Cats are often so misunderstood, and when they are overly shy or scared, it’s assumed to be normal, because “that’s how cats are.” Well, I completely disagree. While shyness can be a totally fine and healthy trait, extreme shyness can lead to depression and extreme fear leads to aggression. Both instances put horrible pressure on the cat, as well as force them to deal with anxiety on a frequent basis.
As always, there isn’t a one size fits all approach to these guys, but I want to share some techniques I’ve found effective on more than one occasion. My hope is that you’ll have more tools in your toolbox and things to try. I hope this information is useful. I have a handful of videos from my work with fosters Kion on Lil Girl to give you real examples of what to do. Good luck and, as always, stay safe.
If you are short on patience, you will likely have difficulty working with shy and scared cats. Their improvement is rarely consistent, and it can take weeks to months to make a huge impact. You’ll have to learn to be okay with steps back. Just like with any progress, there are setbacks, moments of frustration, and sometimes the “What the hell did I get myself into?!” This is all completely normal. If this doesn’t sound like something you can do, I do not suggest adopting or fostering an overly shy or scared cat. There is nothing wrong with deciding those types of cats are a fit for you. It is 100% okay, just be honest with the organization you’re working with. If you think you can do it, I can promise you your heart will fill with joy every time you see the cat making progress.
In the first few days, it will become extremely apparent if the cat is interested in touch or not. If they growl, hiss, spit, lunge, have dilated pupils, or their ears are pulled back, no touchy. I like to just sit in the room and calmly talk to them. Sometimes I’ll read or work on my computer. If I need to do things in the room, I’ll talk to them while I’m walking around to try to get them comfortable with my voice and the noises of moving things. This will also help them realize that every time I’m in the room, I’m not going to push past their boundaries. It’s building a mutual respect. Additionally, I will slow blink a lot, and they usually, even when they are mean-os, eventually return the blink. In this video, you can hear me trying to keep a calm voice as I talk to Kion on his first day in foster care.
It’s very important the shy or scared cat knows food comes from you, which is why I tend to feed with smaller portions multiple times a day. This ensures they will be hungry and happy when I put food in their bowl. I’ll sometimes also toss treats to them. It’s just another way of showing them that when I’m around, positive things happen.
Another one of my very favorite tool: tuna tubes. Basically, they are paté in a tube (you can buy these on Amazon). I like them because most cats love them and they are stinky enough to get their attention almost instantly. I’ll start by squeezing the tube enough that a little paté drops onto the ground (or into the sink – wherever the cat is) and then they can lick it up. I slowly graduate to them licking the tube itself, and eventually, my hands. Typically, while they are licking, I can pet a little with my other hand, and I keep the treat on that hand too so if they turn with confusion to that hand, they still get a treat (see demo below). Be very careful with this step. If you think the cat will bite, don’t do it!
After the cat is comfortable with hands and treats, I’m sometimes able to pet them while they’re eating. Don’t get too greedy with this. If they allow you to do it, do it, but be careful. They may turn and swat after they’re done or if they fully realize what’s happening. Go slow and steady and try to read their body language. You’ll notice in this video, the toy is still close by in case I need it to distract Lil Girl.
In the first few days, these cats tend to be scared of interactive toys. They may bat around a toy mouse, but if it’s a toy that I use, like a streamer toy, they look at the toy with complete fear. The other thing is shy, scared cats will stare at your hands, making play very difficult in the beginning. They are more fixated on what your hands are doing than the toy moving around. Don’t get frustrated – this is normal and natural. If you were unsure or fearful of someone, you’d be checking their hands too!
For this reason, I like to use other inanimate objects with the streamer to get the cat to stop hand obsessing. I’ll position the streamer over a tub or sink faucet, hide my hand with the wand, and then pull, so the toy moving is all the cat sees. If you’re in a bedroom, the knobs on a dresser work perfectly. As the cat gets used to you, you’ll need to do this less and less.
After they get more used to the toy, you can play with them more in the open, and their focus should be on the toy and not you.
The wand is your friend. You can use it as an extension of your hand to touch them. If they are fearful of the wand, try putting some paté or tuna tube on the end to make it a vehicle for rewards.
Start slowly, using the end of the wand to pet them on the head or scratch the “yes, please” spots like the sides of the face and above the eyes.
Beware of the Belly
As always, beware if a shy or scared cat shows you their belly. While they are feeling confident in the moment, if they aren’t used to being touched by you, they will likely hiss, swat, or bite if you try to touch them in this position. I know it’s tempting, but be strong! haha
After they are used to play, I start mixing in pets with the wand and pets with my hands.
Shy, scared cats will often shudder when you touch them because the touch is surprising and they aren’t sure what to expect. For this reason, when I’m ready to do more petting, I’ll hold the wand on the head and not move it. Then, I can pet and the cat doesn’t shudder because touch is already happening. If they pull back, hiss or look mad, I use the wand to pet until it looks like they’ve calmed, then back to my hand.
If the wand doesn’t work for you, that’s okay. You may find other things you can use (like a key, pair of glasses, etc.) Always let the cat smell it first, and if you still can’t touch, that’s okay; allowing them to get familiar with scent alone is a win.
As the cat allows you to pet, so very slow, and see if you can lightly scratch around the eyes, sides of face, and ears. I’ve often found that they like scratches more than just pets.
Try to stick to the head early on. Even though they may enjoy body pets, they sometimes question mid-pet, and you’ll end up with a scratch or bite on your arm. You can certainly work from the head down the spine, but do it in small increments. Be very careful. Exploring petting in the early days is actually very dangerous because they are a bit unpredictable. You’re gaining trust, but the cat is fighting it’s instinct to protect itself.
Ready to Graduate
Look for common signals like smelling your hand and rubbing against it and purring to know the cat is ready to graduate!
Fearful cats, like Kion when he arrived, lay on their sides as a sign of “You win. Please don’t challenge me.” They can also easily attack with their legs and mouth from that position. I sign you are winning them over can be when they are confident enough to sit upright.
Hoomans Aren’t So Bad
The above will give you a foundation to further work with socializing a shy or fearful cat. Don’t get frustrated if you have to backtrack sometimes – it happens to everyone. Remember to be patient and always stay safe. If you are uncomfortable with shy, scared cats, you don’t have to adopt/foster them. There are plenty of other kitties that need you! But if you can master how to get the scaredies to trust people, you’ll have an incredible skill set that will help save the lives of so many misunderstood cats.
Another misunderstood group of cats, is cats with fear-based aggression, like my girl Miss Lucy. Read up on impulse control aggression and learn what causes her seemingly unpredictable (but very much predictable) behavior.