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Sometimes trust is given; other times, it is earned. With fearful cats, earning trust is a process but anyone who has ever befriended a fearful cat knows there is no greater reward. Fearful cats are often under-socialized, meaning they have had little to no human interaction. When approached, these cats will exhibit behaviors like hiding, hissing, and even swatting. They will run away, attempting to avoid any human contact. But all is not lost. Fearful cats can learn to trust humans if you are willing to put in the work. Here are some ways to get started:

Limit the space: If given the choice, fearful cats will hide from humans. When bringing a fearful cat into your home, confine the cat to a small room with limited opportunity for hiding. A bedroom is ideal. Assess the room for all possible hiding spots and block off as much as possible. If they can fit in or under it, they will find a way. The more places that are available to hide in, the longer it will take for the cat to acclimate. They will not come out of hiding if they don’t need to. In saying that, keep in mind that no cat likes to feel exposed. Ensure the cat does have a shallow hiding spot. This could be a cat tree with a tunnel or other covered space, a covered bed, or a box. Choose something that is easily accessible to you and the cat. You don’t want the cat hiding in the back of a closet or underneath the bed, where it becomes difficult for you to work with the cat.

Give your time: The more time you are able to spend with the cat, the quicker the socialization process will be. It starts with simply being in their presence. At the beginning, give the cat space and allow them to get used to you. Don’t rush to make contact with the cat. Soon enough, the cat will begin to walk around and learn that you are not an immediate threat. The first goal is for the cat to accept your existence. This may take hours to weeks. When this happens, the cat will start cautiously exploring, eating, and/or using the litter box around you.

Avoid contact: To humans, direct eye contact is a sign of positive communication. In the animal world, it can be seen as a threat. When establishing a relationship with a fearful cat, avoid direct eye contact. If the cat is staring at you, look away. If the cat approaches to sniff you, ignore the cat and allow them to explore you with their nose. If the cat is highly fearful, don’t worry about trying to touch them. Right now, the goal is to get the cat to accept you into their space.

Discover what the cat values: Explore if the cat is treat or play-motivated. Most cats–even fearful felines–will display signs they are interested in one of these. If you are lucky, it will be both! Use the treats or playtime to your advantage to engage the cat. The cat will start redefining your relationship when positive things like treats and toys are associated with your presence.

Begin touch therapy: Potentially, the biggest hurdle to work through is making contact. Approach the cat with your finger to let him smell you. If he accepts your finger, try touching his nose. Slowly test out the cat’s willingness to touch. Fearful cats are not all the same. Some are more open to being touched; however, reluctance is expected. Take your time and be patient with the process. Touch therapy can take weeks before the cat makes a conscious decision to be petted. Never hold the cat down and force touch. Simple techniques you can try are:
• Grazing his tail as he walks by you.
• While playing or eating, stroke his back.
• Use a toothbrush. If you discover the cat is highly resistant to the approach of your hand, a toothbrush can be a powerful tool to desensitize the cat to touch. When they are distracted (with play, eating, or simply walking by), graze the toothbrush on their back gently. Over time, the cat won’t even pay attention to it. Keep progressing until you can use your hand.

Even brief touches make progress. With each touch, the cat is learning this is not something they need to fear. Don’t give up and you will be surprised at the progress made.

Slow down your movements: Once the cat accepts petting and limits their time spent hiding, you can start allowing them to have more access to the home. An often-overlooked action is consciously slowing down your movement. When the cat expands their territory and is able to roam freely around the home, they will likely continue to exhibit fearfulness. Slowing your movement down can help immensely. For instance, if the cat is lounging on a table and looking out the window, slow your movement as you pass by so the cat can observe and assess that there is no threat. If he is laying beside you and you need to get up, slowly get up instead of jumping up off the sofa like normal. The goal is to help the cat understand there is no need to run and hide every time you walk by or move. As you move by the cat, try talking sweetly, petting them, or simply ignoring them altogether. Observe their behavior and learn when they feel the instinct to run. Sometimes, pausing all movement may also help improve fearful tendencies. When a fearful cat has warmed up to you but psychs himself out and scampers off to get a few feet away, try simply standing still. Oftentimes, a fearful cat at this stage will look back, see you are not moving, and walk back to you. It’s a learning process for the cat, and slow movements will help establish confidence and trust. If they can interpret what your movement is going to be, they will not take off running. The goal is to help the cat learn they are safe.

Forcing action limits progress: Do not force a cat to do anything. If the cat shows resistance, back off and try again later. If the cat is hiding, allow him to make the choice to come out. This is not to say that you can’t approach the cat in its hiding spot to touch it, but don’t force him out of his safe space. Don’t force touch if the cat shows signs of aggression.

Never chase: Never chase a fearful cat. This will regress any progress you made.

Fearful cats can integrate into a home and become fulfilling companions. Being a fearful cat does not mean that they are incapable of giving or receiving love. Fearful cats can thrive. They need time and the patience of a loving home. The next time a fearful cat pulls at your heartstrings, look past the fearfulness and consider their potential instead. All they need is a little time and patience. You will not only earn the cat’s trust but also a lifetime of loyalty.

May 28, 2023

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