Scaredy Cat

CatChannel behavior expert Marilyn Krieger, CCBC, explains why shelter cats can be shy and fearful.

By Marilyn Krieger | Posted: June 6, 2008 2 a.m. EDT

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Q: I rescued a 1-year-old male from a shelter. He is extremely shy and hides in the corners of his small room. We have had him for two weeks, and when we first got him he did not eat for three days. He hisses if we try to pet him on his lower back, but he seems to enjoy being petted on his face. He will not leave his room now that we keep the door open (supervised) on occasion, while our other cats (four neutered males aged 10 months to 2 years) are closed off in a separate area. I carried him out of his room one time and placed him on my lap, but he became scared, his eyes became completely dilated and he looked around the room. Since he was clearly scared, I put him down, and he walked crouched back to his small room, where I closed him back in.
He ignores any toys including wand toys, which our cats just love. I have a couple of cat nip toys in his room that he might be playing with, but he never plays with them in front of my husband or me.
Is this normal behavior? What can we do to get this cat to explore outside his room, play or act like our other cats? Is there any hope that he will adjust and become friendly to us and the other cats?

A: Time and patience are two of the key factors in helping to convert your little scaredy cat into a more secure, outgoing cat. Becoming the provider of everything good will also help bring this little one around. You already have made some progress, but you need to slow down and allow him to set the pace.

Some cats can take months before they feel safe enough in their new home to come out of their shells. Don’t forget that you don’t know what the first year of life was like for this kitty. He might have been abused, neglected or never properly socialized. Also, the shelter experience is usually rough for most cats.

It is very important that you respect the cat’s schedule. Don’t force him to be petted or picked up. Instead, let him come to you. There are many activities that you can do that will help him feel safe enough to eventually interact more with you.

Keep the door to his room closed. He needs to feel safe, and you want him to bond with you and not the other cats. It is important that he sees you as the one being who provides him with food, comfort and a social life. Go often into his room. Every time you go in, toss him delicious snacks. Spend time with him in his room. Read, talk softly and sing songs to him so that he gets accustomed to your voice, your smell and your gifts. Don’t try to pick him up; let him come to you.
Cats are formal animals. They have greeting protocols that should be respected. This is especially true with shy and scared cats. Instead of approaching and petting or picking up your little shy boy, sit a short distance away and extend your finger in his direction. When he’s ready to interact with you, he will approach you. Touch your finger with his nose and mouth, then turn so that he can mark you with his cheek. Translation from cat to people language is simply “Hello.” After he greets you, you can gently pet his cheek, head and other parts he enjoys being stroked. After awhile, you might be able to lure him on to your lap with a promise of an especially enticing treat.

After he feels secure and doesn’t hide in the corners, open the door of his room. Talking softly and enticing him with treats will help encourage him to explore outside his room. Make sure that he cannot meet any of your other cats until he’s completely acclimated.

Clicker training is also an effective and fun way of converting a shy cat into a more social kitty.

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Reader Comments

Mariyn    Columbus, NE

11/22/2012 7:12:49 AM

My 18 month old longhair gets terrified when the doorbell rings, even if it is on TV. She will run and hide under the bed for a long time. We just let her be and eventually she comes out as though nothing happened. I don't think there is a cure for this.

mom    San Diego, CA

8/13/2012 11:13:53 AM

It seems to me that a scaredy cat is one of the hardest of all behavior problems to deal with. Heart breaking too. It takes a LOT of patience!

Shannon    cc, KS

12/3/2010 4:10:17 PM

We recently brought in a 6th rescue cat, and we have never had much of a problem - use a separate room for sometimes days, sometimes a few weeks, until cats are all comfortable with each other. Our newest, Pixy, is terrified of two of the other cats (she seems fine with the siamese twins and our little Lilly, as long as they aren't too forward) but she really dislikes Sasha and as soon as she sees her, she begins to growl and if Sasha gets too close she screams like she's being beaten! this gets Taz wound up and he comes in to save Sasha. There hasn't been anything physical, it's all posturing, but it is very consistent. If we have her out of the room too much, she will potty (both ways) somewhere in the living room. She's been here a month, and actually seems to be getting worse as time goes on. Sasha is not aggressive at all, she only seems curious, however Taz does get aggressive once she gets really vocal. I am stumped. any suggestions?

Loretta    Maynard, MA

5/11/2009 10:25:53 AM

One of my cats is a scaredy cat. It's taken over 2 1/2 years, but over time he began to let me pet him; he comes to me & lets me know when he's hungry. It's taken time and patience, but eventually the scaredy cat becomes trusting. Thanks for the article.

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