Thank you for taking on a shy or scared kitty. These tips will help your new friend settle in, gain confidence, and hopefully learn to enjoy the company of humans! Every shy kitty is different, but they all require a lot of patience and time. You might be able to socialize one kitty in a week, whereas others can take a month or more. Follow the steps below to help with the transition from scared kitty to confident kitty.
1. Set up their space
Having the run of the whole house can be intimidating for a shy kitty and they’re likely to run away from you and/or hide. This is why it’s best to start your shy kitty off in a small space like a bathroom, home office, or spare bedroom. Whatever space you use should not have any places where kitty can hide out of your reach (if you use a bedroom be sure to block off under the bed)! You’ll want to set up this room with a cardboard box tipped on its side or a carrier or crate (with the door open) that will be the kitty’s safe space. It’s important that you can still easily reach in to access the kitty. Also give them toys, a bed or blanket, and a scratcher or tree.
It’s important for you to spend as much time with your kitty in their safe space as possible even if you’re not directly interacting with them. You want them to get used to your presence and scent. You can sit and talk to your kitty, read a book out loud to them, watch Netflix on your phone, listen to a podcast, or bring in your laptop and do some work! Eventually your kitty may be curious about you and come up and sniff you.
Frequent visits throughout the day (hopefully with a treat in tow) will help your kitty understand that a human entering their space means good things are coming. Then rather than retreating to their hideaway, they may start to greet you at the door.
2. Play with interactive toys
Shy kitties are the opposite of confident kitties. A shy kitty may be afraid to come out of it’s hiding space when you’re near, or when it does come out it will stay close to the wall and walk past you quickly with its tail down. A confident kitty will walk slowly through the center of the room with its tail held high in the air. A great way to help a kitty gain confidence is through play – and lots of it! Cats are hunters by nature, so giving them a chance to practice their “hunting” skills by chasing interactive wand toys will go a long way. Try to devote a minimum of one hour each day to playing with your kitty – you can break this up into 2 or 3 shorter play sessions. Be sure to really fling those toys around so your kitty gets a good workout and is tired out when you’re done! Your kitty will be having so much fun they’ll forget they were scared of you!
3. Food and treats
Have you ever heard that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach? The same is true of cats! Sit with your kitty during meal times. At first you may have to sit across the room, but try to move as close as your kitty will let you during meal times. Eventually you should be able to have their food bowl on your lap! When a kitty is distracted by eating tasty food, it’s a good time to try petting it.
Baby food (Gerber Chicken or Turkey is great) and squeezable/lickable tube treats are a great way to win your new kitty over. The tube treats are a good place to start since the tube puts a few inches of distance between your and the kitty. Once the kitty is reliably eating treats from the tube, you can try putting a little of the treat on your finger and let the kitty lick it off your finger. This helps the kitty associate your hands with good things. Eventually you can try letting the kitty lick treats off your finger on one hand, and pet the kitty with your other hand. Also, when they learn that your hands often have treats on them, you can approach the kitty with an open hand to make them more comfortable with you approaching.
Treats are also a good tool to lure the kitty into your lap eventually. At first you may need to approach the kitty to give them treats. Eventually they might come toward you from a few feet away, and eventually from across the room! If you’re sitting down you can move treats closer to your body so eventually the kitty has to put their paws on you to reach the treat, and eventually lure them into your lap. You can even try associating a word with this, like “lap” or “up” so the kitty learns to go into your lap on command.
4. Touch, petting & body language
When you are ready to try petting your kitty it’s important to understand cat body language. A scared kitty might tense up, flatten its ears, hiss, swat, or try to run away. While it’s ok to test their boundaries, you do not want the kitty to associate you with negative experiences! This is why in the beginning I recommend distracting the kitty with food while trying to pet it. If a kitty hisses, swats, or flattens it’s ears that’s a warning to back off – you should heed this warning! And if they want to get up and leave when you’re petting them that’s ok, you can try again later. A great time to try petting kitties is when they’re sleepy, like after a great play session! Most cats like being petted on their cheeks and chin. Many also enjoy their neck and shoulders being rubbed, but many shy cats do not appreciate you reaching over their head so try the cheeks and chin first!
5. Expanding territory
Once your kitty starts walking around their room with their tail up and are receptive to you approaching them and touching them, you can try expanding their territory. You may need to do this room by room, or maybe your kitty is ready to have run of the whole house. If you let them out and find they’re spending a lot of their time hiding, you may need to shrink their territory again. I typically start kitties off in the master bathroom, then expand to the master bedroom when they seem ready. Remember the scratchers and toys you put in their room in Step 1? These will now have your kitty’s scent on them and they will recognize those objects as theirs. So when you expand your kitty’s territory, move some of those objects out of their room into their new space so they will recognize that space as theirs too.
6. Additional Resources
Jackson Galaxy is an excellent resource for everything related to cat behavior. If you ever have an issue with your kitty I highly recommend consulting his website or his YouTube channel.