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Caring for Timid Cats

Socialising Your Timid Cat

To be able to reach out to them, these shy cats need a variety of things available to them, besides the basics of food, water and litter tray.  Firstly - a timid cat's automatic response will be to get away from you as far as possible - and when they can't, they will default to hiding.  So provide a warm, comfy, sheltered spot out of the way of disturbances.  This can be as easy as covering their cat-carrier with a blanket and leaving the door open, so you don't even have to risk your hands getting him out.

As a possible solution in a house which is open plan, or rather large with numerous doors, or you are worried about him dashing out the moment the room's door opens, then a medium sized "kittening pen" or "dog crate" is ideal.  Just make sure you can accommodate your cat, litter tray (small ones are available) and feeding station all inside the cage.  You can place warm bedding inside at one end, and cover that half of the cage with a blanket to give her hiding security.  Maybe a few toys to get used to as well, to enjoy when you aren't looking.

Set up their feeding station close by, as well as a litter tray, preferably within sight of his hidey-hole, and leave her alone for a few hours, just to get over the trip home.  If you have a very aggressive cat - such as a semi-feral - then it may be worth your time to use a trusted 'animal pheromone diffuser' such as "Feliway" (a device which emits calming scents into the atmosphere which help the animal relax naturally.
 While you have your cat settling in, the best thing to do is mainly ignore it (for the time being only) and go about your daily business.  Talk, wash up, put the vacuum round (in another room, and nowhere near your new cat), stick the radio on - all the usual things you do.  DON'T tip-toe around your cat, he needs to get used to you in your usual noisy mode - if he gets used to you being quiet, he will avoid you when you forget to be quiet and start acting "normal".  If your cat can hear you, call its name, say hello, letting it get used to your voice.  If your cat can see you, you might want to give it a little wave as you say hello occasionally, as you pass by. 

If your cat has his own separate room all to herself, and you know he is somewhere inside, knock lightly on the door a few times before you enter very slowly, calling out to him as you do so.  Close as many doors nearby as you can, so that if she does dart out, he cant go too far somewhere else.  If she does escape, shoo him back into his room using a large blanket as a guide - or failing that, drop the blanket on top of him and wrap her up, escort him back to his hidey-hole, and reassure him for a few minutes afterwards.

Within a short time (several days) your cat will get used to your feeding routine, along with the regular sounds, and smells of her new home.  Don't worry if your cat only seems to eat at night time - this is when it's quieter, and he feels more secure.  Always talk to your cat (and wave if needed) when you serve up a fresh meal, that way they will associate your presence with nice food - most cats are ruled by their stomach.

Once you have a familiar set routine for him, you can then spend a short while (maybe 5 or 10 minutes) several times a day, throughout the day just being near him, preferably where he can see you, giving her your full attention.  Speak to him, wave a little, say hello, describe what you had for breakfast, just let her be aware of you nearby for a while, then say goodbye and carry on with your day.

After maybe a few weeks, progress towards giving your "quality time" at mealtimes, enforcing the connection between you and pleasurable food.  Leaving the door of their cage open during this time will give her an unobstructed view, and a glimpse into a bigger world outside his cage.  Open the door whenever you have your time with her, but remember to lock it before you leave.

Getting him used to you being around him and not overly interfering is the most important step.  Dedicating a longer time (maybe half an hour) a few times a day will ensure she is getting used to the idea that you are also a permanent fixture to this new environment. 

Your cats' continuing forward progress is able to be measured when your cat is confident about being approached directly.  If she still scarpers when you walk towards him, then she needs more time to get used to you.  Continue your daily quality time intervals rigorously, for however long it takes to reach this stage of development.  This can range from a few weeks into months if need be to ensure your cat accepts your presence easily.

Having accomplished this important area of socialisation, you will require a protective glove (maybe a special "grooming" glove, or a thick leather one if possible, or perhaps a padded winter one), and a supply of treats (such as morsels of tuna or sardine, or maybe prawns. If possible, rub the glove over his bedding, or where you know his favourite resting spot is, or failing that, rub your hands over the outside of the glove instead -the idea being to scent it with her own scent (or yours) as much as possible. 

At your appointed quality time slot, always reassuring her, position yourself within touching distance of him, but off to one side, possibly hidden round the side of something.  The idea is to present as little of yourself as a threat as possible.  If you happen to be in full view, then turn sideways to lessen your profile.  With utmost care, place your gloved hand slowly, so she can see it coming, and rest it close by him, about her own body length away (out of immediate danger).

Be prepared for some sort of reaction, and try not to jerk your hand away if he spits, growls, or strikes out.  This is a normal "Get away from me !" gesture that usually works.  If she does manage to make contact with your hand, your glove should prevent you from being hurt.  Even if he does strike you, you need to keep your hand where it is, if at all possible.  Maybe you might want to curl your fingers into your palm, to save any repeated attacks finally getting through to your sensitive fingers. 

With the help of your protective gauntlet, the idea is to make the cat realise, that no matter how much they try their spit, hiss or swipe tactic to try and drive you away, you are staying put.  When their usual deterrents fail, they will eventually stop using it and they will refrain from swiping, spitting and hissing.

After a few minutes, to let her settle down and let him know you are not going to hurt her, withdraw your hand for a minute or so, then replace your hand in exactly the same spot as before, while talking, and reassuring him all the while.  Repeat this exercise for your allotted time, and just before you depart, place a rewarding titbit in the same spot your hand had been.  You might want to leave the glove nearby as well, so she can examine it at his own leisure while you are gone. 

Continue this practice as often as you are able to, gradually decreasing the distance between your hand and the cat.  Within a relatively short time you will be able to judge for yourself your cat's level of reaction. And how much progress you make, and how quickly, will really depend on your own particular cat. But in the cats' own time, you will eventually be able to get to make contact, and that in itself will be a breakthrough. 

