Reprinted with permission from Missy Zane, How to Live with Cats. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced elsewhere in any form. Copyright March 7, 2016.
It’s been three years since Belle came into my life, a tiny, scared kitten from a horrible, high-kill “shelter” in North Carolina. She was supposed to go to my rescue group’s shelter, but I couldn’t imagine such a terrified little one living with 16 other cats. Besides, even at six months, she was a world-class hider, and I was afraid we’d never see her. Oh, and there was another reason she stayed here, too. We fell in love the second we met. But I had to find her first.
For three days, Belle hid on the top shelf of a large walk-through closet between my bedroom and bathroom. I had to stand on a step ladder and feel around in all the bedding stored on the shelf to even touch her. She came down to eat and use her litter box when I wasn’t around, but then she went back to her shelf.
I suppose I could have gotten her down and closed her into the bathroom where she couldn’t hide. But over the years, I’ve discovered that I can’t force a cat to trust me or be my friend. Like all relationships, friendships with cats have to be built on mutual affection and trust and building affection and trust often takes time.
Shy Cats Deserve Homes Too
Belle’s shyness almost cost her her life. At shelters, it’s the friendly cats bursting with personality and rubbing against every hand within reach who go home first. Not many people notice the shy, scared cats like Belle hiding in the backs of their cages. And even if they do, they want an instant buddy, not an introvert.
But if you have the patience and love, turning a very timid cat into a brave, confident friend is one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do. Over the years, I’ve befriended many shy cats, and this way has always worked for me.
- When you bring your cat home, set her up in her own room with a comfy bed, litter box, food and toys. Make sure it’s a nice room with sunny windows so she can see outside. Get rid of the clutter in the closet and under the bed! She’ll want a place to hide, but if she’s wedged between storage boxes, you won’t be able to have any contact with her at all.
- Put up a screen door or stack baby gates at the door. It’s important for her to know there’s a whole world waiting for her to explore when she’s ready. And complete isolation behind a closed door can just build anxiety.
- Put Rescue Remedy in her water. It will take the edge off her fearfulness.
- Visit often. Even if she insists on staying under the bed at first, she’ll get used to having you around and will appreciate your company. Don’t try to touch her if she doesn’t want you to. Sit on the floor, so you’re not towering over her, and read or listen to soft music.
- Give her treats. Put some under the bed for her, so she associates you with something she really likes. As she comes to trust you, make a trail of treats from her hiding place into the room. If you do this a few times, she should eat her way from under the bed to you.
- Speak her language. Blinking at her tells her you love her and want to be her friend. Looking her straight in the eye sends an aggressive message. She’ll think you want to fight! Reach out to her with your palm down so she can sniff your fingers. But don’t try to touch her. Let her touch you first.
- Play. Put a long shoelace or wand or fishing pole toy under the bed and drag it out into the room. Cats love to chase things that wiggle and squirm, and when she’s feeling brave enough, she’ll follow it into the room.
- When you become friends and she trusts you, take down the baby gates or screen door so she can venture out of her room. But don’t force her to leave. She’ll come out when she’s ready. And don’t pick her up and put her down in another part of the house. Cats create signposts for themselves with the scent glands in their front paw pads and cheeks. If she can’t create signposts, she could become very frightened because she won’t know how to get back to her safe room.
Convincing a shy cat to love and trust you could take days or even weeks. But you’ll find that it’s worth every minute because the bond you create with the cat will be one you’ll never forget.
Make Her Everyone’s Friend
After you and your cat have become close friends, it’s time to help her develop friendships with everyone else. She’ll be happier and safer if she’s not a one-person cat. After all, she’s going to have to deal with vets, cat sitters and house guests throughout her life.
Leave a television or radio on so she can get used to the sounds of different voices. And invite your friends over to visit your cat. Ask them to follow the same process you used. Tell them talk to her but not touch her until she approaches them and make sure they have lots of treats to offer as an incentive for her to come close.
My Brave Belle
Her transformation from terrified kitten to confident cat took nearly a year. For the first week she was here, I spent evenings on the floor in my closet reading and tossing treats in her direction. She sat in her bed on the vanity in the bathroom watching me and happily eating the treats. Then, one evening, she ate her way from the vanity to my lap, and we’ve been cuddle buddies ever since.
But there was another hurdle to overcome. Belle was used to small spaces and wouldn’t venture beyond my closet doorway. Gradually, she began to chase a toy out of the closet into my bedroom, then into a hallway and finally into the living room. This took three weeks!
When she was comfortable in the living room, we started going out on the balcony. But if she heard a noise or saw people walking on the path behind our condo, she ran back inside. It took her nearly a month to realize that the people on the path couldn’t possibly come close to her on the balcony.
She loves the balcony now and could sleep out there on her favorite chair for hours, no matter what’s going on beneath her. She’s come a long, long way from that terrified shelter cat. I’m so proud of her, and I imagine she’s very proud of herself!
Missy Zane’s journey within into the heart and mind of cats began more than 20 years ago when she discovered 16 beautiful feral kittens living in a parking lot. According to Missy, the purpose of her website is to serve as s a “how to” guide for those of us who live with cats. The articles aren’t just based on research and study, but also on what she has learned from the cats themselves after years of living with them, working with them, and rescuing them.