Cats can be shy around strangers for several reasons. A common reason is lack of experience with visitors when the cats were kittens. If cats were not introduced to different people during their socialization period (2 to 7 weeks old), they might be more apprehensive around strangers as adults. Additionally, the arrival of visitors is often accompanied by other seemingly scary things, such as knocking, large packages, or loud noises — which can result in anxious cats.
Just like people, some cats simply possess more timid or less social personalities. Studies have even shown that kittens born to fearful fathers are often fearful themselves. However, there are steps to take to socialize a shy cat and make them less scared of people.
How to socialize a shy cat around strangers
First, if this anxious cat behavior is something new, be sure to have your cat checked by a veterinarian to rule out a medical cause.
Then, 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 they 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 they want. Once the cat is inside, provide them with a special food treat and an interactive or food-dispensing toy to distract them and create positive associations with the presence of strangers in the house.
Behavior modification steps for cat anxiety
Next, you’ll need to follow a series of cat behavior modification steps to help your cat become more comfortable around strangers. 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.
Here are the steps to follow to calm an anxious cat:
- Bring your cat into a room, and stay near them (but do not hold your cat or force them to stay).
- Ask your friend (the stranger) to slowly enter the room from a point as far from the cat as the room allows. 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 familiarity with the stranger. For example, the starting distance between a very timid cat and a complete stranger might be larger than the starting distance between a bolder cat and a stranger they've met once or twice.
- If your cat remains calm, reward their behavior with treats, play, or petting — whatever they like most. Continue doing this for a few minutes, allowing your cat to end the session whenever they choose.
- If your cat leaves the room, you can try to entice them 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 your cat prefers to end things with the one session. If you are able to entice them 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 the cat is no longer fearful. At this distance, reward your cat for calm behavior, and then end the session. During the next session, start again at the distance with which the cat 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 by asking the stranger to move a few inches closer to the cat. Always monitor closely for early signs of anxiety in your cat’s body language. If they remain calm, reward them and then gradually and incrementally decrease the distance between the cat and the stranger over many sessions. If the cat becomes anxious, back up and start again at a distance from the stranger where the cat is 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 the element of movement. To add movement, repeat step 1, 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 them to pace slowly back and forth or make another type of movement. The starting distance for a moving stranger might not be the same as for a stationary one. Then, 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 different elements.
Certain types of human behavior, such as loud voices and sudden movements, will cause many timid cats to become nervous. If any visitors (adults or children) to your home are outgoing types, you could mention ahead of time that you have a shy cat and ask whether 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 can be slow. In some cases, an anxious cat will reach their comfort limit, 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 can 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.