10 Science-Backed Tips for Getting a Cat to Like You

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iStock

Like so many other humans, you might find cats to be mysterious creatures. But believe it or not, it’s not that hard to make friends with a feline, if you know what to do. Here are some tips on how to effectively buddy up with a kitty, drawn from scientific studies and my own experience as a researcher and cat behavioral consultant.

1. LET THE CAT CALL THE SHOTS.

When we see cats, we really want to pet them—but according to two Swiss studies, the best approach is to let kitty make the first move.

Research done in 51 Swiss homes with cats has shown that when humans sit back and wait—and focus on something else, like a good book—a cat is more likely to approach, and less likely to withdraw when people respond. (This preference explains why so many kitties are attracted to people with allergies—because allergic people are usually trying to not pet them.) Another study found that interactions last longer and are more positive when the kitty both initiates the activity and decides when it ends. Play a little hard to get, and you might find that they can’t get enough of you.

2. APPROACH A CAT THE WAY THEY GREET EACH OTHER (SORT OF).

person extending finger to cat's nose
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Felines who are friendly with each other greet each other nose to nose. You can mimic that behavior by offering a non-threatening finger tip at their nose level, a few inches away. Don’t hover, just bend down and gently extend your hand. Many cats will walk up and sniff your finger, and may even rub into it. Now that's a successful greeting.

3. PET CATS WHERE THEY LIKE IT MOST …

They're very sensitive to touch, and generally, they tend to like being petted in some places more than others. A small 2002 study demonstrated that cats showed more positive responses—like purring, blinking, and kneading their paws—to petting on the forehead area and the cheeks. They were more likely to react negatively—by hissing, swatting, or swishing their tails—when petted in the tail area. A more recent study validated these findings with a larger sample size—and many owners can testify to these preferences.

Of course, every animal is an individual, but these studies give us a good starting point, especially if you're meeting a cat for the first time.

4. … AND IF YOU GET NEGATIVE FEEDBACK, GIVE THE CAT SOME SPACE.

There are plenty of signs that a cat doesn't like your actions. These can range from the overt—such as hissing and biting—to the more subtle: flattening their ears, looking at your hand, or twitching their tails. When you get one of those signals, it’s time to back off.

Many of the owners I work with to correct behavioral issues don't retreat when they should, partially because they enjoy the experience of petting their cat so much that they fail to recognize that kitty isn’t enjoying it too. You can’t force a feline to like being handled (this is especially true of feral cats), but when they learn that you’ll respect their terms, the more likely they will be to trust you—and come back for more attention when they're ready.

5. DON’T OVERFEED YOUR CAT.

Many think that food equals love, and that withholding food might make your kitty hate you, but a recent study of obese felines from Cornell University showed the opposite is true—at least for a period of time. About a month after 58 overweight kitties were placed on a diet, three-quarters of their owners reported that their dieting felines were more affectionate, purred more often, and were more likely to sit in their owner's lap. This adorable behavior came with some not-so-cute side effects—the cats also begged and meowed more—but by week eight, both the good and bad behavior had abated for about half the animals.

Regardless of whether a diet makes your pet cuddlier, keeping your pet on the slender side is a great way to help them stay healthy and ward off problems like diabetes, joint pain, and uncleanliness. (Overweight animals have difficulty grooming themselves—and do you really want them sitting on your lap if they can’t keep their butt clean?)

6. PLAY WITH THEM—A LOT.

woman, cat, and feather toy
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Most of the behavior problems that I've witnessed stem from boredom and a lack of routine playtime. No one thinks twice about walking their dog every day, but many people fail to recognize that felines are stealth predators who need a regular outlet for that energy. A recent study suggested that cats prefer human interaction over food, but a closer look at the data demonstrated that what really attracted them to humans was the presence of an interactive toy. One of their top choices is a wand-style toy with feathers, strings, or other prey-like attachments that evoke predatory behavior. Daily interactive play is a great way to bond with them when they’re not in the mood to cuddle—and to keep them fit. Try the Go-Cat Da Bird or any of Neko Flies interchangeable cat toys.  

7. KEEP YOUR CAT INDOORS.

A study conducted in Italy showed that felines who stayed mostly indoors (they had one hour of supervised access to a small garden each day) were more “in sync” with their owners than felines who were allowed free access to the outdoors. The indoor kitties were more active during the day, when their owners were likely to be active, and less active at night, when humans like to sleep. (Many people believe cats are nocturnal, but they are naturally crepuscular—active at dawn and dusk.)

