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When they consider adopting a cat, most people fantasize about a friendly, outgoing and confident one. Reality is often different. If your cat is the kind that shies away from human contact and spends more time hiding under the bed than in your lap, then you’re probably wondering how you can help him or her feel more relaxed and be at ease.
We wanted to know what leading cat experts think can help, so we asked them this question:
Can you offer your one best tip for helping scaredy cats feel more comfortable and less afraid?
These 16 leading cat experts agree it’s a slow process that takes time and patience on the owner’s part. Here are their tried-and-tested tips and advice, along with some touching and encouraging stories of shy cats that they worked with.
Sally Bahner – Marci Kladnik – Amy Shojai – Darlene Arden – Barbara Florio Graham –
Jean Hofve – Ramona Marek – Libbie Kerr – Susan Bulanda – BJ Bangs – JaneA Kelley –
Deborah Barnes – Kathleen Mueller – Dr. Marci Koski – Leslie Goodwin – Marilyn Krieger
Sally E. Bahner
Sally Bahner has spent the last 15 years specializing in feline-related issues, specifically nutrition, holistic care and multiple cat behaviors. She has offered her services as a feline behavior and care consultant and speaker. Visit Sally’s blog ExclusivelyCats where she shares resources for cat care and nutrition, product reviews and personal stories.
If the cat is new to the household, set up a “sanctuary” where the cat can “chill” while adapting to the new environment. Offer a comfy bed, an empty box to hide in, a perch by a sunny window, and food, water, and a litter box, of course. Sit quietly with her, perhaps with some soft music to help her get used to your presence. Offer treats and a fishing pole toy to draw her out.
If you have a scaredy cat that’s a part of your household, respect her need for distance, but encourage interaction in a matter-of-fact way. Talk to her, toss a treat, offer a comfortable location within the main living area where she can oversee her surroundings, but feel safe. Offer treats and praise her when she responds to you.
Marci Kladnik is the president of the Cat Writers’ Association. She has written about and dealt with feral cats and kittens for nearly a decade. In-home fostering has taught her much about soothing frightened and timid cats in order to socialize them for adoption. You can read more award-winning articles by Marci on the Catalyst For Cats website where she volunteers to further promote the understanding of feral cats.
A timid cat can be taught to trust you and will give as much love as he can in return. Body language speaks volumes, so learn to “listen” with your eyes.
I have lived with a scaredy cat in my home for the last nine years. Born feral, Nemo both craves and rejects attention, but any attention has to be by his invitation or he hisses and freaks out, dashing away. I cannot pick him up and have learned to walk quietly and slowly through the house.
Making eye contact with a feral or semi-feral comes across as threatening. Nemo can be on the cat tree at my head level, and as long as I ignore him, I can pass within a couple of inches without him moving. If I look at him, he bolts.
At other times Nemo initiates eye contact and meows when he wants something, but there is always a look of underlying fear and he is poised to run.
Nemo will sometimes come to me for pets and belly rubs if I am sitting or lying down. He may flinch and scoot a few inches away, but as I begin to scratch, he purrs loudly and leans into it. Poor Nemo torments himself, torn between desire and fear, trust and distrust.
The basics for dealing with a timid cat are to move slowly, quietly, and with minimal eye contact. Be on the same level or below before reaching out to touch him.
Amy Shojai is a nationally known pet behavior expert, certified behavior consultant and author of more than 30 award- winning pet care books. You can read more about Amy and her work at Shojai.com. Check out her blog Bling, Bitches & Blood too for practical solutions for pets’ problems & publishing advice.
One of my favorite tips is to use cat tunnels. Cats love hiding places, and a cat tunnel allows kitties to travel “under cover” around the room without being stared at or intimidated by other cats or people. There are many cat tunnel products available, but you can also put together something inexpensive using empty boxes or paper bags taped together. Tossing a catnip toy inside may entice the shy cat to take the first kitty paw-step, and thereafter, cats often stake out favorite tunnels.
When we adopted our young strapping boy-cat, Karma, our older cat Seren was not amused. We used cat tunnels to give her the security to get from here-to-there and it helped enormously.
