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San Diego Humane Society

Adopting: Shy and Fearful Cats

When bringing any animal home, it is important to give them time, space and a safe environment in order to adjust. This is especially true for an animal who is particularly shy. It is important to remember that while you may feel excited to have a new animal in your home and may want to interact with them, they have been taken to a strange new place and you are unfamiliar to them. Here is basic information to support your new shy cat as they adjust to your home.

Body Language

Cats do not speak human languages and instead communicate primarily through body language and behavior. To learn about cat body language, utilize one of the many available resources about cat body language on YouTube.

Space Isolation and Confinement

Begin by giving your cat access to just one room in your home. A bathroom, a walk-in closet or a spare bedroom are all excellent options. This smaller space will allow your cat to adjust much more quickly. Food, water, a litter box, options for hiding (crates, carriers and hidey-holes) and enrichment items such as toys or scratching posts should all be offered in this space. After about two to four weeks, this space will become a “home base.” Your cat now has a space in your home where they feel comfortable and relaxed!

*Giving access to your entire home at first may be detrimental, as shy cats often find a single hiding spot and remain hidden.

Proper Setup

There are several things cats need to help them feel comfortable in their living space:

  • Hiding options where they can hide completely (crate, carrier, hidey-hole).
  • A surface on which they can scratch and kneed (scratching post or mat). A proper scratching surface will be at least 1.5 times the length of a cat’s body so they can fully extend their arms and scratch.
  • Multiple areas to rest. There should be at least one resting area up high, between 3-5 feet, while other areas may be located lower or level with the ground. Some cats are “bush dwellers” and like their spaces low, and some cats are “tree dwellers” and like their spaces high.
  • A litter box should always be available. Clean the litter box 1-2 times daily. Additionally, keep the room tidy without piles of clothes or blankets to help discourage any inappropriate elimination.
  • Enrichment! Enrichment is any activity or item that encourages species-typical behaviors, such as scratching, playing, foraging or jumping. Cat toys, cat trees or shelves, and puzzle feeders are popular enrichment items for cats.

Relationship Building

  • Offering meals will naturally help you build a relationship with your cat, as your cat begins to associate you with food.
  • Play! Cats are predators and much enjoy chasing and catching things. Use extended toys such as wand or feather toys to engage your cat in chasing, grabbing and catching. Present wand toys at a distance, and allow your cat to come to the toy — don’t force it!
  • Try a variety of treats, such as Temptations, canned chicken or tuna, to find out what your cat likes. Gently place treats near your cat and step away. If the cat approaches you, you may offer treats from your hand.
  • Allow your cat to move at their speed and choose whether or not to interact with people. Read and respond to your cat’s body language to assure that they feel comfortable. Allow your cat to choose to come toward you to consent to interactions. Do not force your cat to be pet, especially if they are displaying body language consistent with discomfort, fear or aggression.

Other Options

  • Visual stimulation: Provide a perch near a window where the cat can look outside at birds and bugs and passing stimuli. You can use a phone, a TV or a tablet device to play “cat videos” from the internet to provide visual stimulation.
  • Pheromone diffusers: Some cats are more comfortable when they are in the presence of pheromones such as Feliway. Pheromones can come in sprays, diffusers and other alternate forms.
  • Catnip: If the cat is over 1 year old, they may have a positive response to catnip, which is an herb that stimulates cats and increases their energy level.

Want more help?

San Diego Humane Society offers a live Shy Cat training class over Zoom. This five-week class for owners (we don’t expect your shy cat to attend!) will help you better understand your shy/fearful cat and what makes them different from other cats. You’ll learn exercises to help your cat feel more comfortable and confident in your home, with your presence and with new stimuli (anything they can perceive, hear, smell, see, etc.). This class is designed to move your pet forward each week within your home. Sessions are recorded so you can refer back to the material as needed as you move at your specific cat’s pace. Please reach out to us if you have additional questions!

Behavior Helpline: Contact our Behavior Team

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing or filling out our Ask a Trainer form. San Diego Humane Society Adopters can fill out the Post Adoption Consultation form to schedule their troubleshooting session. We aim to respond within 7 days, but responses may take up to 2 weeks. Thank you for your patience!

Note: Due to the potential for serious injury, canine and feline aggression are best handled by a professional who specializes in aggressive behaviors. Because phone or email counseling is inadequate for addressing serious behavior concerns, we ask that you contact a qualified professional for help. Please refer to the list of behavior resources here.

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Our website includes a current schedule of training classes or call 619-279-5961. 

View Training Classes   Gift a Training Class


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