8. SOCIALIZE CATS WHEN THEY'RE YOUNG.

Multiple studies have shown that just a few minutes a day of positive handling by humans helps kittens grow up to be friendlier and more trusting of humans. The ideal age to socialize kittens is when they're between 2 and 9 weeks old. One 2008 study found that shelter kittens that had been given a lot of "enhanced socialization"—additional attention, affection, and play—were, a year later, more affectionate with their owners and less fearful than other kittens adopted from the same shelters.

You can help socialize kittens by volunteering as a foster caretaker. Fostering ensures they get plenty of interaction with people, which will help them will be comfortable around potential adopters. You'll also be doing your local shelter a huge favor by alleviating overcrowding.

9. TAKE THE CAT'S PERSONALITY—AND YOUR OWN—INTO CONSIDERATION WHEN ADOPTING.

If you want to adopt an older animal, take some time at the shelter to get to know them first, since adopters of adult cats report that personality played a big role in their decision to take an animal home permanently and had an impact on their satisfaction with their new companion. Better yet, foster one first. Shelters can be stressful, so you'll get a better sense of what an animal is really like when they're in your home. Not all cats are socialized well when they're young, so a cat may have their own unique rules about what kinds of interactions they're okay with.

It's also key to remember that a cat's appearance isn't indicative of their personality—and it's not just black cats who get a bad rap. In 2012, I published a study with 189 participants that showed that people were likely to assign personality traits to felines based solely on their fur color. Among other things, they tended to think orange cats would be the nicest and white cats the most aloof. (Needless to say, these are inaccurate assumptions.) And it's not just the kitty's personality that matters—yours is important too. Another study I conducted in 2014 of nearly 1100 pet owners suggested that self-identified “cat people” tend to be more introverted and anxious when compared to dog people. (We’re also more prone to being open-minded and creative, so it’s not all bad.) If you’re outgoing and active, a more playful feline could be for you. If you prefer nights spent snuggling on the couch, a mellow, shy-but-sweet lovebug could be your perfect pet.

10. BE A KEEN OBSERVER OF THEIR BEHAVIOR.

Overall, use your common sense. Be a diligent and objective observer of how they respond to your actions. Feline body language can be subtle—something as small as an eye-blink can indicate contentment, while ear twitches might signal irritation—but as you learn their cues, you'll find yourself much more in tune with how they're feeling. And if you adjust your behaviors accordingly, you'll find soon enough that you've earned a cat's trust.

Mikel Delgado received her Ph.D. at UC-Berkeley in psychology studying animal behavior and human-pet relationships. She's a researcher at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and co-founder of the cat behavior consulting company Feline Minds.

The Poison-Detecting Secret Weapon of the Middle Ages: Unicorn Horn

A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551
A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551

In the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans knew that unicorns were real. After all, their horns were the treasured possessions of royalty, nobility, and even clergy. Charles VI of France had one, as did Lorenzo de Medici, and Danish rulers sat on a throne carved out of them. Queen Elizabeth I had a fully intact horn she used as a scepter; it was valued at 10,000 pounds—roughly the cost of a castle in her day. In fact, unicorn horns were considered so valuable the Elizabethan dramatist John Dekker wrote that one was "worth a city."

But unicorns horns weren't prized just for their beauty or rarity, or as tokens of extreme wealth. They were believed to be powerful defense against disease—and poison.

Fierce But Pure

Oil painting of a woman and unicorn by a follower of Timoteo Viti
Chastity, oil painting by a follower of Timoteo Viti

For an animal that never existed, the unicorn got around. The ancient myths of India and China mention unicorn-like animals, as did the tales Greek travelers brought back from India and other far-flung lands. The earliest Greek description is from the historian Ctesias, who wrote around 400 BCE of a large, agile animal with a white body, dark red head, and a long horn on its forehead. About a hundred years later, scholars translating the Old Testament interpreted a horned animal known in Hebrew as re'em as a unicorn (though modern translators prefer the term auroch, an extinct species of cattle). Writing in the first century CE, Pliny the Elder described the unicorn is "the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead.”

From the beginning, accounts of the unicorn emphasized their healing and purifying properties. Ctesias wrote, "Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers." Similar accounts appeared for centuries: Around the 3rd century CE, the Greek intellectual Philostratus wrote that "the Indians make drinking-cups from this horn, which have such virtue that the man who drinks from one will for one whole day neither fall ill, nor feel pain if wounded, nor be burned by passing through fire, nor even be affected by poisons which he could not swallow at any other time without harm."

