Cats are mysterious creatures. What goes on behind those enchanting yellow eyes? And why do they run away when all we want to do is cuddle them? Whether you’re a cat owner or simply have an affinity for your friends’ pets, you’ve probably faced the challenge of winning over a reticent feline. Odds are, it’s not you personally that the cat has a problem with—it’s your behavior.
“A lot of the time, the reasons for a cat’s behavior are because of what people do or don’t do,” says Marilyn Krieger, certified cat behavior consultant at The Cat Coach.
With the help of some experts, we’ve compiled a list of tips that will have cats eating out of the palm of your hand in no time—literally and figuratively.
1. Watch Your Body Language
If a cat feels fear, she’s more likely to hide or avoid you. When greeting a new feline for the first time, it’s important to make her feel comfortable. “Cats are tiny little things compared to people,” Krieger says, “so it’s very important that they feel safe and secure.”
Dr. Marci Koski, Ph.D., a certified feline behavior and training professional at Feline Behavior Solutions, agrees. “When I meet a new cat, the first thing I’ll do is crouch down and greet the cat on her level,” she says. “Making yourself smaller is less intimidating.”
Koski also says it’s important to check your body language. “Direct eye contact can be considered intimidating or even aggressive,” she says. “Even body language that is directly focused on the cat may appear to be somewhat confrontational.”
You’re best bet? Play hard to get. “Don’t pay attention to her,” Koski advises, “she’ll get to you in her own time.”
2. Let the Cat Approach You
Cats can be irresistibly adorable. But as much as you may want to greet Snowball with a big ol’ hug, don’t. “This is a common mistake for people who love cats,” Krieger says. “They’ll go up to the cat and corner the cat, try to pet the cat, and try to win over the cat.” In this situation, she explains, your advances will either be ignored or cause the cat to bolt.
Instead of making a beeline for the cat, encourage the feline to come towards you, says Krieger. “Crouch down or sit, and then extend your index finger towards the cat,” she explains.
The next thing to do, Koski adds, is to let the cat sniff you. “Either lay your hand on the floor, outstretched so that she doesn’t have to come too close,” she suggests. From there, you can begin to pet or scratch the cat’s head – but take it slow. “Make friends at the pace of the cat,” Koski says, “if she walks away, let her go.” The key is to let the cat set the tone of the interaction, and to give her space to relax.
3. Observe the Cat’s Likes and Dislikes
Just like people, cats have vastly different personalities and preferences. If you’re meeting a friend or significant other’s cat, you can ask questions; if you’re adopting a new cat, you’ll have to take the time to observe the cat’s behaviors and get a feel for what she enjoys.
“Even a shy but curious cat has the potential to become your next best friend if you take things slow and build trust,” Koski says. You can ingratiate yourself by finding out what that particular cat likes. “If the cat likes to be brushed, then you can brush the cat,” Krieger suggests, “whatever it is, then that’s what you can do to encourage the cat to come forward.”
Koski offers a tip for simple petting: “Most cats enjoy being rubbed on the forehead, around the ears, neck, and cheeks,” she says, “so stick to these areas with a new cat.”
4. Keep Calm and Stay Positive
If you’re a “dog person,” you may be used to interacting with pets in a jumpy, excited manner. But according to our experts, that kind of behavior tends to send cats running. Don’t make any sudden movements, gestures, or sounds, says Koski. “The more predictable you can be in your actions, the more trusting the kitty will be of you,” she says.
In addition to staying cool as a cucumber, Krieger advises engaging in behaviors that cats can associate with positive results. Krieger recommends giving the cat food or a treat in greeting and making a habit of using the cat’s name. “Make everything positive, so everything good happens around you,” she says.
5. Use Treats Strategically
This one’s pretty straightforward—give a cat a tasty morsel, and she’ll be more likely to warm up. However, this doesn’t mean showering the cat with treats all day long. Koski recommends using cat treats strategically “to either reward good social interactions with you, or to entice a shyer cat to move towards you and get to know you better.”
Keep in mind that not all cats have the same tastes—if you want to build a lasting friendship, it’s best to do your research. “Some cats are not very food-motivated so you might have to search for a treat that they like,” Koski explains. To start, she suggests “plain cooked chicken breast, a little nugget of stinky cheese, or tuna flakes.”
6. Play with the Cat—But Know When to Stop
Once you’ve introduced yourself to a cat, slowly and calmly, she may be up for some playtime. Remember to be observant, and to confer with the cat’s owner (if it’s not your cat) before attempting to engage. Has the cat approached you and allowed you to touch her? Is she displaying signs of comfort? Then she may be interested in playing.
“A short play session can be a good way to bond,” Koski says. “Grab a wand toy, move it like a snake or bird or mouse, and give the cat an opportunity to let her guard down.” For her clients, Krieger also recommends wand toys, as well as ball-and-track toys and puzzle feeders, all of which are mentally stimulating for cats.
When playing for the first time with a cat, remember to give her space, and don’t force the interaction. “Keep playtime short,” Koski recommends. “She’ll come to you if she wants more!”
Maura McAndrew is a freelance writer based in Oklahoma. She also writes for Paste Magazine and HelloGiggles.