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San Diego Humane Society

Behavior Challenges: Shy and Fearful Cats

Many cats are fearful in a new environment and need some time to adjust. Fearful cats avoid people or things that frighten them, they may hide or seem uninterested and sometimes hiss, spit or swat to make what they’re afraid of go farther away. If you’ve decided to share your life with a shy cat, take heart. The following information can help you understand what he is feeling and give you ways to help him feel better.

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Tips for Working with Shy Cats

For additional tips, check out: Helping the Shy or Fearful Cat.

  • Fearful cats do best in relatively quiet and calm homes.
  • Provide your cat with a safe, small, quiet room or space at first. (Check out this article on Cat Confinement in a New Home for more information on the importance of a "safe space.")
  • This space can be set up with appropriate hiding places, like a cat tree and cozy blankets.
  • Be sure your cat’s space has a litter box within easy reach of the cat, but away from food and water.WhatIsPetEnrichment.jpg
  • Consider using a Feliway diffuser or spray, which mimics cats' pheromones to help them relax. 
  • Avoid staring, direct eye contact or towering over your cat.
  • Avoid making loud noises.
  • Avoid pulling or forcing your cat out of hiding or to be held (Watch this video on What Consent Looks Like in Cats).
  • Speak softly and calmly (Watch this video on How to Use your Voice as a Training Tool).
  • Allow your cat to choose to approach or interact — or not (Watch this video on Social Pressure and Animal Interactions).Interactive-Cat-Play-2-22-2021.jpg
  • Encourage play with interactive toys, such as a cat charmer or feather wand.
  • Build confidence and positive interactions through reward-based, force-free training methods (Watch this video on Positive Reinforcement and why you should use it, especially with fearful animals).
  • Pair your voice or petting with high-value foods. (Check out this video on Paw Touches to see an example of pairing touch with treats. You can use this same technique for general body handling and petting.)+R_LChin.jpg
  • Praise and treat to make positive associations with new sights and sounds and for relaxed, calm behavior. (Watch this video on Desensitizing a Kitten to Rain and Thunderstorms to see an example of using treats to create positive associations with new sights and sounds.)
  • Never yell or hit your cat, because this will reinforce their fear and could encourage them to become aggressive (Watch this video on Positive Punishment and why you shouldn't use it, especially with fearful animals). Watch this video to learn how to Stop Unwanted Behavior Without Intimidation.Behavior-Suppression-iceberg-graphic.jpg
  • When your cat is showing signs of exploring, gradually let them explore the rest of the house.

Signs of Stress

Cats can experience stress, anxiety or fear for a wide range of reasons that can vary from loud noises or a new person in their favorite room to anBody Language of Feline Anxiety - Poster.jpganimal walking outside their home or even if they feel ill. (Watch this short video on Trigger Stacking & Stress Hormones to learn how stress affects our pets.) By watching your cat's body language, you may see certain behaviors that indicate stress. It's also important to understand that some of these behaviors help them cope and can help them calm down.

For more in-depth information on cat body language, check out this B&T Lecture: Can You Speak Dog or Cat?

  • YawningCAT LANGUAGE_LChin.jpg
  • Lip licking
  • Freezing
  • Blinking
  • Grooming
  • Looking away (avoidance)
  • Hiding
  • Vocalizing
  • Dilated pupilsFear_Free_FAS_Spectrum_Cat (1).jpgCATS-need---Lili-Chin-2022.jpg
  • Whiskers twitching
  • Tail tucking or piloerection (hair standing up)
  • Play that's unusual for your cat

Training Exercises

Treat Drop:

1. Gather high-value treats in a bowl, bag or treat pouch. Or grab a squeezable liquid treat like Churu Lickable Cat Treats

2. Slowly and quietly enter your cat's safe space. You don't want to startle or frighten your cat.

3. Speak to your cat in a quiet, calm and soothing voice. Avoid direct eye-contact or staring at your cat. 

4. Turn your body slightly so you are not directly facing your cat. 

5. Locate a spot of the room that is near your cat and in their view, but not too close to them. About 3-6 feet away from your cat. 

6. Slowly bend down and drop a small pile of treats where your cat can see them.

7. Slowly stand back up and walk away.

8. Exit the room. The goal is to simply leave treats for your cat and leave, without pressuring your cat to interact or do anything. This will help them associate your presence with good things. 

9. Wait at least 30 minutes to enter your cat's safe space again. Give them time to get the treats on their own time and go back to relaxing. We want to avoid interrupting your cat's relaxation or startling them by going in and out of their safe room too often. 

10. Repeat. 

Treat Retreat:

1. Gather high-value treats in a bowl, bag or treat pouch. Squeezable liquid treats like Churu Lickable treats won't work for this exercise.

2. Slowly and quietly enter your cat's safe space. You don't want to startle or frighten your cat.

3. Speak to your cat in a quiet, calm and soothing voice. Avoid direct eye-contact or staring at your cat. 

4. Turn your body slightly so you are not directly facing your cat. 

5. Locate a spot of the room that is near your cat and in their view, but not too close to them. About 5-10 feet away from your cat. 

6. Slowly sit down where your cat can see them. If possible, it's best to sit on the floor but a chair or couch works, too.

7. Gently toss a treat towards your cat, aiming for behind your cat. Be careful not to throw the treat at your cat -- don't hit your cat with the treat. The goal is for the treat to land farther away from you, so your cat must retreat to get the treat. We do not want to use the treats to lure your cat to come closer to you, this can make your cat feel pressured, uncomfortable and nervous. We want your cat to eventually want to willingly interact with you, not feel pressured to. This exercise allows your cat to get farther away from you, which will provide your cat a sense of relief and comfort. This helps your cat create a positive association with you by pairing your presence with treats and that feeling of relief.

8. Continue speaking in a calm, soothing tone and avoiding direct eye-contact or staring at your cat. Keep your eyes soft and blink slow. 

9. If your cat does not go for the treat, that's okay. End the exercise with a treat drop and leave the room. Your cat may not be ready to engage in the the Treat Retreat exercise. If your cat does go for the treat, they may decide to maintain their distance or they may approach you for more treats. In either case, continue tossing the treats farther away. 

10. Keep the session short, around 5-10 minutes. End the exercise with a treat drop and exit the room. If your cat follows you and wants to continue to engage, awesome! If not, leave them alone and let them decompress. 

Engage Disengage:

Recommended Reading on Cat Behavior

  • Feline Body Language Signals — Stress
  • “Cat Sense” by John Bradshaw
  • “Total Cat Mojo: The Ultimate Guide to Life With Your Cat” by Jackson Galaxy
  • “The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat” by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis

Shy Cat Training Class

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. This class is offered every approximately every three months and meets once a week for an hour for five weeks. If this class isn't currently scheduled, join us for one of our other cat classes. 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 seven days, but responses may take up to two 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, but it will also strengthen the bond you share.

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

View Training Classes   Gift a Training Class


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