No Cats Under the Bed: Socializing a Shy or Fearful Cat

For a shy or under-socialized cat, the world can be a scary place. If a cat feels threatened by the world around them (even if these threats are imagined), they can quickly withdraw from social activities and spend all day hiding under the bed or in a closet. What we want is for these cats to gain confidence and claim (or reclaim) ownership of their indoor territory. Working with a shy/fearful cat takes time and patience, but the experience is extremely rewarding!

socializing-cat-before

When Kitty arrived, she was very fearful and would retreat when approached by our staff.

socializing-cat-after

After many weeks of socialization, she was much more comfortable and gladly received attention.

Start to socialize a shy or fearful cat

Make their world smaller

Cats are territorial animals. For shy cats, too much territory can be overwhelming, so it’s important to start small. Set your cat up in one room of your home—a bathroom or small bedroom will do—and place all the essentials inside: litter box, food, water, toys, and bed. The goal is for the cat to eventually have access to the whole house, so this a temporary set-up. Do not feel guilty for keeping your cat confined. This is a training tool and an essential part of the process.

Minimize hiding spots. If using a bedroom, you may need to block off access to under the bed. While hiding spots help a fearful cat to feel safe, we need them to be open enough so that we can reach in and socialize with the cat, even when they’re hiding. A cardboard box or other open-sided container can work well for this. If using a bathroom, close the toilet lid and put away any chemicals or beauty products the cat might get into.

Read your cat: body language says more than words

While working with your cat, pay close attention to its body language. This will be your guide as to how your cat is feeling and responding to you.

Fearful/Shy Unsure/Improving Relaxed/Friendly
Ears
  • pinned flat against head
  • lowered, 
turned to the side
  • “airplane” ears
  • upright, 
facing forward
Eyes
  • wide-eyed
  • pupils dilated
  • slow-blinking
  • pupils partially dilated
  • slow-blinking or closed
  • pupils relaxed
Whiskers and Mouth
  • whiskers flat against face
  • lip-licking
  • whiskers relaxed to the side
  • some lip-licking
  • whiskers to the side or forward
  • no lip-licking
Body
  • huddled
  • muscles tense
  • leaning away or poised to flee
  • more relaxed
  • will expose chin or lean into petting
  • very relaxed
  • might expose belly
  • purring
Tail
  • tucked completely under body
  • puffed up if startled
  • kept close to body
  • held low if cat is walking around
  • relaxed tail
  • held up if cat is walking around

Give them time – no touching, please!

The first step to earning a cat’s trust is to prove that you’re not trying to grab or do anything to them, which means no touching! This calls for a lot of self-restraint on our part, as it can be very tempting to pet the cat.

If the cat is extremely shy (runs away when you approach), get it used to your presence before even attempting to make contact. This is a great time to catch up on TV or read a book. You can even take a nap. Spend at least twenty minutes sitting as close to the cat as it feels comfortable; this could mean starting on the opposite side of the room! Pretty soon the cat will learn that whether or not you’re around, nothing negative will happen to it. The cat is also getting to know your smell and your energy. Try to remain as relaxed as possible during these sessions and avoid loud noises or quick movements. The cat can also get used to your voice, so if reading a book, read out loud.

Create a confident hunter

Cats were put on this earth to hunt and kill things, which means that a confident cat is a confident hunter. Start using interactive toys (typically wand toys) to engage the cat in play sessions.

If the cat does not seem interested in play, do not dangle toys in the cat’s face as this might scare or annoy the cat. It’s okay if the cat does not play at first. Even getting the cat to watch the toy race across the floor or fly in the air is a good start. If the cat is being housed with a more confident cat, it can watch the other cat play. This is still progress.

You will probably find that as the cat gets more used to your presence and the toy, it will start batting at the toy when it flutters by! This is a fantastic step in building confidence. Eventually, the cat might become more interactive and you can use the toy to lure the cat from its bed or hiding spot and out into the middle of the room.

