Pretty Boy — PB, for short — was extremely shy when he came to live with Kathie Cote. The long-haired marmalade tabby with the golden eyes kept his distance for a long time. “He used to hide underneath my sewing table or my bed,” Cote recalls.
She didn’t try to scoop him up or hold him against his will. Instead, she talked to him, and he slowly got used to the sound of her voice. About 4 months after his arrival, “he came out from underneath the bed and jumped in my lap.” He began happily kneading away or “making butter,” as she puts it. He was ready to be friends.
PB is gone now, but Cote has taken in other shy cats since then. One of them, a young rescue named Calliope, came around even more quickly than her predecessor did: “Right from day 1, I picked her up, scratched her under the chin and whispered in her ear.” Within 2 days, “it was like, ‘OK, you’re my new best friend.’”
The Best Bet
When it comes to selecting a cat or kitten, you’re better off going with the friendly, playful one. At least, that’s what conventional wisdom has always said.
But a lot of times conventional wisdom gets it wrong. Over the years, I’ve been adopted by a number of shy cats, and each one has given me back so much more than I bargained for.
They take a great deal of patience, of course. “Cats don’t always understand that we are trying to help them, so take it one step at a time,” advises Tenth Life Cat Rescue in Missouri. “Cats will progress at different speeds. Some — especially kittens — will come to appreciate humans quickly, while others take a long time before they can trust you.”
It’s All About Dad
What makes a cat/kitten shy? 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 two groups: those whose fathers were friendly, and those whose fathers tended to be shy — and all of these kittens had never even laid eyes on their dear old dads.
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 comments on this study, pointing 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.”
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.”
Other factors to consider:
- A cat who has been abused will act differently than a shy cat. “The Abys I have come across that were abused or neglected (in my opinion, a form of abuse) 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.
Here are some great tips to try when you bring home a shy cat or kitten:
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%.”