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Care: Cat friendly interaction

How you behave in the environment and when and how you do things will have an impact on the cats. Cats need your help to enable them to predict what is going to happen and not be negatively affected by things going on outside the pen/cage.  The most supportive thing you can do for the cats in your care is to:

  • Follow a predictable schedule for feeding and cleaning and any other regular tasks such as medication
  • Interact with cats in a standardised and respectful way
  • Be aware of the overall noise levels around the cats’ pens\cages, eg loud noises, metal doors opening and closing, as this can have a negative impact too

A respectful way of interacting

When we get to know a cat, we also find out what they like and don’t like; one cat may love its tummy being rubbed but it would be a dangerous tactic to try this with every cat we meet! Cats that are confined are already potentially stressed by their lack of control over what happens to them, so it is essential to find a way of interacting that is respectful and puts them back in control.

Cats range in how friendly they are towards people and it would be impossible to establish what each cat may like in such a challenging setting as a homing centre, so finding a way of interacting that everyone can adopt has several advantages:

  • Human interaction will feel predictable and therefore safer
  • A respectful way of behaving around a cat allows the cat to make the first move, which will give it a sense of control over what happens to it
  • It helps us to appreciate what a cat wants rather than what a cat will tolerate
  • If interaction is standardised then any negative behaviour observed in a cat will be attributable to a cause other than human contact

Here is a respectful way of interacting to let the cat feel in control:

  1. Avoid direct eye contact or approaching a cat with an outstretched hand – this can be perceived as very challenging
  2. Get down to the cat’s level, but not too close, and offer a slightly closed fist in front of you and allow the cat to take its time to approach you to sniff your hand
  3. Keep still and, if all is going well, the cat will rub its scent glands in its cheeks against your fist (don’t forget to talk to the cat gently). Once again, keep your hand still but firm so that the cat can dictate how hard it rubs against you
  4. When it stops rubbing, don’t think this is an invitation for you to touch the cat, wait for further rubbing or signs that the cat is interested, eg rubbing against you, vocalising (miaow sounds), purring, tail upright etc. At this point, you can follow the ‘3-second rule’(see below).

Dr Lauren Finka has created a useful acronym for cat friendly interaction:

C – Did I give the cat a CHOICE about whether or not it wanted to interact with me?

A – Am I paying ATTENTION and looking out for any subtle signs that the cat is uncomfortable

T – Where am I TOUCHING the cat and does the cat want me to keep touching?

This diagram is based on the works of Dr Lauren Finka and Dr Sarah Ellis and colleagues. The diagram shows green shaded areas where most cats accept touch, amber shaded areas which are considered ‘not OK’ and red shaded areas which are recommended to be avoided!

Download this as a poster here.


Green – the areas around the cheeks and chin have scent glands and cats frequently rub these parts against objects. This means they are used to sensations around these areas being non-threatening

Amber – these areas are less frequently used by the cat to rub against things, so are more likely to feel threatening

Red – these areas are easily harmed in a fight with another cat so may feel like a direct threat if unfamiliar people touch them


Let’s look at the C-A-T acronym in more detail…

C – Did I give the cat a CHOICE about whether or not it wanted to interact with me?

  • Don’t assume that the cat wants to have physical contact with you, so keep a respectful distance and allow the cat to choose to come forward
  • Even if the cat in question is in a small waist-level cage, you can still hold your hand at the front of the cage when you open the door, allowing the cat to move or lean forward to explore your hand. Sometimes the cat might sniff and retreat so you must assume that it needs a little more time to explore you further or just doesn’t want to engage at that moment
  • If you can walk into the pen and there is plenty of room, you may want to remain near to the door and allow the cat to approach or get away if it chooses

A – Am I paying ATTENTION and looking out for any subtle signs that the cat is uncomfortable?

Have a look at this video (Juliette Jones, Head of Welfare and Behaviour at Wood Green Animal Charity (England) kindly helped us make this video to illustrate this point). What signs do you see that this cat may be uncomfortable? (*Answers at the bottom of the page).

T – Where am I TOUCHING the cat and does the cat want me to keep touching?

Let’s talk about the 3-second rule; this is what you do:

  • When a cat has moved forward to initiate contact with your softly closed fist and appears to want this to continue, you can then start to touch and rub the cat gently around the ‘green zones’ (the cheeks and chin) where the cat has scent glands
  • Do this for 3 seconds and then remove your hand a little to see if the cat comes forward again for more contact
  • Keep doing this (touch for three seconds and then stop) until the cat stops asking for more
  • If you do it in this way you will know that the session ends positively for the cat, as it has controlled when it started and stopped

Social and environmental stimulation

You may want to consider other possibilities for types of interaction when you know more about each individual cat, for example.

  • Friendly cats – sit in the pen with the cat, reading a book, and allow the cat to sit on your lap or do whatever the cat wants with you just being around
  • Playful cats – have regular play sessions with small fur/feather toys or fishing rod toys that move and stimulate predatory behaviour
  • Food motivated, friendly and bold cats – why not try some positive reinforcement training (‘clicker training’ is one example of such training but it can be done without a clicker) to stimulate the cat and help it to appeal to future adopters? Dr Sarah Ellis shows the principles of training using a ‘verbal cue’ in this video:


Useful information:

See the following links to relevant research:

Gourkow D, Phillips CJC Effect of cognitive enrichment on behavior, mucosal immunity and upper respiratory disease of shelter cats rated as frustrated on arrival Prev Vet Med 2016 (131) 103–110

Kogan L, Kolus C, Schoenfeld-Tacher R Assessment of Clicker Training for Shelter Cats Animals 2017: 7, 73

Ellis S Environmental Enrichment – Practical strategies for improving feline welfare J Fel Med Surg 2009 (11), 901-912  

Ellis S. L. H., Thompson, H., Guijarro, C., & Zulch, H. E. (2015) The influence of body region, handler familiarity and order of region handled on the domestic cat’s response to being stroked. Applied Animal Behaviour Science173, 60-67.

Haywood C, Ripari L, Puzzo J, Foreman-Worsley R and Finka LR (2021) Providing Humans With Practical, Best Practice Handling Guidelines During Human-Cat Interactions Increases Cats’ Affiliative Behaviour and Reduces Aggression and Signs of Conflict. Front. Vet. Sci. 8:714143.


> Care: Traffic Light Assessment


*ANSWERS: Behaviour and posture observed:

  • Sniffing
  • Tongue touching nose frequently
  • Yawn
  • Looking away (averting gaze)
  • Head shake
  • Shifting weight
  • Quick self-groom
  • Tail flick
  • Freeze
  • Moving away

Our thanks to the Petplan Charitable Trust for their support in the development of this website

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