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Home > Cats > How to Approach a Cat – 11 Vet-Approved Tips for a Great First Impression

How to Approach a Cat – 11 Vet-Approved Tips for a Great First Impression

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Dr. Luqman Javed

Veterinarian, DVM

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Cats can be very aloof and sometimes have a standoffish energy about them. They are always alert and territorial, causing them to vanish at the speed of light when you first approach them. If you want to adopt one of your own, naturally, you want to make a good first impression when meeting your new friend at the shelter. Below, we’ve gathered 11 tips to help you approach a cat so your first meeting is a positive one.

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The 11 Expert Tips to Approach a Cat for The First Time

Before Starting

It’s important to know that the following tips are for meeting a cat at a shelter or a friend’s cat, but they are not intended for feral cats or a nursing mother with kittens. Approaching a feral cat is unknown territory, and a bad response could result in an injured cat or human.

You also don’t know the health situation of the cat, and some diseases are too risky to attempt an approach. If you want to approach a feral cat, contact your local veterinarian or shelter for assistance.

1.  Let the Cat Initiate the Introduction

Allowing the cat to initiate the first move helps increase your chances of having a great first meeting. It also helps the cat feel in charge and unthreatened, so it is less likely to run away. You may notice the cat coming closer, sniffing, or rubbing its head against you. Let it sniff around you for a while, and only when it makes contact should you attempt to make contact back.

Generally, if a cat sniffs up close and rubs you, it is a sign of acceptance, so if you experience that at the beginning of your encounter, most of the work is done!

cat rubbing its body the owner
Image By: Piqsels

2. Get Down to the Cat’s Level

When humans communicate or meet, we will typically sit at an office or restaurant table so that we are at eye level. If you are sitting waiting for someone, you will instinctually stand up to meet them at eye level on arrival. We do this out of respect and equality, and it helps to implement the same principles when approaching a cat.

Get down to the cat’s level so it does not feel afraid or intimidated by you towering over it. You can sit on the floor or crouch down to meet the cat at its level. That way, you also provide space for the cat to sniff around and rub up against you if it feels safe.


3. Reach Out Your Hand

Cats can tell a lot with their amazing sense of smell, and sniffing is one way to determine what they are encountering.

Once you feel like the cat is okay with you being around, you can gently reach out your hand. Ball your hand into a fist and keep it below the level of the cat’s head.  The cat may sniff your hand or rub up against it, which is usually a sign of acceptance.

bengal cat gives high five paw to owner
Image Credit: Svetlana Rey, Shutterstock

4. Don’t Stare at The Cat

If someone stares at you, you will usually feel discomfort and perhaps intimidation, and it can feel the same for cats. If you stare at a cat for a prolonged period, it may take that as a sign of aggression.

When getting comfortable with a cat, you can make brief contact and then look away. Do what the cat is familiar with and act a little aloof.


5. Watch the Cat’s Body Language

Body language can display how a cat is feeling. Watch how the cat moves its body when you get closer, how its tail moves, what its eyes are doing, and if it’s making any vocalizations. You don’t need to be a cat whisperer to know when a cat is unhappy, but when you get that sense, allow the cat some space and be patient.

If a cat pins their ears back, arches their back, raises their hackles, growls, hisses, and puffs their tail up, swaying it from side to side, they’re likely not comfortable with your presence.

If a cat meows, purrs, holds their tail upright, and seems to be curious about your approach, they’re likely comfortable with your presence and are probably more curious than fearful.

ginger tabby cat wag its tail is cute
Image By: IAM ZCT, Shutterstock

6. Listen to The Caretaker

If you are visiting a cat in a shelter, listen to what the caretaker says. They have worked with these animals for years and may be familiar with the cat you’re examining. If they say the cat doesn’t usually respond to petting, don’t attempt to pet it. If the caretaker explains that the cat has a traumatic background, then you must be calm and gentle in your approach.


7. Speak Gently

If you know the cat’s name, you can say hello calmly and gently. Cats will learn the tone of your voice, so this will help with subsequent visits. This will also help if the cat decides to hide somewhere.

A recent study also suggests cats respond to “baby talk,” which is usually a high-pitched tone with extended vowels. Baby talk is sometimes a natural response for humans when we meet something cute and innocent, like a baby or a pet, so it’s interesting to think that perhaps there is more science to it than we realize.

calico cat in house backyard by wooden deck with owner sitting
Image Credit: Andriy Blokhin, Shutterstock

8. Don’t Force an Interaction

Nothing forced is ever successful. You will know from personal experience that when you are forced to do something, you are usually more resistant and unobliging. When approaching and meeting a cat for the first time, keep that in mind. If the cat doesn’t want to interact, don’t force it. You don’t know what the cat is feeling or what has happened in the last 10 minutes,  and it may not be in the mood to interact. If the cat moves away, don’t follow. If you let the cat lead the way, you will build trust much faster.


9. Never Pick the Cat Up

Generally, cats prefer all four paws on a flat surface because it helps them feel secure, and they don’t enjoy being picked up, especially by a stranger. You can imagine the feeling of standing around minding your business, and a stranger suddenly picks you up off your feet.

Avoid picking up the cat, as irresistible as it may feel. You need to earn the cat’s trust and allow it to get familiar with you before picking it up.

cat touching his owners face
Image By: VikaJpeg, Shutterstock

10. Never Touch a Cat’s Belly

A cat’s stomach is its most vulnerable area, and it will typically not appreciate an attempted belly rub from a stranger. When you have owned a cat for a while, you will know that when they roll on their back and expose their belly, they trust you enough for a belly rub.

Some cats will even sleep on their backs with their belly exposed around their owners. If a cat is happy and comfortable, it may roll around and show its belly, but that doesn’t mean it’s an invitation for a belly rub.

Avoid going in for a belly rub on your first, second, or even third meeting; save them for the doggies.


11. Be Patient

Everything new takes patience, especially when you are trying to earn trust. We often want things so badly that we ruin them before it begins. A cat may prefer to take it slow, but if you have patience, you will see that it will pay off. Patience lets you be calm and gentle, which a cat will appreciate.

If you want something to last forever, don’t rush it.

woman owner petting and playing with her cat at home
Image Credit: Stokkete, Shutterstock

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How a Cat’s Body Language Tells You What They’re Thinking

Cats communicate through body language, and knowing what certain gestures mean will help determine if you need to back away or if it’s okay to proceed. A cat’s eyes and tail are particularly revealing.

If a cat’s pupils are narrowed like a slit, it could mean it’s excited, happy, scared, or angry. If the eyes are wide open, it could indicate that the cat trusts you, but staring without blinking can be a sign of dominance.

A relaxed cat will have a loose tail, a happy cat will have a raised tail with a slight curl, and an interested cat will have a swaying tail. A tail you don’t want to encounter moves forcefully and fast or is spread out with the hair standing on end. This tail language could indicate an angry, agitated, or frightened cat.

A cat’s ears can also display its feelings. Ears that slightly tilt forward or stand straight up usually signify a happy, relaxed cat. If they twitch, the cat could be nervous or irritable, and flattened ears are a clear sign for you to move away.

Always assess and respect a cat’s body language. If you are unsure, wait and give the cat space and allow the cat to make the first move.

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Cats are generally independent, and that’s something you can learn from them when approaching one for the first time. It’s best to let the cat approach you and take your time with the introduction. The tips we discussed should make it simpler for you to approach a new cat. Just remember to move slowly and cautiously; patience is almost guaranteed to help you connect with your new feline companion.


Featured Image Credit: Milles Studio, Shutterstock

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