Helping a Shy or Fearful Cat Adjust to Your Home

August 2019

Audience: Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers

Fear is common and a perfectly normal, innate, and adaptive behavior in all animals. However, if fear isn't addressed appropriately, it can develop into serious behavioral and health problems. Be proactive in managing your cat's fearfulness or shyness.

Introduction to a new home can be very challenging for a fearful cat. Fearful cats usually do best in relatively quiet homes or quiet areas of the home. Many fearful cats slowly become more confident as they get used to their living space and daily routine. At first a fearful cat should be confined to a small, quiet room with some hiding spots. Safe hiding spots can be boxes, pet carriers, cat trees, or blankets. Do not allow cats to hide in inaccessible spaces such as closets, behind heavy furniture, or under beds. Place food, water and the litter box within easy reach. Continue to keep your cat confined until they feel comfortable and are showing signs of wanting to explore more of their surroundings. Once your cat wants to explore the rest of the house, make sure they always have the ability to return to their safe space at any time.

When interacting with a fearful or shy cat, it is best to sit quietly nearby and let them investigate you on their own terms. Never startle your cat and avoid anything noisy in the house during the introduction period. Put off loud chores or events like vacuuming, moving furniture, or dinner parties until later. It helps to play soft music and use calming scents to make the environment more comforting to the fearful cat. Talk softly and move slowly around your cat. Avoid staring at your cat or approaching them directly because this can seem threatening to a cat. Instead, try getting down to your cat's level by kneeling or sitting on the floor.

Food can be used as a positive bonding tool. Feed your cat at scheduled meal times instead of leaving food out all the time. This will help your cat make positive associations with people.

Never attempt to pull your cat from their hiding place or force them to be held. This will increase your cat's fearfulness and may even result in bites or scratches. When your cat is ready, they will approach you.

Encourage interactive play with toys (e.g. cat dancer or fishing pole type toy). Some cats are very play-motivated and regular play sessions can help bring them out of their shell and out of hiding.

Introduction to other household pets should happen gradually. It is best to do pet-to-pet introductions after the cat is comfortable with their new home and caretakers. See Introducing Cats to Other Cats and Introducing Cats and Dogs handouts for more information.

Patience and understanding are essential with fearful cats. They will give you plenty of love and purrs in return!

This document created by the San Francisco SPCA with a grant from Maddie's Fund®.

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