9 Tips for Socializing a Shy Cat

Whether you have a traumatized adult cat or you've rescued a feral kitten, here are some ways to help your shy cat come out of her shell.

A scared cat or kitten hiding under a chair or table.
A scared cat or kitten hiding under a chair or table. Photography ©lopurice | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

Have you had this experience? You’re thrilled about your new cat, and you’re anxious to give her the loving forever-home and warm lap you know she’s been yearning for. But as soon as you open the carrier, she flees. For days, you see no sign of her, except maybe some food missing from the dish or some pee in the litter box. Or maybe you start looking under furniture and, in the farthest, darkest corner under your sofa, you see a pair of terrified golden-green eyes staring at you. You, my friend, have just adopted a shy cat. But don’t worry: You can help your new friend overcome cat anxiety and come out of her shell. It’s just going to take some time and patience. Here are some tips to help you and your shy cat along the way.

1. Understand that it’s not your fault or hers

A brown and white cat peeking out of a cardboard box.
A shy cat peeking out of a cardboard box. Photography ©kmsh/Thinkstock.

You brought this cat into your life with very good intentions, and there’s a 99 percent chance that nothing you did caused her to react like this. Your shy cat may have been traumatized or she may never have had a chance to be properly socialized.

2. Patience and compassion are key with a shy cat

It can be frustrating to try to help your shy cat to no avail. You may even start thinking about bringing her back to the shelter, but please don’t give up. You’ve probably been in situations where you were terrified or traumatized: Recall those times and think about what would have helped you to cope. Your compassion may also provide insight into what might your shy cat.

3. Start with a small space

Hopefully when you brought your cat home, you placed her in a small room — either a guest bedroom, a bathroom or something similar — along with bedding, food, water, litter boxes and toys. A shy cat will cope better if she can familiarize herself with a small space first.

4. Keep it quiet

A football game, a party or that new murder-and-mayhem video game at full blast are fun noises for you. For cats, not so much. Not only do cats have very sensitive hearing, but loud noises terrify a shy cat.

5. Talk to your shy cat in a soothing voice

Keep the pitch and volume of your voice low, tell the cat what you’re going to do, and use her name often. Imagine you’re talking to a baby who needs comforting. Maybe you can even sing her a little lullaby.

6. Food is a great way to win friends and influence a shy cat

Even the most shy cat can be won over by tasty food. I was able to coax a traumatized and terrified cat out from under a couch with a can of tuna cat food.

7. Allow a shy cat cat to approach you

When your shy cat does poke her head out from her hiding place, don’t rush to touch her. Hold your hand out in a relaxed position, with the palm down, and allow her to determine how close she gets.

8. Use a calming pheromone

Feline calming pheromones are synthetic analogues of the “happy cat” pheromones that cats leave when they rub their cheeks on you or your furniture. Plug in a couple of pheromone diffusers and allow them to help calm your shy cat.

9. Keep it positive

Don’t stop working with your shy cat if she regresses in response to something you did. Instead, finish your interaction with something you and she have previously enjoyed together.

Want more? Best Friends Animal Society created a guide for socializing shy or fearful cats. It includes step-by-step instructions for the way the organization’s staff socializes kitties at its world-renowned sanctuary, as well as documents you can use to record your cat’s progress.

Tell us: Have you successfully socialized a shy cat? Do you have any more tips and tricks? Please share them in the comments.

Thumbnail: Photography ©lopurice | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

October is Rescue Month on Catster.com! Rescuing a cat or thinking about it? Here’s how to make her feel happy and comfortable. 

This piece was originally published in 2014.

About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.

