat doesn’t like you, don’t worry. It is possible to bond with a troublesome cat. It’s easiest to bond with a cat when it’s a kitten, as this is when it learns what to expect from people: are people friendly or frightening? Are they helpful or more likely to hit?
Once your cat is fully grown, it’s difficult to overcome this. But it can be done, either to an extent, or over a long period of time.
1) Learn Cat Body Language
Bonding with your cat is a learning process. You have to learn what your cat likes and doesn’t like, what it enjoys and what it doesn’t enjoy, and how much interaction it wants to have with you. Since your cat can’t talk—at least in a human language!—that means learning what cat body language means. The scientific paper from the Journal of Feline Medical Surgery put it like this:
Identifying different emotional motivations and the arousal level associated with them solely from observations of behaviour and body language is a difficult task because, as with any species, the behavioural repertoire of the domestic cat is finite and the same behaviour may occur with the activation of different emotional systems. In addition, cats, like people, may experience more than one emotion at the same time or switch quickly between emotional motivations, and this further complicates identification. The behavioural assessment of pain is also notoriously difficult in cats.
In other words, don’t beat yourself up that you haven’t figured it out yet. Reading cats is difficult. But there are a few basic signs that your cat is happy or unhappy that even a novice can spot:
- If your cat comes towards you with its tail up, it’s greeting you. You’ll often see this when you come home, or just when your cat wants to grab your attention. Respond positively, as this will encourage this behavior.
- If your cats rubs up against furniture, this is its way of spreading its scent around. There’s no need to interpret this behavior negatively: cats typically do this if they smell something unfamiliar, e.g. if you’ve just come home from somewhere, or if the window’s open and it can smell something outside. Leave your cat to do what it’s doing.
- If your cat rolls on its belly, this shows that it trusts you. This is a behavior learnt from the wild, as when cats interact, they have to show that they trust each other somehow; your cat shows its belly because it’s saying ‘I don’t mind being vulnerable around you’. Crucially, though, this isn’t necessarily a request for you to rub its belly.
- Purring is obviously a good sign. It means that your cat is comfortable and feels secure. Hissing, yowling, lashing out and running away all mean the opposite.
When your cat displays positive body language, interact with it positively where possible. When it displays negative body language, leave it alone. Simple!
Cats also use vocal communication from purring to yowling, hissing and regular meowing. According to the Journal of Veterinary Sciences:
Cats vocalize to communicate with one another and to express their internal states. The vocal repertoire of the cat is wide and up to 21 different vocalizations have been described in the literature. But it is more than probable that this repertoire contains more types of vocalizations [as yet not defined] … One particularity of the domestic cat is that it has been described as having a more developed and complex vocal repertoire than any other member of the carnivora and is even more vocal than its wild counterpart, the Felis silvestris lybica.
So, there are all sorts of noises your cat might make, but a few are most important here. You’re already familiar with purring, hissing and sudden spitting sounds. One you may not know is the basic yowl, which cats use to respond to mild threats. This yowl is a ‘long, drawn-out vocalization of variable pitch, intensity, duration and tonality’. It sounds a little like ‘yrrr…RRRR…rrrr!’ and will carry on for as long as your cat feels irritated or slightly threatened. You’ll hear it often if your cat doesn’t like you yet and you spend time around it, particularly touching it.
2) Keep Calm & Maintain Positive Body Language
We’re not done with body language just yet! You can understand your cat’s body language and behave accordingly, but your cat can also understand your body language to an extent. The simplest example is either making your body look big, or making it look small. If you stand up as tall as you can and puff out your chest, your cat might think you look like a threat, but if you hunch over and offer your hand for it to sniff, it will think you’re less of one. The basics of positive body language are:
- Don’t stare your cat down. Cats don’t like being stared at, as they perceive it as a threat.
- Don’t bare your teeth at your cat. Animals show their teeth to each other as a threat—“Look how big my fangs are!” Why you would do this is a mystery, anyway.
- Move slowly. This one should be obvious. If you launch yourself at your cat and grab it, you’ll scare it. If you show it that you’re moving toward it, reach your hand out slowly, and respect its decision to come closer or move away, it will be less afraid. There’s no need to rush.
- Be predictable. Don’t get wacky and wave your arms around. You want your cat to know what you’ll do next (e.g. stroke it, move towards it slowly, move away, etc.) The more your cat understands your behavior, the more comfortable it will be with you.
Key to all of this is to stay calm and in control. If you get irritated or even angry if your cat shows that it doesn’t want to spend time with you, it will learn to avoid you all the more.
3) Let Your Cat Approach You
This is a common mistake pet owners make, and not just with cats.
It’s all to easy if your cat doesn’t like you to try and force the issue. If it reacts negatively to your initial interaction, you might walk after it and offer your hand to it again, as if to say “No, really: it’s OK! I’m not going to hurt you!” It feels like you’re doing the right thing, helping your cat understand that you’re not a threat. But following your cat when it indicates that it doesn’t want to be around you will backfire.
The problem is that you are a genuine threat to your cat’s wellbeing. That’s nothing personal, it’s just a fact of the pet-and-owner relationship. You are a hundred times the size of your cat and twenty times the weight. Imagine you’re in a similar situation to your cat: a 100ft tall creature you can’t understand is reaching out to touch you, or maybe pick you up. Perhaps you’ve had a previous negative experience with this creature or another like it, where one raised its voice, picked you up roughly, or scared you on purpose. You’d probably want to get away too!