By the 12th century, a German nun known for her saintly visions, Hildegard of Bingen, recommended a paste of powdered unicorn liver and egg yolk as a cure for leprosy, although she conveniently noted that it could fail if the "leper in question happens to be one whom death is determined to have or else one whom God does not wish to be cured." Unicorn hide was also recommended in boots and belts, partly as prevention for that greatest scourge of the Middle Ages: plague.

Belief in the healing powers of the unicorn focused especially on its mysterious, twisting horn. The substance, often called alicorn, was associated with great purity as well as healing, sometimes with religious overtones (the purity of the white animal was thought to be connected to Jesus Christ, and the horn to his cross). Hunters in search of a unicorn were supposed to lure the animal with a female virgin, capturing the animal once it fell asleep in her lap.

A Common Deception

Narwhal tusk
A narwhal tusk

Of course, no such hunters were ever successful. Objects portrayed as being made from unicorn sometimes came from rhinoceroses or mammoth fossils but most often in Europe from narwhals, which were hunted by the Vikings in the North Atlantic. The Vikings harvested the narwhals’ spiraling tusks and sold them on to traders who either didn't know, or didn't care, about their true origins in the sea.

Once obtained, alicorn could be taken in many forms. Powdered, it was applied to dog bites and other wounds or consumed as treatment for plague, gout, and other diseases. The influential German physician Johann Schröder recommended it for childhood epilepsy. And although other physicians numbered among the earliest skeptics, apothecaries used unicorns widely in their potions. Eau de licorn—water purified by the introduction of unicorn’s horn or by being poured through a hollowed-out segment of horn—was also widely sold and reputed to have health benefits.

While the extraordinary cost of the intact horns made them showpieces for the rich, powdered unicorn horn was an affordable remedy for the average citizen. This was largely because other substances could be easily substituted: horse hoofs, fossils, and other types of horn. In fact, the widespread problem of fraud led to frequent tests of the authenticity of the horn itself, including presenting it to spiders and scorpions and observing to see if they avoided it or died. If they did, the item was thought to be genuine horn.

Poison-Proof

A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns
A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns

Poisoning was particularly feared during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance by the back-stabbing royalty and nobility keen to maintain their positions, not to mention their lives. Such an insidious crime required extraordinary measures: While European royalty kept other poison-detectors, including rubies, bezoar stones, and griffin claws, unicorn horn was a favored material for protection as well.

Whole unicorn horns were deployed on dining tables as poison detectors, while fragments of horn, called touches by the French, could be touched or dipped to plates of food to detect the presence of toxins. They could also be hung on chains or mounts of precious metal (actually less valuable materials, pound for pound, than the horn itself). French royalty had utensils made with alicorn, while other members of the European nobility had the horn inset into jewelry. The horn was expected to provide an alert to the presence of poison by changing color, sweating beads of moisture, or actually steaming. Alicorn might also be dipped into water or run over the actual linens and wall hangings in a banquet hall. Goblets fashioned from unicorn horn were also made across the continent; some believed these would shatter upon contact with a contaminated beverage.

While some medical writers, such as the famed French surgeon Ambroise Paré, were skeptical of the powers of the unicorn horn, many others believed in its merits. The Italian scholar and naturalist Andrea Bacci wrote a defense of the horn's use in 1573, telling the story of a man who consumed a poisoned cherry but was saved thanks to unicorn horn dissolved in wine. He also described an experiment in which two pigeons were fed arsenic, but the one who was given some scrapings of unicorn horn recovered and lived. The other died two hours after being fed the toxin [PDF].

But by the 17th century, the myth of the unicorn had begun to tarnish. European travelers to the Arctic brought back tales of the living narwhal, and further missions to other continents disproved the existence of unicorns by process of elimination, since no such animal was ever sighted. In July 1661, the men of the newly formed Royal Society put unicorn horn to the test: They placed a spider in a circle of powdered unicorn’s horn to see what would happen. From from being repelled by the horn, as writers had long claimed, the spider immediately scurried across the powder to escape. The men repeated the experiment several times, each with the same results. Their trial helped sound the death knell for credulous belief in the magical properties of unicorn horn.

The loss of value resulted in the disappearance or destruction of many precious specimens. Items once said to be made from unicorn horn are still in some museum collections, and very occasionally turn up for sale—still bearing their historical value, though no longer imbued with the mysterious properties that once made them worth a city or a castle.

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