When you do eventually get within a finger-length without her reacting too much to you, you can attempt to touch him.  Avoid her paws, tail, and underbelly, as almost all cats have some aversion to being messed with in those areas.  Try aiming for the top of his head, behind her ears, as it is the most difficult place to try and bite you if he is so inclined.  If she is not a biter, but has a tendency to roll over, keeping her head down, then have a shot at her shoulders, or the side of her flank, but mind out for her teeth.  Tuck your fingers inside your palm and present the back of your hand to her mouth instead - just in case he does have a go, she will find it difficult to effectively bite a target bigger than they can open their mouth.

If you discover you have a notorious biter, then withdraw the fingers of your hand from the fingers of the glove, tucking your fingers out of the way inside the palm of the glove, leaving the fingers of the glove empty.  That way he can chew on the empty fingers all day, and eventually give up trying to bite you when it doesn't seem to work at driving you off. 

With this method you can just as effectively stroke his head while saving your fingers.  It's the contact itself that matters, not how much pressure you can bestow.  Just a few moments contact, or a few strokes is all that's needed to begin with, then withdraw your hand for a minute or two and try again.  Don't do too much to start with, just little and often is what is required.  Always remember to reassure your cat with your voice, and reward your cats' progress with a tasty morsel treat afterwards.

Several sessions into this and you should have a fair idea of your cats' tolerance.  A hisser can just be all mouth and trousers, with no real aversion to being touched.  A spitter may just be warning you to "Bugger off before you get into trouble !" and have no intention of carrying out the threat.  Swipers generally give up swiping after it fails to have the desired effect.  And biters tend to need extra time to wean them off their habit.

The amount of contact your cat will tolerate is down to the individual animal, but do NOT rush them.  He will need his own time to adjust to what is probably an alien experience.  Stick with your current accomplishment for some considerable time before testing more boundaries, until she becomes used to your ministrations.  She will plainly let you know if you have gone too far too soon - so always be highly aware that he may react without warning while these boundaries are being explored, and take the necessary precautions mentioned beforehand.

There are several pointers to look out for, as to when your cat is beginning it's acceptance of your caresses.  Usually the first sign that he is warming to you is when she closes her eyes - this is an general indication that he is not on perpetual lookout for danger (i.e. your hand).  Another sign is when she consciously presses her head into your hand, an indication that you should continue with what you are doing. 

A cat has scent glands in it's cheeks, and a careful finger rub will stimulate them, releasing their smell onto your hand.  If you have noticed more sociable cats rubbing their faces against their owners, this is a way that cats 'mark' them with their own perfume, effectively saying "This is MY human !"  You may find that your cat will stretch its chin out for you to stroke as well, when you progress to the cheek rubbing stage.  Most cats find this pleasurable, so practice this often.

If you find he flinches away from your hand every time you attempt to stroke her head, then adjust your aim to his shoulders instead.  You might want to do this when you give him some food, so her head is lower down when feeding, and the associated pleasure of food is masking the intrusion upon his body.

One more sign of pleasure that your cat might react to, is when you are able to stroke your cat all the way along its back, and it's rump raises up when you run your hand over it's hind quarters at the base of its tail.  In female cats especially, this spot is where the male rubs his chest when mating, and is usually a stimulating experience.  Male cats also have a tendency to raise their rumps in this way, but not sure why. 

And then a reaction which signifies the ultimate reward - Purring!

Slowly and surely is the rule.  Little modifications to established routines will not come as that big a shock when you introduce them.  Such as when you have the courage to remove your protective glove, and finally get your first proper 'hands on' experience with him.  You might want to rub a little catnip into her favourite toy and sit back and watch him play with it.  Maybe a new brush, left in his bed for a few days that she has fully explored in her own time, can be used instead of your hand. 

Brushing is a marvellous way to calm your nervous cat.  The regular strokes of the soft bristles mimic the grooming tongue of her mother when he was very young, reminding him of a time when she was loved, cared for, fed, nursed, washed, and comforted and safe.  Brushing not only soothes him, but also removes loose hair (vital in long haired cats, and useful in those with shorter coats as well), and stimulates blood flow around her skin - all in all a most pleasurable experience.

Once you have reached certain milestones with your animal, repeat them as often you can, reinforcing her trust in you, that you are not going to harm him, and that you are actually a good thing to have around.  Don't expect miracles over night, as it can take a long time to whittle away the fear that consumes a frightened cat.  Take pleasure in the small steps you have accomplished so far, refreshing the ones you have completed to get to this stage.

You might not notice the very gradual change in your pet straight away, because you are so used to her current behaviour.  But your visitors will more than likely comment on how much he has changed in the time between visits.  Patience has its reward, when you look back to when your cat was a completely different character to how it is now. 

You can take enormous pride in the fact that it was your concerted efforts that made such a huge difference in the life of an unfortunate creature that now returns your devotion with enthusiasm.


Author's Note :-

Having adopted a very timid cat myself, "Blossom" ran away at every opportunity she could.  For the first three days in her new home, she refused to come out from under her covers, and rarely ate.  Following the guidelines detailed in this article, and through a process of almost "trial and error", I have ultimately found success unmeasured in any quantity.

With endless patience, that has lasted 12 months or more, I transformed my terrified little cat into a bold, confident creature that now begs me for a fuss.  Although Blossom is still wary of strangers, with me, she gives her utmost trust and affection, as you can see below in her "before & after" pictures.
If you have any questions, comments, or feedback on what you have read here, please do not hesitate to contact us at

"Blossom" courtesy of Bryan Cross, Cats Protection - Birmingham Adoption Centre.