How to Socialize a shy or fearful cat

Like dogs, socialization is also essential for cats. And how to socialize a shy or fearful cat? With calm and precise methods.

Socialization is a fundamental step in the growth and behavioral evolution of pets, dogs and cats in particular. But of course, depending on the character of our pet we may need to find a more particular method in case there are special needs. Socializing a shy or very fearful cat can become complex, but it is not impossible. Thanks to the behaviorist experts, it is possible to learn how to proceed to socialize our cat, even if a little closed in character.

The socialization of cats

Cats can develop fear of people they don’t know for many reasons. Our feline friends have unique personalities, and some are simply more outgoing than others. However, if a cat is calm and friendly to his family but is afraid of visitors, it is often due to not having had enough experience meeting new people when he was very young.

To be sociable and comfortable with all types of people, a cat must have frequent opportunities to meet many new and different people, in pleasant and stress-free circumstances, when still a kitten, especially between two and seven weeks old. Cats that haven’t spent much time with humans when they were kittens, such as former stray cats, can remain nervous in contact with people, throughout their lives. 

Even cats who have met many people as kittens may be afraid of specific types of people they have not met very often, such as children, tall people, or men. Having a bad experience with a person can also make a cat fearful of humans. This fear may remain specific to the person involved in the bad experience, or it may expand to include other people as well.

Other possible explanations for our cat’s behavior? Any sudden change in the cat’s behavior could indicate an underlying medical condition. If we notice any unusual physical or behavioral changes, or if our cat stops eating, it’s best to see your vet right away to rule out any health problems.

How to solve the problem

Prevention is the best medicine. If we have a kitten, it is essential to give him / her many opportunities to meet new people of different ages, sizes, shapes, breeds and genders. Let’s make sure it also interacts with people who seem unique for some reason, such as people in wheelchairs, people who wear hats and glasses, and people with beards. Whenever the kitten approaches a new person, we must reward him with praise, attention, play sessions or food rewards.

If we have an adult cat who is afraid of people, the main way to help him relax around guests is to encourage him to get closer very gradually and give him lots of rewards along the way. When visitors arrive, we can try various solutions, listed below.

  • We ask guests to have the cat approach them instead of approaching him / her.
  • We ask guests to squat, or sit down so they look smaller and less intimidating to the cat. Staying calm and avoiding direct eye contact will make guests less frightening for the cat.
  • We choose someone that the cat loves and trusts: it will be the person who will offer food rewards or encourage him to play, as far away from visitors as possible to make him feel comfortable.
  • If the cat does not want to come out of hiding, we try to shake the box of his kibble, or open a package of his food, this could convince him to go out. We can also try to close the doors before the visitors arrive so that the cat cannot hide in another room.
  • If the cat can remain calm enough to eat or play at a distance from visitors, gradually invite them to approach with treats in food or toys. If the cat comes within a few feet of visitors, ask your guests to gently throw treats or toys for him.
  • Cats have fairly short attention spans. The cat may prefer to leave or hide after a few minutes. Let’s let it go and don’t feel discouraged, let’s try another short session later.
  • Anti-anxiety medications could help alleviate our cat’s fear, especially if we have frequent guests, or if the cat is particularly frightened. We contact a certified veterinary behaviorist or our veterinarian, in all cases, before giving your cat any type of medication for a behavioral problem.

Additional tips

To socialize the shy cat, we can try other methods. We try to always provide many perches for our cat, such as furniture, scratching posts and cat frames, shelves or wall mounted cat beds. Your cat may feel more comfortable observing visitors from a high point.

There are odorless products for us humans that simulate relaxing and natural smells for the cat. They are designed to help the cat reduce its nervousness, thanks to the pheromones contained in them. It might be an idea to use one of these sprays all over the house before visitors arrive.

If we are unable to feed or play with the cat when visitors arrive, if we are organizing a large or noisy event, or if our kitty is too afraid to approach visitors, we can arrange a comfortable shelter for him in a quiet room, with the door closed. We provide our pet with food, water, a bed and a litter box. We let the cat stay in this peaceful haven until the guests leave. During the visit, we go from time to time to the quiet room to check on the cat, and offer treats or play, but we always keep the door closed and ask guests not to enter. It’s a good idea to put a sign on the door as a useful reminder.

What not to do absolutely? We must NEVER force the cat to get close to someone he is afraid of. This will only increase the fear of him and we will only risk that he may scratch or bite us or our visitors.

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