Cats may be fearful of strangers or visitors for several reasons. A common reason is lack of experience with visitors when they were kittens. If cats were not introduced to different people during their socialization period (three to nine weeks of age), they may be more apprehensive of strangers as adults. Additionally, the arrival of visitors is often accompanied by other scary things such as knocking, large packages or suitcases being moved about and loud noises. Just like people, some cats simply possess more timid or less social personalities or temperaments. Studies have shown that kittens born to fearful fathers are often fearful themselves.
Making a cat more comfortable around visitors
First, if this anxious behavior is something new, be sure to have your cat checked by a veterinarian to rule out a physical cause.
To start, you’ll want to provide your cat with a safe area to go to before the strangers arrive. The safe area should be an out-of-the-way location, such as a back room, where the sound of knocking or the doorbell is muffled. In the safe area, your cat does not have to interact with your guests and, consequently, she can feel calm and relaxed there. Before guests arrive, the room should be set up with a comfortable resting place, water, food, enrichment and a litter box, depending on the duration of their stay.
A few minutes before guests arrive, allow your cat to retreat to the safe room if she chooses. Once she’s inside, provide her with a special food treat and an interactive or food-dispensing toy to distract her and create positive associations with the presence of strangers in the house.
Next, you’ll need to follow a series of behavior modification steps to help your cat become more comfortable around visitors. Besides treats, toys or other rewards for your cat, you will need the help of a friend to act as the stranger coming to visit. The basic idea is that the “stranger” will stand at a distance from your cat, who will be rewarded for remaining calm in the stranger’s presence. Over multiple sessions, you will gradually decrease the distance between them until your cat is able to remain completely relaxed sitting next to the stranger.
Behavior modification steps for cat anxiety
Here are the steps to follow to calm down an anxious cat:
- Bring your cat into a large room and stay near her (but do not hold her or force her to stay). Then, ask your friend (the stranger) to slowly enter the room from a point as far from the cat as the room allows. You want to start with a distance between the stranger and your cat that is not troubling to the cat. At this distance, your cat should not exhibit any sign of anxiety, arousal or aggression toward the stranger. In other words, the cat feels safe at this distance. The actual distance will depend on your cat’s temperament and her familiarity with the stranger. For example, the starting distance between a very timid cat and a complete stranger may be larger than the starting distance between a bolder cat and a stranger she has met once or twice.
- If your cat remains calm and non-anxious, reward her behavior with treats, play, or petting and attention, whatever she likes most. Continue doing this for a few minutes, allowing your cat to end the session whenever she chooses. If your cat leaves the room, you can try to entice her to come back with some tasty treats, by opening or crinkling a treat pouch or popping open a can of food. It’s OK if she prefers to end things with the one session. If you are able to entice her back, you can perform several short sessions within the span of the stranger’s visit.
- If your cat becomes anxious, increase the distance between the cat and the stranger until she is no longer fearful. At this distance, reward her for calm behavior, and then end the session. During the next session, start again at the distance with which she was comfortable in the previous session. If the next session is with a different stranger, start again at the longest distance the room allows.
- After several sessions, your cat should be more accustomed to the innocuous presence of the stranger. The next step is to decrease the distance between your cat and each new person by a few inches. You can do this by moving your cat’s bowl of food or luring your cat closer with a treat or toy, or simply asking the stranger to move a few inches closer to the cat. Always monitor your cat closely for early signs of anxiety. If she remains calm, reward her and then gradually and incrementally decrease the distance between her and the stranger over many sessions. If she becomes anxious, back up and start again at a distance from the stranger where she’s relaxed.
- Once your cat is comfortable eating or playing near a new person, you can repeat the exercises with multiple adults at a time or you can add in the element of movement. To add in movement, repeat step one, finding a starting distance at which your cat remains calm or distracted by toys or treats. Rather than asking the stranger to remain motionless, however, ask him to pace slowly back and forth or make another type of movement. The starting distance for a moving stranger may not be the same as for a stationary one. Repeat steps 2-4. Other movements, such as standing from a seated position, can often be desensitized in the same manner.
Your cat’s ability to generalize and display calm behavior toward all strangers will depend on how often you can repeat these exercises and add in different elements.
Certain types of human behavior, like loud voices and animated movements, will cause many timid cats to become nervous. If any of the visitors (adults or children) to your home are outgoing types, you could mention ahead of time that you have a shy cat and ask if they could help by maintaining a quiet presence.
Having patience with a timid, anxious cat
Keep in mind that behavior modification exercises take time, and progress may be slow. In some cases, a cat will reach her limit for what she’s comfortable with, so we want to take care not to pressure pets into accepting things they aren’t able to adapt to psychologically. What this means is that some cats, for example, will never be comfortable with being picked up by a stranger, so don’t feel that you must have strangers physically interact with your cat.
Cat anxiety medication
Remember, the intent of your efforts is to help improve your cat’s quality of life. In some cases, anti-anxiety medication may help facilitate behavior modification. If you have questions about the behavior modification exercises or how to apply them to your cat, please consult with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist.