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San Diego Humane Society

Shy and Fearful Cat Tips

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

  • Fearful cats usually do best in relatively quiet homes.
  • Provide your cat with a safe, small, quiet room or space at first.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Speak softly and calmly.
  • Allow your cat to choose to approach or interact — or not.
  • 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.
  • Pair your voice or petting with high-value foods.
  • Praise and treat to make positive associations with new sights and sounds and for relaxed, calm behavior.
  • Never yell or hit your cat, because this will reinforce their fear and could encourage them to become aggressive.
  • 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 an animal walking outside their home or even if they feel ill. 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.

  • Yawning
  • Lip licking
  • Freezing
  • Blinking
  • Grooming
  • Looking away (avoidance)
  • Hiding
  • Vocalizing
  • Dilated pupils
  • Whiskers twitching
  • Tail tucking or piloerection (hair standing up)
  • Play that's unusual for your cat

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 once every three months, meets once a week for an hour for five weeks and costs $100. 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 behavior@sdhumane.org or filling out our Ask a Trainer form. We aim to respond within 7 days, but responses may take up to 2 weeks. Thank you for your patience!

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 619-299-7012, ext. 2398. 

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