Dear Ms Kitty,
My cat Fitz is the perfect loving and happy companion until my friends come over. Then he hides so much, it’s like I don’t even have a cat!
And don’t get me started on what July fireworks or New Year’s Eve commotions do. How can I help him be brave so they can see the Fitz I love too?
Scared in Stetson Hills
Being brave is all about feeling safe. Cats are very small animals in a very big world, and unfortunately feeling unsafe is very common.
They are predators but also prey animals, with strong fight, flight or freeze instincts. When cats get stuck in a fear state, they can literally think they are going to die.
As veterinarian Tony Buffington says, “Cats’ two primary predators are larger carnivores and primates. So who do they live with? Dogs and people. It can be tough being a cat.”
Add the fact that 80% of all cats start life outside, so they may never have felt completely safe. If kittens don’t get consistent, gentle handling in those first few weeks, they simply may not be equipped to deal with their adult fears.
That’s where you come in and yes, you can help Fitz be brave! Here are 11 tips to help your Cowardly Lion earn his Medal of Courage.
- Listen to his body language. This can show you signs of fear even before he hides. Cats can be hard for some people to read (women tend to be better at seeing their subtleties…check out this website to see how you score), so look for subtle signs like pulling away from you, ears a little flattened, whiskers folding back, pupils dilated, or being frozen in place.
Fear Free Happy Homes has a great infographic on cat body language here.
- Check your own stress level. Research shows that cats look to their guardians for how to react to new situations. Our cats often mirror us, so if you are calm and collected, chances are your cat will be too.
- Give him a Safe Room. This is a quiet place in your home to retreat to when he feels threatened. It’s often the room he started in when he first came home and should be somewhere he knows he’s completely safe. Keep favorite beds and toys and give him regular treats there.
- Offer safety nests and perches. Many cats like to go up, which can be a high cat tree or shelves for catification. Shy cats will be more confident and apt to come out to watch if they know they are above the activity and cat retreat if needed. If you have other animals, a safe nest or perch can give him a break from them if needed.
- Give loud noises a rest. Sounds are three times louder to a cat than to us. Sudden loud noises that seem to appear from nowhere, like a summertime lawnmower or thunderstorm, can be terrifying. Build up his bravery by using noisy appliances sparingly and when he’s not in the room at first. Try to keep human sounds consistent and predictable until he gets braver.
- Don’t force him into scary situations. Let Jackson Galaxy’s motto of Let the Cat Pet You be your guide. If Fitz retreats from your friends, don’t poison his safe place by invading it.
Also, never let a new person try to pick him up. Unless cats have been taught as kittens to enjoy that, being picked up can be terrifying. Be patient and allow him to come out at his own pace.
- Think like a cat. If you were a cat, you might be intimidated by a 3-story giant dying to grab you. Sitting on the floor, rather than towering over him, can help your friends be less scary. Don’t crowd his nest, but relax and offer slow blinks, as a calm cat friend would.
- Please toss the cookies! We all do better when we get rewarded for being brave, so give him a few of his favorite treats when he’s out with you. Then when your friends come over, they can gently toss him a few without getting too close at first. A trail of treats, like a trail of breadcrumbs, can lead to a braver Fitz.
- Playtime is happy time too. Find a wand toy that Fitz likes (most cats love the Cat Dancer or the Cat Catcher) and give him daily play sessions. Put the toy away afterward so he looks forward to it every day. When your friends come over, they get to be his hero when they get out his favorite toy.
- Plan ahead for scary events. Most animals (and many people!) get stressed with the fireworks on Independence Day, New Year’s Eve or holiday gatherings, for example.
Shelters always see an increase in homeless animals after July 4th because they get scared and run away, and many cats perish before they make it that far. Set up Fitz with his favorite treats and toys in his Safe Room and you’ll have a much happier cat at the end of the night.
- Enjoy your happy cat! It’s rewarding when a cat who feels safe comes out with his people and their cat-savvy friends. Ask for pets—from his level–by offering a knuckle or finger and letting him pet you first. If you let him take the lead, a happy cat will push back into your hand. There’s nothing like the reward of a purring, happy cat!
Sara Ferguson is the Director of Happy Cats Haven. Ask Ms Kitty is a free helpline offered by Happy Cats Haven and Colorado Cats Boarding.