Bridge the gap – encourage physical contact

There are a few ways to start petting the cat. The first technique is to use a wooden or plastic back scratcher or similar type stick. This works well because if the cat swats at or attempts to bite the scratcher, your hand will not be in the way.  The cat is usually more willing to allow the scratcher to approach, because it is not as threatening as a hand (which might be trying to grab it). Also, the cat will learn that being “pet” by the scratcher feels good, and will be more likely to allow your hand access later on.

You can also bridge the gap using a toy. If the cat is watching or playing with the toy, even if the cat won’t leave its hiding spot, you can use it to get closer to the cat. With a wand toy, grab further down the string or wire to shorten the distance between the cat and your hand. Use the toy to gently “pet” the cat on its cheeks. You can then work your hand down the toy until you are petting the cat’s cheeks with the toy and your hand. If the cat allows that, then you can remove the toy and continue petting gently with your hand.

socializing-cat-pettingWhen petting a shy cat, stick to the places cats most like to be pet: cheeks and chin! Cats have scent glands in their cheeks and chin, so you are making your hands smell more familiar to the cat and allowing the cat to “mark” you as theirs. Be careful about petting over the head, as it can seem intimidating to fearful cats. Also note that some cats do not like their bodies, bellies, or tails pet, so use caution and pay close attention to the cat’s body language when touching those sensitive areas or avoid them altogether.

For cats that try to run away when you pet them, go extra slow. Use only an extended finger to pet the cat as this will seem less intimidating than a whole hand. Give the cat an opportunity to sniff your finger a few times before trying to pet it. When the cat seems fairly comfortable, stroke the cat’s cheek gently with your finger. If the cat tenses its body to run away, remove your hand and wait for a moment before trying to pet again. Pay close attention to the cat’s body language and stop petting the cat before it tenses up.

Finally, always try to end socialization sessions on a positive note! If you’ve been successful with petting the cat or getting it play with a toy, end the session instead of trying to push things further.

Reward interactive behavior

Ultimately we want the cat to be the one to initiate social activities like petting and cuddling. One way to encourage this is to reward the cat with play or with a high-value treat when it moves toward you to sniff or touch. Allow the cat to disengage when it wants to.

If the cat is unsure about initiating touch, use a toy to play with the cat and slowly bring the toy closer and closer to you. Allow the cat to catch the toy near your foot or legs and climb over your lap to get the toy, without trying to pet the cat. Once the cat is more comfortable being around you and touching you, you can introduce very light, gentle pets in between tossing the toy.

The same technique can be used for very food-motivated cats. Lure the cat closer to you with high-value treats. Do not pet the cat. Lure the cat into and across your lap. Once the cat does this consistently and gets used to touching you, you can very gently pet the cat before giving it a treat.

Make their world bigger

Once the cat becomes confident in the smaller room and has consistent relaxed body posture and will play, eat, and socialize with you, you can begin to allow access to the rest of your home. Distract the cat from nervousness by playing with a toy or tossing treats which will also reward the cat for exploring its new territory. If possible, return the cat to its safe room when you’re not there so that the cat doesn’t become too overwhelmed with the change.

Most cats (though not all cats) feel confident when they are able to get up high and survey the land. Provide your cat vertical territory by using cat trees, shelves, or other furniture in strategic places around the house. Ideally, cats should be able to traverse a room without ever having to touch the ground!

Patience is key!

Socialization is not a straight line. A cat might make great progress one day and backslide a bit the next. That’s okay. In the end, progress is up to the cat, and it’s our job to be patient and encouraging! It can be helpful to take notes on the time you spend with your cat and what happened so that you can look back and see how much progress you’ve made. Good luck!

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By | 2017-04-20T13:20:02+00:00 June 8th, 2015|Cat Behavior|

About the Author:

Liz Pashley is the foster coordinator for Best Friends Animal Society - Los Angeles and volunteers weekly with the cats at Heaven on Earth. She originally hails from the east coast, where she began volunteering at the Animal Rescue League of Boston over 5 years ago. She is the proud owner of three adopted cats and runs a cat-centric blog at alcoholcats.com.