Laura Cassiday is a certified cat behavior consultant (CCBC) and owner of Pawsitive Vibes Cat Behavior and Training. Laura is certified through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She is also a Fear Free certified animal trainer. Laura recently published her first book, The Complete Guide to Adopting a Cat (affiliate link*.) She works with cat guardians remotely from all over the world, as well as in-person in her local area of Baltimore, Maryland. For more information, visit Pawsitive Vibes Cat Behavior and Training.
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Hi Laura! I adopted a very shy adult cat last year. Charlie is very sweet, but I am having difficulty getting him to come out of his shell. He won’t let me pet him, and will usually run away if I walk into the room where he is. He will sometimes come to me if I offer him a treat, but not always, and once he has the treat, he will back away from me to eat it. I’ve tried playing with him using a kitty fishing pole, but he just ignores it.
I love this little fellow so much and don’t want to pressure him to interact with me, but I would be so happy if he would stay in the same room with me and maybe enjoy playing with some cat toys.
Thank you for your help!
Thanks so much for taking a chance on adopting a shy guy like Charlie. It’s so difficult when we want to give these cats their best lives and build a relationship with them, but they’re just too scared. Do you know anything about his history or where he came from?
It may be helpful to try to “reset” and back up to square one. Pretend that you just adopted him and brought him home for the first time. Fearful cats generally do better in a smaller space. I would take him back to just one room. Sometimes, lots of space can encourage fearful cats to keep their distance and they may feel more insecure in a bigger area than they would in just one room.
Turn this room into his sanctuary. You’ll want to block off “bad” hiding spots like under furniture. Cats under the bed tend to stay under the bed! Instead, give him lots of “good” hiding spots that still allow you to see him and access him in case of an emergency. A big, roomy carrier is my favorite hiding spot to offer a fearful cat. Cover it up with a towel or blanket and it becomes a perfect little cave. Plus, you are encouraging them to see a carrier as a safe space. It’s a win-win. Vertical space is important as well. He should have lots of safe spaces where he can peek at you from a comfortable distance.
Speaking of safe spaces, when working with fearful cats, it really helps to keep in mind the five pillars of a healthy feline environment. The first pillar is providing safe spaces, which I just covered. The second is providing multiple, separate resources. Resources are anything your cat finds important, like his litter box, food bowl, toys, and bed. You may have heard of the one litter box plus one extra rule for cats, but the rule actually applies to everything. Having plenty of everything helps your cat to feel secure and confident.
The third pillar is opportunities for play and predatory behavior. You mentioned that Charlie doesn’t play with toys. Sometimes, toys can be scary if cats haven’t had a lot of experience with them! I recommend starting with something low-key like a piece of string or the wire Cat Dancer toy. If Charlie is tracking the toy with his eyes, that’s a start. He doesn’t have to play and pounce at first, but if he’s watching it, he’s enjoying himself.
The fourth pillar is positive and consistent social interactions. Consent and choice are both huge deals for cats. Being patient and letting Charlie choose to come to you will pay off in the long run. Go and visit Charlie in his safe room on a regular basis, just spending time quietly reading or watching TV. Bring him food and treats each time you go in. It’s okay if he doesn’t eat them until you’re gone. He’s still making the connection. Keeping things predictable and routine will go a long way. It’s easier to accomplish that with Charlie confined to one room.
The final pillar is providing an environment that respects a cat’s sense of smell. It’s not something we as humans tend to think about very often because our noses are nowhere near as good as a cat’s. Allowing for scent marking in the form of rubbing and scratching gives a cat confidence in his space. If Charlie has a favorite bed or blanket, try to go as long as possible without washing it in order to keep his scent in-tact. Avoid any other strong smells in Charlie’s sanctuary room, including wall plug-ins or scented litter.
I hope this has been helpful and given you something to think about and keep in mind. I wish you and Charlie all the best!