by Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Skittish, shy or fearful cats tend to avoid people; we are bigger, scary and strong enough to force a cat to do as we ask. Making friends is the first step to helping the cat feel less threatened and building confidence.
Making friends requires time, patience, space, a positive attitude, no expectation of the outcome and special rewards for improved behaviour. It must also be understood that some cats will never make real friends with people for any number of reasons; some are generally anxious cats. Although food rewards are useful in the beginning, these can be interspersed with games, catnip, brushing and eventually cuddles.
There are some circumstances where a normally confident cat will appear shy or fearful for a short while, such as moving to a new house, the introduction or loss of another pet or person or renovations at home. These cats usually regain their friendly nature once they have accepted the change.
Skittish cats tend to prefer smaller territories; they have less to understand and fewer incidents to deal with. While it may be possible to create such a safe place, it may also isolate the cat and thus be counter-productive in fostering friendliness. This space will be her bolthole when she needs to get away from the world; choose the space carefully and make sure it is always available. Ideally, a safe place would be used as a starting point; once the cat becomes less fearful the door can be left open to allow her to slowly and safely explore the house and meet any other residents.
Observe how and where she feels safe; does she like to be under the bed, in a dark cupboard or up as high as possible. Creating similar alternative spots around the house will give her a sense of security when she ventures out.
Spend as much time in her presence as possible. Take a book, cup of coffee, laptop or knitting into her space. If possible and practical, sit on the floor so as not to seem so tall. Be calm and peaceful, avoid sudden movements and loud noises. Talk to her – read your emails, the news or your book. Slow blinking is a friendly gesture but avoid full eye contact.
The cat must always feel safe and in control of the situation in order to learn to trust people. When she hides, leave her there while continuing to interact by voice and remaining unthreatening. She must be the one to initiate contact, even then do not touch her until she is ready for it.
As she starts to come out of hiding and investigate, create a trail of treats around the area, initially not close to you. Gradually, over a few sessions or days, spread the treats further apart and slowly bring them closer to you. Catnip or other cat-friendly herbs and smells can also be used to encourage her to investigate.
Young or energetic cats may prefer a game to treats. Play using a wand toy, ball or laser pointer; these allow interaction with a degree of space.
It is important not to remove her initial safe hiding space until she has discovered other places to keep safe. Removing her safe space will create more fear and can lead to aggression and other unwanted behaviour. There must always be a safe route to the nearest hiding place.
For times when you are not with the cat, she will need stimulation and a reason to explore the space outside of her hiding place. Food should be placed close enough to the hiding place for easy access, and very gradually, over many sessions as she becomes more confident, it can be moved to another area. Scratching posts allow her to start marking her scent, window perches give a view of the outside world and gentle music helps to create a calm atmosphere. Music for cats is available to purchase, download, to play vis YouTube. Feliway diffusers and calming remedies can help cats to relax.
The most important aspect to remember when making friends with a shy or skittish cat is that she is in charge, and will decide when, where and for how long she will allow touch. These conditions can change with each session with her, until she feels that she can trust you to listen and respect her. If we are serious about making friends, we must allow the cat always to be in charge of the process.
Each cat is an individual; it can take days, weeks or months to make friends. When setbacks happen, go back to the beginning and work through the same steps. It should be a shorter process each time.
To contact Barbara, please email firstname.lastname@example.org