Back when I met my girlfriend towards the end of 2019, her cat Lola was not very interested in human interaction. When we tried to pet her, she would always shy away and hide in a corner. So I set out to change that.
As you can see in the picture, Lola is quite happy to sit in my lap now. A lot of her anxiety around people has dissipated. Occasionally, she even lies on her back and lets us pet her on the belly, which is an extremely vulnerable position for cats.
All in all, I think it’s pretty safe to say my mission was successful. But how did I do it?
1. Understand the reason
The first thing to realize is that shy cats generally have a lack of confidence, both in themselves and in their environment (which includes you!).
Now, whether this is caused by past trauma or your kitty was simply born with a more anxious personality, the point is that confidence can be built!
Since you now understand why some cats are shy, the next tips will make a lot more sense. Trust me when I say that you can do this without having to purchase any expensive calming cat products or e-books! Just follow along.
2. Don’t force things
One of the most important things to be mindful of when you want to build trust with a shy cat, is that cats can only be confident when they feel in control. Scientists believe that this stems from their origins as territorial animals.
Humans have an innate drive to seek physical contact. What therefore often happens is that people wrongly assume that cats operate from the same desire. Being the enthusiastic and loving pet parents that they are, they will grab and cuddle that cute little ball of fur every chance they get.
Cats, however, don’t always appreciate such interactions as much as we would think. In fact, on many days, they prefer to be in their own solitary space.. Give it to them.
Realize that forcing a cat to do anything will cause anxiety. If you want to build a relationship with anyone, you’ll have to respect the way they are.
Accepting and accommodating this part of the feline character may pose a challenge, especially if you happen to have younger children around the house. The whole family has to commit.
3. Body language
So now that we know that cats don’t always want interaction, how are we supposed to figure out when to interact? To get a better understanding of your cat, you can start by learning a little bit about feline body language.
Did you know that cats communicate a lot through their tails? When the tail is curved and pointing up, you can take that as a sign that your kitty is receptive to interaction. Tail in the middle? Neutral. A tail that’s pointing down towards the ground is a definite sign that your cat does not want to interact right now.
If you force an insecure cat to be affectionate with you when she’s not open to interaction, really what you’re actually doing is making your kitty even more nervous and insecure. Your actions could unknowingly be triggering an urge to withdraw from you!
Instead, try to let your cat take the lead from now on. Be patient and respect her boundaries. Do this, and soon enough, you will likely notice that she starts to approach you more often.
4. Sudden movements
As we explained in the previous paragraph, many cats are control freaks. You may not realize this, but your cat is secretly observing you from a distance every day in an effort to get to know you and your movements.
Try your best to be that predictable, because cats can only get truly comfortable if they know what to expect from their surroundings. So keep sudden, uncontrolled movements to a minimum.
One of the most effective ways of training a cat to repeat certain behavior is by reinforcing it with a reward (just like you would in clicker training). Whenever you share a fun moment or a cute cuddling session, make sure to give out some extra tasty snacks or kibble.
Punishing bad behavior, on the other hand, is rarely effective, and this is sadly where a lot of people go wrong. You may think you are teaching your cat how to behave, but all it does is add to the confusion and stress. Enforcing boundaries in a loving way is much more productive, and will certainly lead to more confidence and a better relationship with your cat.
6. Affectionate cuddles
Building a relationship with your cat also involves discovering how she likes to be comforted. This is something you can experiment with. When you learn how to pet your kitty in her favorite spots, you can bet she will come back soon enough to cuddle some more! You know you’re doing it right when a cat starts purring.
Here are some ideas to experiment with:
- Trailing the back with your hand
- Rubbing the jawline (most cats love it!)
- Behind the ears
- Under the chin
- Gently rubbing the neck
7. Be patient
Just like human friendships aren’t built in a day or even a week, cats need time to form a bond too. The key is consistency. Trust is built by being consequent in your actions and responses. Over time, your cat will eventually notice this and the anxiety will start to dissipate.
How long does it take a shy cat to trust you? There’s no telling. It may take months or even years, but your patience will eventually be rewarded.
Help a shy cat adjust to your new home
Taking a shy cat home for the first time is bound to cause a lot of stress. It would be wise to gradually introduce the cat to parts of your house. If you have other pets, be sure to keep them separated on the first day. The new impressions around the house will be plenty to process.
Like humans, every cat is born with a unique personality. Some are just naturally more anxious than others. You can certainly build confidence and trust with a shy cat with these tips and tricks, but at the end of the day, there will always be both a nature and a nurture component to a cat’s personality.