photos and text by Ramona D. Marek, MS Ed
A knock at the door, sudden loud noise or strange voices changes our cat, Natasha, from Diva to scaredy cat in a nanosecond as she runs lickety-split straight under the cover, her cat mojo completely evaporated. If she feels especially threatened she’ll throw in a hiss, growl or paw swipe in her wake as an added measure of protection.
There are many reasons some cats may be shy, timid or fearful including lack of socialization as a kitten, genetics, trauma or living in stressful environments. Examples of stressful conditions include any change in the home from a slight change (smells, sounds or sights) to major events (new home, new baby, new pets, divorce, pain, illness, among others). Living in a constant state of anxiety increases unhealthy levels of stress which can lead to physical illness, especially lower urinary tract disease. A shy cat may never blossom into a social butterfly but you can help your scaredy cat become more confident, which will make her happier and healthier too.
Create a safe, calm environment
A safe, secure home environment is an essential foundation for building confidence in shy cats. Here are some ways to turn your home into your cat’s safe haven.
- Hide aways. Fearful cats feel more secure when they know they can’t be seen. It’s important to provide safe hiding spaces throughout your home for your cat’s refuge. Some ideas include boxes, cat carrier, dome beds and cat trees. You can also buy a tent or create your own by draping a towel or blanket over a piece of furniture. Sometimes I drape a blanket over the middle tier of the cat tree which makes an extra hiding space.
- Vertical space. Cats find security in high places from which they can observe the action without necessarily participating. Cat trees give fearful cats choices–they can observe from an open perch, the highest perch offers more security with the advantage of not being ambushed or if kitty feels especially vulnerable, a cubby box atop the cat tree offers even greater security. Other vertical options include wall-mounted perches, window perches or a special spot on your desk.
- Calming aides. The use of synthetic pheromones help create a sense of calm in the home to help reduce stress. The products come in plug-in diffuser, spray and wipes. I use two plug-ins in our home, one is the original calming and the other is the multi-cat formula. Other calming products include chewable treats with L-theanine, to help reduce stress levels and flower remedies, such as Bach’s Rescue Remedy.
- Studies show that cats respond to certain kinds of music which produces a calming effect as measured by lower blood pressure, decreased respiratory and heart rates. The music is not just any classical music but species-specific music. David Teie, composer and soloist with America’s National Symphony Orchestra, composed music simulating purrs, heartbeat and feline-specific sounds designed to calm cats. Purrfect for listening to in the home or car ride on a trip to the vet. Cat Calm Radio, brought to you by WHISKAS, plays David Teie’s Music for Cats. CDs and digital downloads are also available.
Listen here: http://www.catcalmradio.com
Use finesse, not force
Helping a fearful cat takes time, on the cat’s time, if it’s going to be successful. Grabbing a fearful cat, pulling her from under the covers and forcing her to interact is contrary to your goal of building confidence. This action is counter productive, it sets back any gains your cat already made, by reinforcing the fear and it’s a breach of trust your cat had with you. Instead of using force, use feline finesse.
- Make it positive. Any time your kitty makes the smallest, positive step, reward her behavior with her favorite treat. If your fearful kitty doesn’t take a treat from your hand, toss it to her. Gradually shorten the distance. If wet food is the treat of choice, you can use a long-handled baby spoon. You can tape the baby spoon to a long wooden spoon if your cat prefers a bit more distance.
- Interactive play. Interactive play with a fishing pole toy is a great way to bring out a hint of bold in a shy cat. The pole keeps a comfortable distance between you and your cat while steadily building confidence as well as your bond. Keep the actions low-key yet challenging enough to engage your cat’s prey drive.
- Cats communicate their feelings with body language from the tip of the nose to tip of the tail. When we misunderstand, ignore, or don’t know the cues, what’s a cat to do? If your cat’s body language is telling you to “Back off!” and you continue moving toward her, she’ll learn to run from you. If she feels cornered, disrespecting her warning could lead to injury, scratches and bites. Learn to read your cat’s body language and respect the message.
Working with a shy, fearful cat is a slow journey that takes time, patience and understanding. At times it may feel like you take one step forward and two back, that’s okay, remember you’re on cat time. The reward is a more confident, happier, healthier cat.
Do you have a fearful cat? How do you deal with it? Leave a comment below, share your thoughts, or ask Ramona a question. Upvote or downvote this article below.
Ramona D. Marek, MS Ed is the award-winning author of “Cats for the GENIUS” and has won numerous awards for articles about pet care, health and behavior, and cats in the arts. She finds inspiration in her two feline muses, Tsarevich Ivan, a joie de vivre silver tabby Siberian, and Natasha Fatale, a full-time diva dressed as an “anything but plain” brown tabby. You can read more about Ramona and her work at www.RamonaMarek.com.