Read more about shy cats and adopting a new cat on Catster.com:

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39 thoughts on “9 Tips for Socializing a Shy Cat”

  1. So we fostered a pregnant stray last summer and adopted her only baby, who was born in our foyer. He’s the best cat ever, sweet, cuddly, amazing at soft paws even when in Tasmanian devil mode, very strongly bonded to both of us— my husband has the honor of being his chosen human— but he was born mid-quarantine. We both worked from home for his first nine months, my husband is still working from home, which was very good for his bond with us, but there have been very few opportunities for him to meet other people. His first visit, at one month, was great! He was climbing on my friend just like she was me. The next couple visits, spaced by months , all went fine: took him to my parents house and while he didn’t like their big dog he was exploring and happy to be held by each of them. He had a few good visits with the grandkids on an individual basis. But then at Christmas, when there were more people (than should have been there at all, pandemic! But no one listened to me) all at once. He was not interested at all to come out of the bedroom, and now anytime the doorbell rings, even if no one comes in, he runs into the bedroom and hides. And if someone does come in, he’s in the bathroom cupboard until he’s sure they’ve been gone for at least 20 minutes. We have the newest feliway product, optimum “happy family”, but it hasn’t had any effect on this problem—it solved the intercat issue we primarily bought it for. How do we get him to be okay with guests and not so terrified that he ghosts if the doorbell rings?

  2. I just adopted two three year old brothers. They have been in a cage for 18 months and came from a hoarding situation, so have had very little human contact. One of the boys is relaxing with me and has started purring, but the other is terrified. He will let me stroke him, but trembles as first touch and hides under his cat bed (I don’t think they ever had anything comfortable to sleep in before). I’m using Feliway. Any suggestions on how to progress with him? Both boys are very good and use the litter box and are eating, but I just feel so bad for him as he sees his brother getting attention and it must be awful for him.

  3. I adopted a 4 month old feral fenale.
    It took 2 months. But at about 3 weeks she calmed and relaxed..I then adopted a 7 month old known shy cat.
    He has been here 1 week and was jumping over screens to get out of small room.hid in every remote place.
    He can be petted if u force it on him.
    I now have both of them in a small bedroom ,to try to acclimate
    Any thoughts on how long ahy 7 month old Male. Will be so shy.
    She is younger and hisses at him.
    Also thoughts on how long to leave them together in room.

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  5. The only way I can get my scaredy cat is string and a can of cat food. It gets so frustrating all I want is snuggles and he runs. But there’s some days he will sit with me for hours

  6. My cat is very shy with others, he’s very timid & almost everything scares him. Sometimes he pees & shivers from his fear, I don’t know what to do with him !? Please advice

    1. I am sorry to hear your cat is having such a hard time! I’m glad he found a home that loves him. Peeing and shivering (from fear) are things I’ve never even heard about. Poor guy. I’m not sure how I feel about medicating, but you should talk to your vet. Maybe he’ll have a medical explanation. I know they also have anti-anxiety medication for cats, and your case does sound extreme. What really helped my cat was to have a safe place to retreat. I have a small dog house and have the opening facing the wall with just enough room for her to squeeze in. When she is in there, I leave her alone. I do not bother her. Ever. It’s her space. A place for her to feel secure, undisturbed and gives her shelter from the terrors of the world. No food, water, or toys allowed. She will come out to eat and drink and when ready, socialize. For me, it’s a slow process, but with time she has grown noticeably more confident and way less afraid. A loud noise will still scare her back in sometimes, but its comforting to know I’m taking care of her in a way that she needs. Some say to start with your cat in a small space, what I like about my addition is that she is still free to roam on her own terms. I hope you get many replies of advice. I hope that many of them can help you. I wish you the best!

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  8. Margaret Barclay

    I adopted two 3month old kittens from the shelter. They are sisters and I did not want to seperate them. One of them will not let you hold her. She is friendly, loves to play, rubs against your legs, likes to be petted, will lick my hands, but will not sit on my lap or let me pick her up. Any suggestions?

    1. I have an 8 wk year old feral rescue kitten I’m trying to socialize and she also would not let me pick her up or come at her to try to….as I’m sure that’s scary to them! But by using a small hand towel in the bathroom where I kept her, worked great! Soon as I wrapped her up in it, sat down and started rubbing sides of her face/ears, she started purring! So she likes it more than she thinks! She then will hide again until my daughter or I grab her with the towel again! After so many tries, she should stop hiding… but definitely the towel grab wrap works awesome for me!!!

    2. I don’t think ANY of the full-grown cats or kittens who’ve shared my life (including the cuddly ones) were big on getting picked up. The “not a lap cat but friendly”–I’ve had one who was definitely “you get the physical affection I’m okay with giving and that does not include lap time”, and I’ve had a calico who was fine being a lap cat but never figured out how to not include scratching me up by kneading me with claws out the entire time I knew her. Kitties are basically strange and wondrous beasties, emphasis on strange.