Darlene Arden is a certified animal behavior consultant, a lecturer and an award-winning writer of hundreds of articles and columns for all of the major dog and cat publications. She is also the author of the books The Complete Cat’s Meow and Beautiful Cats.
A shy cat doesn’t understand that you are going to make their life better. The shy cat may dive under a piece of furniture, and the only way you’ll know that you have a cat is when you scoop the litter box and refill the food.
Proceed in tiny steps and if progress seems to abate, go back to the step before. Move very slowly and quietly when in the room. Come into the room to read for short periods, slowly building up. A children’s book is an excellent choice because of the cadence. After a week or so of this, bring a teaser toy on a long stick to put under the furniture where he is hiding. Each positive interaction is a step forward as kitty begins to trust you.
There is a little bit of this in nearly every cat you bring home. I recently had a cat flown to me. There was no opportunity for her to choose me. She was very friendly the first night but she awakened the next morning yowling in fright. It broke my heart even though I knew what was happening. I spoke to her very quietly, using her name. I gave her a wide berth to play, eat, sleep as she chose. After 6 weeks she will now get up on my chair! Progress! It comes day by day, slowly but surely. Let kitty move at his or her pace.
Barbara Florio Graham
Barbara Florio Graham is an award-winning author who writes about cats. She has contributed cat care articles to dozens of international magazines and websites. She created her popular website Simon Teakettle using the name of her cat who had become famous by his letters to CBC Radio.
Whether you’re bringing a tiny kitten or a shelter cat into your home, you have to understand that they will likely be overwhelmed by the space. This can result in either wild hyperactivity, as the cat explores, or a frightened animal who hides and refuses to socialize.
I suggest confining the new arrival to a small room where you put the litter box, a soft bed, and a tray with food and water dishes. Add a small stool so you can spend time in there, playing with the cat and establishing that you’re the one who brings the food!
Gradually let the cat out into a larger room where you can keep the door closed. I use my bedroom/den as this space. It allows the cat to be with me during the night, as well as to sit on my lap when I’m watching TV or reading.
Every cat I’ve owned, including Penny, pictured here, has considered this room as a safe space. It’s where the cat can retreat if strangers arrive, and becomes the cat’s ongoing sanctuary.
I found Penny in a shelter in February of 2014. She was just a year old, and had been alone in a cage for some time. At first she was skittish and didn’t want to be picked up or approached with an open hand. Now, as she approaches her third birthday, she is so trusting that she allows me to clip her claws, clean her ears, and brush her teeth!
Jean Hofve, DVM
Jean Hofve, DVM, is a retired holistic veterinarian with more than 20 years of experience in integrative veterinary medicine. She is also the award-winning co-author of The Complete Guide to Holistic Cat Care: An Illustrated Handbook with nutritionist Dr. Celeste Yarnall. Visit Dr. Jean’s website LittleBigCat.com to read more of her work.
My cat Puzzle was a timid cat. Young children had handled her roughly, so she was extremely hand-shy. If I walked toward her, she’d run; she spent a lot of time in the closet; and the only time she approached was when I was lying down. She had learned that the only time humans were safe was when they were asleep!
It took years to bring Puzzle fully out of her shell. The key was play therapy. When their special toy came out, cats would materialize from every corner. Remarkably, they were all quite diplomatic about play, and would wait their turn. This was huge for Puzzle, because it not only gave her territorial confidence throughout the house, but also showed her that she could be around the other cats without fear.
Ultimately, Puzzle became the queen of the house. She claimed the sunniest spot during the prime time of the day, was the first to eat, and owned the best spot on the desk when I was working. Play therapy allowed her to be the cat she was always meant to be, and it’s worked miracles for thousands of other cats just like her.
Ramona D. Marek, MS Ed, is an award-winning writer and author. She is one of a handful of non-veterinarian members of the American Association of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians and a former member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). You can read more about Ramona and her work at RamonaDMarek.
Like people, cats have different personalities from gregarious to shy. Just under the surface of Natasha’s diva exterior hides a fearful cat afraid of everything: noises, people and the unexpected touch (real or perceived) to her hindquarters. She flinches, jumps or runs depending on the threat level.
