How to Build Trust in Cats Who Are Shy Around People

Is your cat shy or fearful around people? This behavior is more common than you might think.

Was your cat well socialized as a kitten? By: Bill & Vicki T

Is your cat shy or fearful around people?

This behavior is more common than you might think. Each cat has a unique personality, so some will be quite social and playful while others simply want to be alone.

In this article, I’ll share some information and resources to help your shy cat come out of her shell.

Common Reasons for Shyness

The first thing you need to understand is why your cat is afraid of being with people.

Although the reasons can vary, one of the most common ones is if she didn’t have enough socialization as a kitten. If a kitten interacted with few people when she was young, she may end up being shy around people.

Of course it’s also possible that a cat who met plenty of people while young will be afraid of certain types of people that she wasn’t exposed to — say, for example, men or tall people. Other cats will suddenly start showing fearful behavior thanks to a medical problem. If you think this is the case, see your veterinarian.

Daddy Issues?

What makes a cat/kitten shy? Here’s another interesting possibility …

In October 1995, animal behaviorist Sandra McCune published a study that may shed some badly needed light on the subject.

She divided some kittens into 2 groups: those whose fathers were friendly, and those whose fathers tended to be shy and were never seen by the kittens.

Over time, McCune noticed that the cats who had friendly fathers “were quicker to approach, touch and rub a test person, were more vocal and spent a greater total time [with] them.”

The “friendly-fathered cats” were also far less likely to become anxious or distressed when approached and handled by unfamiliar people.

John Bradshaw of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol points out that “given enough handling, these shy kittens could turn out just as friendly as the kitten with the bold father — though, as expected, they tended to show their friendliness in a less ‘pushy’ way.”

One study proposed that a kitten’s timidity may result from her father’s shy behavior — even if she had never met him. By: lovinkat

Fine Lines of Feline Distinction

Not all cats who act shy are shy. Sometimes they’re feral.

“It’s important to note the difference between a shy cat and a feral cat,” notes Dr. Karen Becker, DVM. “Feral cats are either born wild or have adapted to feral life after being lost or abandoned.”

Some ferals do become indoor pets, but by and large, “their instincts drive them to avoid human interaction,” she says.

Other factors to consider:

  • A cat who has been abused will act differently than a shy cat. “The cats I have come across that were abused or neglected got aggressive instead,” says Susan Graham, who works with several rescue organizations.
  • Cats who appear shy at shelters aren’t necessarily shy by nature. “The experience of being in a shelter can make the most outgoing kitty temporarily wary and fearful,” Dr. Becker observes.

Preventing Fearfulness in Your Kitten

The best way to prevent your cat from becoming fearful is to take steps during the kitten stage. Introduce your kitten to a wide variety of people — varying sizes, races, genders and ages. Prevention is not always possible, such as in the case of rescuing a street cat.

With indoor cats you won’t be taking your cat out to socialize — but instead you should invite people over for a meet-and-greet.

Go Slow

You don’t want to burden your kitten with new interactions as this will make the problem worse. If you adopt a new cat< and she is afraid of everyone, take baby steps to get her used to you. This means interacting with her several times a day for 15 to 20 minutes. Let her have a room all to herself so she can get comfortable without loud interruptions or people coming in and going out. Giving her a chance to come to terms with 1 area of the home that is quiet is the ideal way to getting her happier and more social. Also, if she is only afraid of strangers, never force her to meet them. Instead, let her choose the pace — but try to encourage her interactions. In the video below, a behavior specialist from the Charlottesville SPCA offers a few more tips:

YouTube player

Preparing for a Visit

If you know someone is coming over and you want your cat to interact with him despite your cat’s fear, take small steps to prepare. Try shutting some doors so the cat has limited spaces to go (but be sure there is at least 1 place to hide where she will feel safe).

Also try to provide cat furniture, shelves or a window perch from which she can watch the visitor from at a safe distance. In addition, certain scents are designed to soothe cats.

Treats and Rewards

Use treats and other forms of rewards such as a favorite toy. If your cat is hiding, for example, throw one of her favorite balls. If she gets close enough, you can try tempting her with the toy or a treat. When your cat gets brave enough to get within a few feet of the stranger, ask him to try tossing a treat or toy to help gain trust.

Breaking Through

With proper handling, the shy ones come around.

Routine is important. This shows a hesitant, unsure-of-herself feline what to expect and goes a long way toward helping her feel comfortable with you. One of my friends has an extremely timid cat named Alice who loves being brushed. So that has become part of their morning routine.

Start small. “Don’t overwhelm them at first,” cautions Graham. “Give them time.” They need that time to get used to you and “learn you won’t hurt them.”

Cote gets all that. She would adopt another “shy cat in a heartbeat” and encourages her friends to do likewise. “Once they find a human that they’re not fearful of and who shows them love, they’re going to give it back 110%.”

* * *

Writer T.J. Banks contributed to this article.