      (My current feline friends were so contact-skittish when we met that the local FERAL crew told me they were a) unadoptable and b) everybody with any kitten experience in the metropolitan area I live in was full up so if they at least tolerated me their best shot was TNR/me as their caretaker. Their mama is currently missing, sadly, but after three months of feeding them, talking to them a LOT, and a bit of catification, the kittens are downright cuddly with me by now. Not always great *at* it–my dude kitten play-bites and I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked into his sister because she’s comparatively tiny and sometimes hard to spot plus she occasionally licks me like I really am her giant hairless fail!cat sibling, but the effort was worth it.)

  9. Our Engine Kitty found her way into our home via the engine of my car when she was 6 weeks old. She was both traumatized and feral, so I kept her in one room away from our other cats for a month. I spent a lot of time in there working, talking with her, talking on the phone, etc. I whistled every time I brought her food; then I petted her and spoke softly to her while she ate. She hid the rest of the time, in the tiniest of places. The whistling helped because eventually she learned to come out whenever I whistled. After she’d been to the vet for worming, inoculations, etc., she met the first of our 5 cats–our neutered male Marcus, and right away he was sweet with her and she started chirping like him. It took maybe 6 months before she hugged my leg. That was a red-letter day! Now she lets my husband and me pet her, but she’s no lap cat, and she hides from everyone else. Three years later, and she still has no idea how to play with toys though we’ve been trying from the beginning to find something she’d like. She does like to be brushed, though! ADVICE: whistle when you bring food, and be patient!

  10. Rebecca Peoples

    I work at a cafe in a small town and a feral cat has had kittens. There is one wih a bobtail I am currently tryung to catch for my husband. We have several cats together but seperated after 13 years last year and they all came with me. This kitten is so small and scared to death of ppl but ive been feeding it and the mom in a safe place away from cars for about a week now. I have tamed down kittens and cats before so I know I can catch this one. Wish me luck that I can catch the little guy! Hes super fast!

    1. Best of luck! We suggest capturing all the kittens and TNRing the mom.

      Here’s more information:


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  12. I adopted a very shy cat around 2 years ago (previously feral, then adopted and returned). She is now quite a lap cat, which is wonderful, but I think there are also limitations that I’ve grown to just accept that will probably last for life. She will never confidently strut around the house or jump around or be “normal” in the sense that we think of pets. She will slink over to me when the house is quiet and hang out with me, but she’s not gonna be funny and jump around playing with a cat dancer and any new or weird movement is going to cause a run-away instinct. It definitely sucks at times, but she’s come a long way from hiding 95% of the time when I first got her like the article states.

    It’s been worth it and I would do it all over again, but keep your expectations reasonable, have patience, and you’ll figure it out.

  13. Angela Whiteman

    I took in a stray Siberian forest cat turned out he was around 2 years old I had him neutered have tried the feliway have tried tempting treats he hides under a cupboard in my kitchen he only comes out when I’m not about or late in the evening.When he does come out I speak to him never approach him. He acknowledges me with a hiss,I moved house 4 months after taking him in we have been in our new home a month. He plays with his toys and uses the scratching post. Uses the litter box and is scrupulously clean,he is very fluffy and needs grooming but at present I can’t even stroke him or get close to him.

    1. Hi Angela,
      Sorry you’re experiencing this. Here are some pieces that might help and we also suggest contacting a vet and/or behaviorist:

  14. I have taken in a cat whom has been abandoned by two owners. My neighbour, who moved away about two weeks ago just left the cat to fend for herself in the cold weather. In the evening I would see her sitting by the by neighbour’s window waiting for them to return. It just broke my heart. I decided to to take her in and place her in a heated room where she can eat and sleep without too much disturbance. The cat is very shy and fearful, but not aggressive, yes she sometimes hisses at me, but never raises a paw to scratch if she is uncomfortable with something, she moves away when I touch her but othewise she is okay. I would love to keep her, but how to get her familiar with my four cats who are terrorists (for want of a better word).