The fearfulness started when I accidentally slammed the sliding balcony door on her when she was a kitten; while she didn’t sustain physical injury, she was emotionally traumatized. It took over five years to reach the point where she would walk through that doorway. Now she’s 9 years old and scratches on the sliding door asking to go outside. I worked with her very slowly, respecting her comfort level as we progressed through each step. At first she wouldn’t come within three feet of the door; I spoke softly to her, cuddled her and sometimes fed her in the area. The next steps were opening the door without her running away followed by getting her to cross the threshold. I worked on her time, never forcing her across. Sometimes I carried her snuggled in my arms, other times I enticed her to cross using food. I always rewarded with her praise and positive attention.
She still runs from a knock on the door and people, seeking sanctuary under the bedcovers. Again, I let her decide if and when she wants to come out and reward her with praise when she does.
Libbie Kerr has been a breeder of Bengal cats since 1989. She also writes and lectures on temperament inheritance, the importance of ownership understanding, top showing and other cat-related topics. You can read more about Libbie and her cats on her website A-Kerr’s Bengals.
One of the main concerns a breeder has is to make sure each kitten/cat has optimal confidence in themselves and their environment. The level of fear/confidence is individual and driven by nature, nurture and experience.
Dixie arrived cowering under her blanket in the carrier. I had prepared the bathroom with no hiding places and minimal stimulation. Placing her in the room, I removed the carrier top, spoke softly to her and left the room turning off the light. The next time I entered she had left the carrier, so I removed it leaving the blanket of familiar smells for her and a t-shirt I had worn.
Over the next few days, I entered the room every few hours, speaking quietly, bringing treats, food, light, and toys. I sat calmly talking to her, placing treats closer so she had to approach me to retrieve them, until one day she came to me and ate from my hand. When she met me at the door purring I knew it was time to acclimate her to a larger space. Other family members entered, we added loud music and noises outside the door. Until one day we opened the door and she came out on her own.
This process worked well over the years, not just for Dixie but for many kittens and cats. Observe the body language, get it used to new smells and touch and most of all look at the world through the cat’s senses on their terms.
Susan Bulanda started her career as a dog trainer while still in high school. She is recognized worldwide as a canine and feline behavior consultant, expert in canine Search and Rescue and as an award-winning author and Adjunct Professor. You can read more of Susan’s writing on her website and in her blog.
The best thing for a fearful cat is to give the cat time to adjust to the new home and people. Provide food, a place to hide, a litter box, scratching post and water. Even if the cat will not play with toys, they should be available. Natural calming scents can also be introduced.
When the cat starts to explore his new home, offer treats. If the cat will not approach humans, leave the treats in various places around the house for the cat to find. Gradually place the treats on the floor near where a person sits quietly.
As the cat adjusts, invite the cat to sit near people. Do not force the cat to interact, he will learn that there is nothing to fear and will gradually approach.
Dragging a string across the floor, or tossing a small puff ball (the type found in craft stores) will encourage the cat to interact and enjoy the company of humans.
Try to avoid loud noises in the home, (slamming doors, children running, loud music) and other noise that is fear-inducing to a cat.
It is important that the cat is completely vet checked to be sure that the fear is not pain-related. The cat must be on a high-quality food (nothing from supermarkets or discount stores is high-quality food). Patience is the key word. Frightened cats may not always turn out to be socialites, but they can have a quality life.
BJ Bangs is an award-winning journalist, photographer, and communications professional. She is the recipient of the Cat Writer’s Association’s Muse Medallion and Certificate of Excellence. She blogs about everything cat, their humans, and their connection at bjbangs.net.
Age compounds the fear of a timid cat. It also can lead a once-not-timid cat to become fearful, and seek out safe hiding spots like the closet or a cupboard.
While Clyde looks great for his 19 or so years, his fear has gotten worse. With deteriorating hearing and eyesight, perhaps Clyde is even more fearful of not seeing or hearing the aggressors. While Clyde does not demonstrate any symptoms of arthritis, he may be afraid he can’t run to safety quick enough. In the jockeying for their place in the cat hierarchy, it could be younger cats can sense the cat’s aging, and single him out to chase out of their territory.
We’ve gone through a number of phases to help make this timid senior cat’s life better, including:
- Rounding up the aggressive cats and scolding them if we saw them chasing him.