If you want to spend time with your cat, then, let it approach you when it’s ready. It may not be ready straight away, and that’s something you have to accept. But as it comes to understand that you aren’t going to hurt or scare it, it will approach you more and more.
4) Positive Reinforcement with Treats
Treats aren’t just treats, they’re tools. You can use treats to teach your cat things. The idea is to use treats in the context of positive reinforcement.
There are two kinds of reinforcement in psychology: positive and negative. Positive reinforcement is to give something when a desired behavior is expressed, while negative reinforcement is to remove something when the desired behavior is expressed. That might be awkward to understand, but it’s the basic idea of the carrot and the stick: offering something as a reward, or using punishment as motivation. Studies show time after time that positive reinforcement works very well when training pets.
To positively reinforce your cat’s behavior, use treats. When your cat approaches you for the first time, offer it a treat. When it lets you rub its tummy for the first time, give it another. That doesn’t mean giving your cat treats every time it shows these behaviors; what happens is that your cat will eventually associate the performance of the positive behavior with positive feeling, even once the reward is taken away. But even cupboard-love is better than your cat mistrusting, even hating you.
5) Respect Your Cat’s Space
This last step is the most important of them all. To build a happy relationship with any pet, you have to respect its space and its desires. If you don’t, then you may as well give up now.
Respecting your cat’s space is like respecting somebody’s wishes when they say “No”. Let’s work with an example: you come home, and your cat doesn’t approach you. Because you want it to learn that you’re friendly, you go over to say hello to your cat and give it a quick scritch behind its ear. When you approach, it doesn’t respond positively. It freezes, and makes a low growling or yowling sound when you scritch it. It clearly doesn’t want you to interact with it.
There are two schools of thought here. On the one hand, you don’t want to upset your cat. If you force the issue, it won’t start to enjoy what you’re doing. But at the same time, you don’t want to teach your cat that it should yowl, growl and hiss to get you to leave it alone. Overall, it’s best to respect your cat’s boundaries and then learn what it doesn’t like for next time. And, as above, let your cat approach you when it feels like it.
Aside from that, use common sense. Don’t lash out at your cat if it doesn’t want to interact with you. If it never approaches you or wants to spend time with you, that may just be your cat’s personality, and there’s no changing that.
How to Get Someone Else’s Cat to Like You
Getting your own cat to like you is easier than getting somebody else’s cat to like you.
You can start by using the steps above, one by one. These won’t make it instantly love you, but they are better than nothing. In particular, respect the cat’s space: don’t chase it around and make it uncomfortable. Chasing reminds the cat of what a predator might do to try and catch it (because while cats are predators, that doesn’t mean they can’t be prey, too).
If it’s very important for you to have this cat like you, spend as much time around it as possible. The fact that you’re a stranger to it makes it trust you much less, so the more time you spend at your friend’s house or near it in the street, the better. Again, don’t chase it and push the issue; just be there, and over time, it will realize that you aren’t an immediate threat.
No matter what you do, though, stranger cats may always be distrustful of you. Some weren’t socialized properly when they were kittens, so they’re distrustful of everyone. That’s something you have to accept.
How Do You Get a Scared Cat to Like You?
Cats that are very afraid of people are particularly difficult to make friends with. Severe negative experiences/mistreatment, whether with you or a previous owner, can make cats skittish. These cats can jump at normal noises, hide from strangers as if their lives depend on it, and never stay truly comfortable even if they know you.
Of the pointers above, the most important in this context is to be exceptionally slow-moving and careful. By moving slowly, you allow the cat time to assess whatever you’re doing, which will make it more comfortable around you. It may still react badly to your presence or touch, but you at least give it a chance to respond positively when you move slowly.
You should also take steps to remove anything that’s causing your cat extra stress. Stressful things outside of your cat’s interaction with you can change how it feels when you spend time with it. Examples of stressors include:
- Other pets. Living with other cats or dogs can make your cat uncomfortable. Even smaller pets like birds, rats and mice can scare some cats. Your pet needs its own space that it can retreat to and feel safe (or, ideally, don’t keep an easily-scared cat in a house with other pets).
- Loud noises. The washing machine and drier, the TV turned up too loud, or your raised voice can all put a cat on edge.
- Frequent interaction with strangers. If there are people always coming and going from your house, your cat won’t know what to expect next.
- Frequent interaction with children. Children can be unpredictable, loud and too cuddly for a cat’s taste.
Removing these causes of stress and others will make your cat calmer when you get a chance to interact with it. That may be all your cat needs to build a bond with you. You could also consider using Feliway, although there are mixed reports as to how well it works.
If the cat absolutely will not calm down, you could also consider giving it up. It’s possible that it could experience a better quality of life at a shelter or with another family.
How to Get a Cat to Like You AGAIN…
If your cat used to like you, but doesn’t now, then following the steps above may be all you need to do.
It should be much easier to make your old cat like you if it grew up with you and had positive experiences in your care. That’s because your cat will have patterned its behavior and responses on its previous interactions with you. Once it forgets whatever made it upset with you—a loud noise or a trip to the vet, for example—it should get back to normal.