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  16. I also had an extremely shy and scared cat adopt me. She was a teenage cat when she started coming around. As she had never been socialized, she was f-e-r-a-l. This is an outdoor cat, as her people are allergic to her. She lives in California, so she doesn’t get too cold at night. Talk about having p-a-t-i-e-n-c-e, she would only eat when I wasn’t around. She would stay far away in our yard hiding in certain spots, or mostly leave the yard entirely when I was outside. I would l-e-a-v-e h-e-r a-l-o-n-e so she wouldn’t flee. It took her a year and two months of g-r-a-d-u-a-l-l-y moving me closer to her food before my first p-e-t. I could immediately tell she had never been pet before. I felt so special! Worth every second of t-i-m-e I had invested. Skip forward eight years, she has s-h-e-l-t-e-r in a dog house whose opening is facing the wall. She feels safe and secure in there and we hardly see her in the wintertime because of it. We still hope that maybe, someday, she will become a real cat. H-u-m-o-r has helped with the slow, ongoing process of trying to socialize this cat. My V-e-t-e-r-a-n-a-r-i-a-n knows of her special needs and thankfully fits me in -if and when- I can catch her; a standing appt. They will give her a long-term antibiotic shot, if needed, as I can’t catch her to medicate. Afraid of most everything, I never had a chance with toys; terrified, she doesn’t know how to p-l-a-y. What I do now is throw individual pieces of food near her and she goes and captures them. This is our play. Find what works between you and your cat. Now, she waits at the back door to be fed, stays in our backyard almost all of the time, and pets my hand twice before eating (only at night). Huge advances for her! It is slow work and maybe hard to notice changes. C-o-n-s-i-s-t-e-n-c-y is the key. The cat will learn, eventually. F-o-o-d was the essential motivator for her behavior changes. We still aren’t able to walk up to her. We let her t-r-a-i-n u-s on how to interact with her. She has taught us to w-h-i-s-p-e-r around her as she doesn’t like loud noises. She rewards us sometimes with an opening of her mouth and a quiet hummingbird type sound for a meow. She’s still learning how to p-u-r-r. It’s an occasional occurance and we feel so loved if she does. We let her handle that on her own, since nothing we do helps aid in this. Which brings us back to p-a-t-i-e-n-c-e and t-i-m-e, the starting and continuing point. Never going to be a very affectionate cat, ShyWoo has made remarkable progress, and I know she loves and trusts me. And she knows this is her home. She has woo-ed all of us. Hang in there. It’s worth it. L-o-v-e. I hope this will help someone else at the beginning of their shy cat journey.

    1. You have said it all my friend! Same experience with me and the mama cat who had two litters before I could trap her for spaying. It took a very long toime for all 4 cats that I have. I found that the kittens were the ones who taught her to play. She watched them with me. Then she started to chase after the bird wand. When she got close to me, I would gently sneak a touch. After doing this a few times (over the course of 2 years in my yard and screened porch), mama cat finally leaned into one of those touches and it clicked! It felt good. Fast forward–11 years. Mama cat, who ran when she saw my face in the window–comes in the house, plays, accepts scratching, petting, brushing. Now when it’s cold, she sleeps in the house all day on the radiators or in the cat beds. Most nights she will want to go out to the heated screen porch in a heated bed, but more and more she is reluctant to go out there in the cold. She is about 13 and the kittens remaining are 12 and 11. They go to the vet, except mama. Not sure I could get her in a carrier. I have trouble getting flea meds on her. She is amazingly healthy, but I know after all this time, she should be seen by the vet. My vets are really good too. When I take the cats, they are basically just scared and don’t act out. I wish you well with your little one. My cats — Mama is “Snow” kittens, Kibble, Braveheart and Jingle. There were many others over the years that I TNR’d, but not all stayed here nor lived a long life. Life in the city for cats is very challenging. Cars everywhere. Well, Merry Christmas! Thanks for sharing your story.

  17. I’ve had good luck leaving on a radio with classical music turned down very low. It seems to be a distraction from all the other scary noises in a new environment.

  18. All great ideas! Tasty food, brushing, clean bedding, toys, but, most of all, patience and love seem to win. Every cat is worth it.

