Adopting a Shy Cat
Many cats in shelters who appear to be shy are actually stressed by their environment and prove to be outgoing, social cats once settled into a home. Others are truly shy and need controlled, prolonged exposure to warm up to any new person and situation. Regardless of which category your new pet falls in, she is going to need time and assistance to feel comfortable in her new home.
A Safe Space
Scared cats tend to prefer small spaces; large spaces are overwhelming and could contain too many “dangers.” Set up your cat in a quiet room, such as a spare bedroom or a bathroom. She should have access to water and a litter box at all times. Offer her a couple toys, such as a catnip mouse and a ball to bat around. A Comfort Zone® with Feliway® diffuser is highly recommended. The synthetic pheromone emitted helps cats feel secure.
She should also have a cozy place to hide. This could be a hut-type cat bed purchased from a pet store, a cardboard box with an opening cut in the side and bedding placed inside (keep the top flaps closed but don’t seal them), or a plastic shelving unit with bedding on one of the higher shelves and a towel or blanket draped over the front. Use what works for your home. It should be someplace the cat – and you – can easily access, but where the cat can be mostly out of view. Consider blocking access to hiding spots that seclude the cat too much or that could be dangerous. For example, if a bed is tucked in a corner of the room, place items under the half that abuts the wall. The cat can still go under the bed but she can’t get to the far corner where it will be difficult to socialize with her. Cats often feel safer when elevated; be cautious of loft rafters or attic access doors in closets.
In most cases, offering food as you would for a “normal” cat is fine, whether that involves leaving dry food out at all times or feeding meals at scheduled times. It is a good idea to measure the dry food you provide. This will allow you to monitor your cat’s appetite and let you know how much she is eating daily, or if she isn’t eating. Not eating for more than 2 days can be dangerous for a cat so you do need to see right away what her food consumption is.
Very fearful cats should not be free-fed. Food should be used to create a bond and help your cat learn to trust you. Offer canned food several times a day and remain in the room. Initially it might be necessary to spoon feed (which provides distance) the cat while she is in her hiding spot. As she becomes more comfortable, you can move a little closer and hand feed her, then transition to giving the food on a plate and luring her out of hiding to eat. If she won’t eat from the spoon, place the food as close as you can to the cat and simply sit at the farthest point in the room. Warming the food a bit could stimulate the appetite in a cat who otherwise isn’t eating in your presence.
You might be surprised how many shut down, fearful cats spring to life when invited to play. Interactive toys are a great way to bond with your new cat and help her feel more comfortable. Wand toys are the obvious choice. The Cat Charmer usually lives up to its name but there are plenty of options. Don’t fling the toy toward your cat; move it back and forth in front of her, drag it away from her occasionally, and lightly draw it toward her to re-engage. Straws, pipe cleaners, and the wand of a toy work well, too. Wiggle the toy back and forth across the floor or base of your cat’s hiding spot, a few inches from her face. Vary the speed so that it is occasionally crawling along and then briefly darting to and fro. Some cats will be more intrigued if their prey is hidden under a light blanket or towel and pops out at times.
Spend time each day with your cat. There is no magical amount of time that will work with every cat. You might chose to spend one longer chunk of time in the room or divide it up into several shorter visits. Be sure that you are speaking softly and moving slowly when in the room. Slow blinking, commonly called “kitty kisses,” does help to soothe some cats, and you might even get your cat blinking back at you.
Signs of Stress
In addition to hiding, cats in a new environment might over-groom, meow excessively, pace and seem restless, and even hiss due to their stress. Do not punish your cat for these behaviors! It is unlikely to stop the behaviors; in fact, it will probably only stress your cat more and cause the behaviors to intensify. It may also cause the cat to be distrustful of you. The above tips should yield some results within a few days, although it could take several weeks for your cat to become comfortable. Contact our behavior helpline (firstname.lastname@example.org) or another behavior specialist if your cat is not starting to relax at all after about a week, despite your best efforts.