- Creating more vertical space to increase his confidence, giving him better visibility of the aggressors, and increasing their territory.
- Feliway diffusers. While initially they may have had some positive effect, they didn’t reduce his level of fear or change the behavior of the aggressors.
- Segregating the cats. Clyde now lives upstairs, the equivalent of having a 4-room ranch to himself. Complete with 3 litter boxes, food, water, and his human to sleep with every night, he seems relatively happy in his safe haven.
JaneA Kelley is a lifelong cat lover who has been writing her award-winning cat blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003. Each week, the Paws and Effect Gang answers a letter from a reader with advice about health or behavior issues. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers.
The most important thing you can do to help a scaredy cat build her confidence is to gradually introduce her to new stimuli, and to provide positive reinforcement for “brave kitty” behavior. With my cat, Tara, for example, I started her out in my bedroom so she had just one room to explore. I also petted, praised and encouraged her whenever she came out from hiding. As she gradually became more confident, I continued to help her build her confidence by engaging in interactive play. Cats’ level of bravery increases as they continue to be successful at acting like a cat, so to speak.
Some cats do need a short course of medication to help them along. With Tara, even though I did all this encouragement for her, she still freaked out when faced with my other two cats. My vet put her on alprazolam and fluoxetine, which helped dull her fear response enough to allow her to meet the other cats.
But far and away, the most important thing you can do is be patient. Some cats only take a couple of days to come around, but some take many months. Tara’s been in my home for seven months now, and it wasn’t until last month that she was able to handle being around my other cats without running for her life and cowering in a corner.
Long story short: Be patient, boost your cat’s confidence, positively reinforce brave behavior, and, if necessary, try medication.
Deborah Barnes is the V.P. of the Cats Writers Association. She is an award-winning blogger, author, and cat advocate whose greatest mission is to create public awareness through educational efforts about the need for spay/neuter. Her award-winning blog Zee & Zoey’s Cat Chronicles covers the everyday journey of the author and her family of seven cats, along with topics from the humorous behaviors of cats to very serious subjects on pet responsibility.
If your cat seems scared of his own shadow, it’s probably because he’s feeling insecure and threatened by his surroundings. To put him at ease and make him feel more comfortable, my best advice is to create an environment suited to his primal instincts. Cats are territorial by nature and they need places to claim ownership in order to build personal confidence. Whether your cat is a “tree dweller,” that prefers high, vertical spaces, or a “bush dweller,” a cat who likes low lying areas, you need to provide him with lots of options to feel safe from whatever he perceives is threatening him.
In my multi-cat home, I make certain my cats have numerous high climbing choices so they can have individual personal space if they need it, such as multi-tiered cat condos and strategically placed furniture, like bookcases and wall shelves. I also provide them with low options, such as empty boxes to hide in, and comfortable cat beds placed under windows for bird and squirrel watching. I tie it all together by integrating a nightly ritual that includes all of them. I groom them, I initiate play time with a feather wand toy, and I reward them with food treats. This encourages them to interact with one another in a positive way and reduces tensions that can often cause a cat to be uncomfortable. The key to success is to take it slow and to be patient.
Kathy, a self-described “crazy cat lady”, has shared her life and home with cats ever since childhood. She is a member of the Cat Writers Association and a blogging pet mom owned by three cats and two dogs. You can read more about Kathy in her blog Traveling Dog Lady.
When my brother adopted his recent cat a few years ago, after our family cat died , he really thought the new cat would just step in where the old one left off. Unfortunately, when my brother brought “Tony” home, the cat wouldn’t go near him, hid in the laundry room, and refused to come out. If my brother so much as moved, the cat would run away. My brother called me after about two weeks of this, and asked me what he should do.
My suggestion was just to quietly live your life in the house, don’t make any sudden movements or loud noises, and just let the cat be. Eventually, I said, the cat will start to trust you.
It took several months, if you can believe that! But finally, Tony started to come out of the room and eat in my brother’s presence. A little while later, he would hang out in the same room as my brother, but still wouldn’t allow touching or human contact.
Fast forward a few years, and now Tony sleeps snuggled up to my brother in bed every night, and cuddles with him on the couch. Tony is still afraid of other people. The closest human he’d let near him was me, “The Cat Lady”, of course! I am not able to pet him, but he will sit near me in the same room, and look at me with great curiosity.