  19. I adopted a cat from a family that was expecting a baby and knew they couldn’t keep her. I couldn’t understand why until I got her home. They found her at 3 months old, she was 3 years old when I adopted her. I had to study up because I though she may have been abused, which didn’t seem likely considering the family and the rest of their furry friends. Turned out if they’re abandoned and taken away from their mother that young they take on the behaviors of cats that are abused…

    It took a year of patience, soft talking, slowly letting me pet her and gaining her trust. She and my other cat are now the best of friends and she has developed into a beautifully loving cat. One of the things she loved most at first was being given wet cat food in addition to the dry. Apparently she had never had wet food before and would come running.

    Now over two years later she comes to me for loving and sometimes she sleeps with me at night. She likes it when I wrap my arm around her… Patience is a virtue, and a beautiful one.

  20. We adopted two kittens, 3-1/2 mos old, from a farm. They had spent their lives locked in a small room in the barn and, were barely humanized.
    The first thing I did when I got them home, was to let them wander at will – my place isn’t very big. I fed them which got them running into the kitchen. Then I introduced them to their bed – just big enough for them both. They promptly fell asleep wrapped around each other.
    I had purchased a wand with a very long piece of material attached. This is what I used to teach them where their litter box and food dishes were. A few days later when I felt they were more comfortable around me, I introduced them to the brush.
    I spent a lot of time with them initially as they were scared of everything. I felt so sorry for them but eventually they got used to us, their new home and noises (a big thing for them).
    It is now 8 years later and they are wonderful cats (most of the time). I have trained them to walk with a leash, to sit on command, and sometimes they even come running when I call them. Can’t ask for more!

  21. I adopted a cat who had lived outside for over a year (some fool abandoned him). A neighbor was feeding him. When I met her, I met the cat, who came right up to me. She told me he is scared of everyone but her! After some thought, I realized that Mr Bear had chosen me, and I should adopt him. This was a wonderful idea. He is anything BUT she with me. However, he IS scared of all other humans, and I am unsure how to deal with this. If I have company, he hides.
    I also wonder a lot just how this lovely cat KNEW I was his human. Is it smell? Sight? What told him I could be trusted???

    1. I think its a soul connection!
      I rescued two 8 week old ferals four years ago, sisters with very different personalities.
      The more reserved mature one has always been my shadow… she is all cool around myself and husband snd her sis but NOONE else.
      Although she is not running anymore from neighbour standing in doorway sometimes… which is huge…. she is hiding underneath covers the moment any person enters. which thankfully is rare.
      Best I can say is provide a quiet room away from action when people come over. If these people were therecall the time your cat may learn to trust them with patience but she may just be a loner who is just connected to you! It is a compliment really… just accommodate kitties needs best u can… he was lucky to have found you!

    2. I have seen good reason to suspect that cats have psychic abilities. This would explain shy, wild, or feral cats coming right up to strangers who proceed to love them.

  22. I use a lot of boiled chicken and a Tellington Touch Wand. The wand allows me to pet the cat from a distance while they eat a bit of tasty chicken. This way they get positive reinforcement ( chewing on food) along with gentle touch. The wand is like an extension of my hand and arm with no negative associations for the cat that often come with humans trying to reach for them. Eventually I switch to a brush or shorten the distance I hold the wand from me. Keeping sessions short and not over stressing the kitty with too much at once helps keep me from being too goal oriented and more present with the kitty’s needs and reactions.

  23. Leave the shy kitty alone. Let him get used to his environment and he will eventually seek you out. Curiosity will eventually win out. Be calm with him and do things his way. When he hides let him come out on his own.

  24. We had an outdoor cat adopt us last year and it took no less than a month for him to even show himself to us. He remains timid but has become very attached to me and walks literally between my feet constantly. I have stepped on him a few times. I am terrified of hurting him or myself. I have tried stopping and redirecting, I have tried gently pushing him aside, have not found a way to get him to stop yet. I sure could use some ideas on how to get him to not engage in this behavior!

    1. I had the same problem. I picked him up one day and held on to him until he began to squirm and wiggle. When I put him down he avoided me for a few days. Now he walks with me, not getting too close.

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