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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

Need personalized help or training? Take our Shy Cat training class. This online course teaches you how to help your shy cat build their confidence as needed within your home. Your cat isn't required to join you over Zoom, and the sessions are recorded each week so you can work through the materials at your cat's pace. If this class isn't currently scheduled, join us for one of our other cat classes.

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.

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. 

View Training Classes   Gift a Training Class


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