I would say patience and quietness are the key. And good-tasting food doesn’t hurt!
Dr. Marci Koski
Dr. Marci Koski is a certified feline behavior and training professional. Marci works with cats and their people to resolve behavior issues and educate guardians about the needs of their cats. The mission of her business, Feline Behavior Solutions, is to keep cats in homes and out of shelters.
If you have a scaredy cat at home, I recommend keeping her world small at first, then gradually letting it grow as she gains confidence in her surroundings. Give her a room or a retreat where she can feel safe and comfortable, and provide her with a place to hide (like a tent or a cat cave, or even a shelf with a blanket draped over it) and a perch where she can climb up to see the rest of the room. Then, find out what she loves to help her overcome her fear!
I once worked with a large cat named Kahlua who would simply hide in a cupboard and hiss and spit if anyone attempted to even open the cupboard door. This is one of the few cats I’ve ever been afraid of – he was so big and intimidating when he spat! But we eventually learned that he LOVED catnip. We would sprinkle catnip near the cupboard door and let him smell it. He started coming out for catnip, and then we began giving him treats…it turns out that Kahlua was very food-motivated. Then we moved on to playing with him using a slow-moving peacock feather. He gradually started coming out of his cupboard for treats and playtime, and then he really opened up – he’s now one of the friendliest (and biggest) lap cats I’ve ever met!
Leslie Goodwin worships cats and glorifies all the mere mortals who serve them. This tip was excerpted from her award-winning book: CAT SKILLS: Loving Care for Cats. You can read more by Leslie on her Facebook page.
Here is one of several secret passwords and special handshakes that I shared in my book, Cat Skills called Chuffing.
I learned this from a documentary about tigers. They communicate with each other by chuffing. I tried it on my little ones…blowing out a hoo hoo breath…kind of like natural childbirth breaths. The cats did a double take as if I had just said the secret word and ran to me. Then they ran back and forth scent-marking me with their sides and face.
When I adopted Molly, she was nervous and withdrawn. Mine was her fifth home in two years. At first, she only wanted to hide out under the bed. But when I chuffed at her, she’d come out, ready to play and interact.
My cats have always responded to chuffing but I’ve tried this on other cats and it repels some of them. Perhaps it’s because they have no bond with me. Experiment with chuffing and see how your moggies respond.
Note: Chuffing will repel a cat if your faces are close. Blowing in a cat’s face is like hissing. It means go away. So keep a little distance. Blowing lightly over his body will usually get him rolling side to side, wanting to play.
Marilyn Krieger is a certified cat behavior consultant known as The Cat Coach. She is also an award-winning writer and the author of the cat behavior book Naughty No More.
Do everything to encourage the scared kitty to feel secure and safe enough to socialize and be part of the family. Start by giving the cat her own quiet sanctuary room, complete with food, water, litter boxes, high places to climb, scratching posts, boxes to hide in, places to sleep and toys. This needs to be a quiet refuge—no loud music or intense activity.
Be patient and don’t insist the kitty interacts with you. Instead set up the situations where she ventures out of hiding on her own accord. Do this by becoming the bearer of everything good. Don’t free feed her, always bring her food into her room and quietly call her name as you set it down. Sit on the floor; arm yourself with treats she adores. Whenever she approaches you or comes out of hiding, give her a treat, reinforcing her bravery.
Don’t corner or approach her, instead invite her to come to you. You can be across the room or a few feet from her. Either sit or crouch so that you don’t appear tall and threatening. Extend your finger, at her nose level towards her. If she wants to say hello, she will come forward, touch your finger with her nose and then turn her head and rub your finger with her cheek. After she is comfortable in her room and with you, invite her to explore outside her sanctuary room by opening the door. She will venture out when she feels safe.
On behalf of the TheCatSite.com’s community and kitties everywhere, I’d like to thank the experts for taking part in this round-up!
Do you share your life with a timid cat? Let us know what works for you and what doesn’t in the comments below. Please don’t post questions about your cats in the comments section. Instead, post them in our cat behavior forums where other members are more likely to see them and respond.
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