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San Diego Humane Society

Adopting: Shy and Fearful Cats

DecompressForSuccess.jpgWhen 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. For a general timeline of the adjustment period, check out: 3-3-3 Rule. Keep in mind: every pet is an individual with unique tolerance and stress levels. Some pets adjust more quickly than others. 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. It can take new pets around 3 months to feel fully comfortable in a new home, but for some it may be longer. The most important thing you can do is be patient and compassionate. However, there are additional things you can do to help your newly adopted pet adjust. Here is basic information to support your new shy cat during their transition into your home. For additional tips, check out: Shy & Fearful Cat Tips and Helping the Shy or Fearful Cat.

Body Language feline-ladder-agression-dr-foote.jpgBody Language of Feline Anxiety - Poster.jpgFear_Free_FAS_Spectrum_Cat.jpgCAT LANGUAGE_LChin.jpg

Cats do not speak human languages and instead communicate primarily through body language and behavior. You can better understand what your cat is feeling by observing their ears, tail, eyes, mouth, body and fur. Ask yourself: Are my cat's ears perked forward or pulled back? Is their tail hanging loose or up and stiff? Are their eyes soft and relaxed or wide and alert? Is their body crouched and stiff or relaxed? Is their fur flat, puffed up or rippling? All of these questions can help you notice and identify your cat's body language. From their you can interpret these signals to determine what they are trying to communicate. It is important to listen to your cat's signals and respect their boundaries, so they don't feel the need to escalate to "louder" forms of communication (growl or swat or bite). To learn about more about these signals and what they mean, check out our Reading Body Language YouTube playlist.

CATS-need---Lili-Chin-2022.jpgSpace Isolation and Confinement

Begin by giving your cat access to just one small room in your home. A bathroom, a walk-in closet or a spare bedroom are all excellent options for a "safe space." Ideally, this safe space would be a quiet area of the home that is not frequently used or passed through. Avoid choosing a high-traffic area of the home for your shy cat's safe space. The more calm the better! 

The safe space should have everything your cat will need. 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!

This smaller space will allow your cat to adjust much more quickly, making the transition easier -- especially for cats adopted from a shelter. In most shelter environments, cats are housed in kennels or small rooms. It can be overwhelming and stressful for cats to suddenly move from a smaller kennel environment to a much larger space (i.e. an entire house or apartment). Immediately giving your new cat access to your entire home may be detrimental, as shy cats often find a single hiding spot and remain hidden. A "safe space" offers your newly adopted cat a quiet, transitional space to ease this stress and help them adjust to their new home, before they are given access to the entire home. Once they are getting more comfortable in their safe space, they will start exploring more and hiding less. 

For more information on the importance of a "safe space," check out this article on Cat Confinement in a New Home

Cat-Toileting.jpgSafe Space Setup

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

  • Low Traffic, Minimal Activity. Choose a space that is relatively quiet and calm, without many people passing through daily. For example, choose a guest bathroom over the main bathroom that the family uses every day. 
  • A litter box should always be available. Place the litter box away their food and water. Scoop the litter box 1-2 times daily. Clean the litter box and replace the litter around once a month (4-6 weeks). Additionally, keep the room tidy without piles of clothes or blankets to help discourage any inappropriate elimination. For more tips or if your cat is experiencing litter box issues, check out: Litter Boxes 101.UpgradetoFirstClass.jpg
  • A food bowl and a water bowl. Place them away from the litter box. The water bowl should always be full of fresh clean water. Feed your cat as directed by your vet, depending on their age and weight.
  • Places to hide. Offer a variety of hiding options where your cat can hide completely, such a cat tree cubby, hidey-hole or carrier covered with a towel. You can drape blankets or towels on furniture or cat trees to provide make-shift hiding spots.
  • Somewhere to scratch. Offer at least one surface for your cat to scratch and kneed, however offering multiple scratchers and a variety of different types (vertical scratchers and scratching posts, horizontal scratching mats, angled scratching boards, etc.) is ideal. Offer different scratching textures (carpet, sisal, cardboard, or wood) to discover your cat's preference. A proper scratching surface will be at least 1.5WhatIsPetEnrichment.jpg times the length of a cat’s body so they can fully extend their arms and scratch. For more information on the importance of scratching, check out the article: Scratching: Why Cats Do It.
  • Rest and relaxation. Provide multiple areas for your cat to rest (cat beds or blankets or mats). There should be at least one resting area up high, between 3-5 feet, because cats often seek safety this way. Other resting areas may be located lower or level with the ground. 
  • Enrichment! Enrichment is any rewarding activity or item that encourages species-typical behaviors, such as scratching, playing, foraging or jumping. Enrichment that requires animals to use their brains and nose will burn energy, reduce stress and promote relaxation. Cat toys, puzzle toys, cat trees or shelves, treat balls and puzzle feeders are popular enrichment items for cats. For more ideas, check out: Enrichment Resources YouTube playlist and Enrichment: Indoor Activities.

Relationship Building

  • The Power of Food: Offering meals and treats will naturally help you build a relationship with your cat, as your cat begins to associate you with food. Through counter conditioning, we can use food to help our pets create positive association with us and other things. For more information, check out this article: What is Desensitization & Counter conditioning?
  • High-value Treats: Try a variety of treats, such as Temptations, canned chicken or tuna, or Churu lickable treats, 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.
  • Scent Swapping: Your newly adopted shy or fearful cat is likely to be unsure of you and your family at first. Don't take this personally, they will just need to time to learn you our their new family! You can help your cat become more comfortable with the people and other pets in the family by getting them used to your scents. Place a used blanket or worn item of clothing in your cats safe space so they can become familiar with your scent. If you have other pets, place one of their used blankets, pet beds or toys in your new cats safe space. Try sprinkling treats near or on these items so your new cat associates those smells with good things! (For more information on introducing cats to your other pets, check out: B&T Lecture - Introducing New Pets, Introducing Cats, and Introducing Dogs to Cats.)
  • Treat Retreat Game: Gather all of your cat's most favorite treats. Find somewhere to sit down in your cat's safe space where you can see your cat but are not too close to them. Avoid pressuring them to interact or come near you (Check out this video on Social Pressure & Animal Interactions). Assume non threatening body orientation and avoid directly facing your cat or making direct eye contact. If you are going to talk to your cat during this exercise, use a calm, soothing voice (Check out this video: How to use your voice as a training tool). Gently and carefully toss treats to your cat -- avoid hitting your cat with the treats! Aim for the treat to land farther away from you, so yourInteractive-Cat-Play-2-22-2021.jpg cat gets to move AWAY from you to get the treat. Do not use the treats to lure your cat to come closer to you, this creates pressure and stress and can cause your cat to associate you with those negative feelings. We want your cat to associate you with the treats AND the feeling of relief they get when they move away from you (the thing they are unsure of). For a video example of this exercise, check out: Greeting Games - Treat Retreat.
  • 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!
  • Follow your cat's lead: Allow your cat to move at their speed and choose whether or not to interact with people (Check out this video: The Importance of Choice in Animal Training). Read and respond to your cat’s body language to assure that they feel comfortable (Check out this article: Does Your Pet Not Like To Be Touched?). Allow your cat to choose to come toward you to consent to interactions (Check out this video: What Consent Looks Like in Cats). Do not force your cat to be pet, especially if they are displaying body language consistent with discomfort, fear or aggression (Check out this article: Study: Letting cats decide when to be petted avoids hostility & increases their affection).

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. Be careful using catnip if your cat is easily overstimulated or overexcited (Check out this article: Overexcited & Energetic Cats).

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.

Please visit our website for a current schedule of training classes or call 619-279-5961. 

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