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7 Ways to Build Your Cat’s Trust in You

If your cat still approaches you with a figurative arched eyebrow of skepticism, try these tricks to put them at ease.

by Karen B. London, PhD
December 22, 2022
A woman with curly black hair sitting in front of a dark purple and yellow backdrop while looking down affectionately at her two cats sitting on her lap
Ivan Ozerov / Stocksy

Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)

It’s fair to call most cats high maintenance, but we both love and accept that about them. As Chandler famously said to Monica on Friends: “It’s OK, because I like...maintaining you.” A big part of that maintenance puzzle is winning your cat’s trust. Your cat wants to trust you but needs constant reassurance that you are deserving of their confidence in you. You are obviously deserving; convince your cat of that fact with these trust-building ideas.

Respect your cat’s space.

Being a space invader is a common way to lose out on a cat’s good feelings toward you. Allow your cat to come to you rather than charging toward your cat or picking them up. Go at your cat’s pace when it comes to physical contact. Let them approach you and make the first move.

Learn how your cat likes to be touched.

Most cats enjoy pets behind their ears, on the chin and cheeks, and on the back of the neck. The spot where the tail connects to the body is another place many cats appreciate some affection. The gentle pressure of your fingertips and wiggling motions of your fingers are a good way to pet most cats; they usually prefer that approach to long strokes. Generally speaking, cats don’t enjoy rough pressure, having their belly rubbed, their feet touched, or being pet against the grain, which fluffs up their fur (the mohawk look is not for them).

Create positive experiences with them daily.

Trust is built from positive experiences, so create them every day with your cat. Playing with cats is one of the best ways to establish trust. Use toys they find engaging — best bets are ones that move so they can chase them or jump up to reach them. Let them frequently “catch” the toys they like so they don’t feel as if you are teasing them. Training should be a positive experience, too. When cats learn they can offer you certain behaviors in response to cues and that you will, in turn, give them delicious treats, their trust in you will grow.

Pay attention to their body language and act accordingly.

If you notice that your cat appears tense, afraid or on edge, and you don’t approach them, that prevents you from violating your cat’s trust. If you only interact with your cat when they are relaxed and comfortable with what you are doing, it’s easier to build trust between the two of you. Knowledge of their body language allows you to react properly in any interaction with your cat, whether that means playing, petting, or grooming.

Be predictable.

Cats are not usually big on surprises, so keep things predictable. If they are used to you walking by and continuing to move when they are eating, don’t change it up by stopping to offer any affection. If your usual pattern is to let them jump into your lap when you sit on the couch, don’t act differently by rushing it and picking them up to put them there.

Allow your cat access to places where they know nobody will disturb them.

Offer your cat places to be where they are guaranteed to be undisturbed by others in the household, such as bookshelves, cat trees, a box, or even a particular cushion. If they know they have an escape route when anything troubles them, and you respect their desire to have a little alone time, that builds trust. 

Avoid setbacks.

It’s so much easier to build trust than to rebuild it after a setback in which the cat’s confidence in you has been lost. So, it’s wise not to do things that upset your cat; that erodes trust and makes mending the relationship more challenging. Avoid moving too quickly or startling your cat. If you know your cat does not like to be picked up, don’t pick them up. Similarly, if your cat gets upset by anyone approaching when they are using their litter box, leave them alone when they are taking care of business there.

Many of our feline friends subscribe to the famous Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify.” Their confidence in you is subject to review, so don’t ever stop your efforts to build and maintain trust. That’s how to make certain the famous Friends theme song, “I’ll Be There For You” (complete with requisite clapping), becomes the soundtrack of your relationship.

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Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.