Updated: Mar 16
Cats are very much their own creatures, and are often known for keeping to themselves. Sometimes, though, their reluctance to interact with people can stem from being undersocialized or, sadly, mistreated. A fearful or undersocialized cat can still learn to trust and bond with humans, if the humans are willing to put in the work. If you’re trying to help a fearful or undersocialized cat, here are some tools to help.
Have realistic expectations
The process of learning that humans are okay can take months, even years for some cats. It will feel like you are putting in a lot of effort and not getting much in return. Celebrate the small successes, and the breakthroughs will happen on their own time.
Start very small and very slow
If your home is larger than a studio apartment, it would be best to start your fearful cat off in a small room. It can be a spare bathroom, office, or bedroom. Make sure to block off any hiding spaces that you can’t access.
Be sure to include the essentials:
Food and water
Hiding space that you can access
Scratching post or cardboard scratcher
Dedicate time each day to visiting with your cat. Use a calm, gentle voice. Keep your movements slow and small. Tuck your legs under you if you can, and keep your arms close to your body. Only get as close as your cat is comfortable. If they hiss, growl, freeze, back away, or flatten their ears, you are too close. If your cat is super stressed, keep the visit to 5 minutes or less. Otherwise, you can plan on hanging out for a good 20-30 minutes. This could be a great time to read your emails or a good book (out loud, so your cat can get used to hearing your voice).
Bring tasty treats
Treats are a great way to help your fearful cat start to associate you with good things. Baby food (pure chicken, turkey, etc with no onion or garlic) works wonders. Treat tubes, which are essentially a thick liquidy treat in a tube, work well also. You can offer the treat in a small bowl or on a spoon. You can even use the tip of a wand toy. Your cat might not take the treats directly from you at first, or even eat them while you are present.
Cats can build confidence through play, but getting a fearful cat to play can take some work. Smaller toys will tend to be less intimidating. The tip of a wand toy’s handle can imitate a bug if you slowly trace it along the floor, or the edge of a shelf or other object. Poking it under a blanket or rug can also catch your cat’s interest. Your cat might not engage in full play, but even getting them to watch the toy or extend a paw towards it is progress.
An extendable back scratcher is a fantastic tool for working with a fearful or under socialized cat. They offer a way to work with your cat while still maintaining space between you. The metal ‘hand’ can be used to deliver treats. Also, once your cat allows you to pet them with it, it mimics the feel of fingers running through their fur. You might try following these steps:
Hold the ‘hand’ portion of the wand under your arm for a few moments. This transfers some of your scent to it.
Slowly extend the metal hand towards your cat so they can sniff it. Keep it below the level of their head.
Retract the hand, place some treats in it or smear some baby food/wet food on it and again offer it to your cat.
If they don’t take the treats, try turning your head away, or simply drop them for your cat and retract the hand again.
Repeat this for many days, until your cat is consistently taking treats. Gradually, you can decrease the length that you are extending the back scratcher.
While your cat is enjoying treats or food, gently touch the back scratcher to the side of their head, neck, or body. If your cat gives a startled reaction, keep the back scratcher still for them to sniff if they choose, and then slowly withdraw it. You might need to start by having the scratcher ‘accidentally’ touch a paw instead. Again, repeat this many days and gradually decrease the length of the back scratcher, until finally your cat allows pets from your actual hand.
Tune into your cat and observe their body language each time you visit them to gauge how they are feeling. Notice if their posture or signals change during your visit.
While an under socialized or fearful cat might never have the same confidence and ease interacting with people that other cats have, they can still be wonderful, loving companions. The bond you create with them might even be more meaningful because of the time and patience it took to build. This article from Alley Cat Allies has more information on cat socialization. If you are a parent to a fearful/under socialized cat or have any special tips for helping fearful cats learn to trust their humans, please share in the comments!