How Can I Teach My Cat to Be Less Fearful of Strangers?
Q. My cat is very comfortable around my husband and me, but whenever anyone comes over to our house she immediately runs and hides under the bed until the person leaves. Is it possible to build her confidence around new people?
A. It’s not uncommon for cats to be skittish around new people, or to run and hide when someone unfamiliar drops by. Cats will often perceive anything new or out of place as a potential hazard that could endanger their safety.
Although fearful felines are not uncommon, the fear your cat experiences every time a visitor comes into your home creates an environment of unrest for her and can lower her quality of life. It will help your cat’s general well-being if you take steps to help her relax around new people.
Socialize Your Cat
The best way to decrease fear in cats is to socialize them while they are young. Even in cat breeds that are naturally more wary around strangers, socialization during kittenhood can lower fear levels. To socialize your kitten, expose her to different people, experiences (like visiting the veterinarian or groomer) and sounds at a level where she is comfortable and unafraid. At the same time, give her rewards she enjoys, such as canned tuna or playtime with a feather toy. This helps build her enjoyment of new sights and experiences — including unfamiliar people.
If your cat is an adult and is already afraid of new people, it’s going to be more of a challenge to help build her confidence around strangers, but progress is possible.
Get Ready for Guests
There are a few simple things you can do to make your cat feel more comfortable before a visitor comes into your home. Start by finding ways to build her enjoyment of different forms of play. There are numerous toys available, including food puzzle toys, feather toys, mice toys and even mechanical toys that move in exciting and preylike ways designed to get even the laziest cats moving.
Make the space where you normally visit with people in your home comfortable for your cat. Enrich the environment by creating living spaces both for climbing and hiding. Cat climbing posts, shelving on the walls, beds with covered tops and other hiding areas on the floor, such as tubes, can be inviting places for your feline to venture when she’s nervous. Spend most of your time when you play, trick train or pet your cat in this area so that she becomes comfortable in this room.
Clicker training your cat with some basic behaviors, like sitting or lying down, will also help build your feline’s confidence and give you go-to behaviors that your cat can focus on when a visitor comes over.
Practice cues for your cat that normally indicate a person coming into the house, such as knocking on the door or ringing the doorbell. Let these be the indicator that play, clicker training or treats are going to happen so that your cat eagerly anticipates something good when she hears the cue. Alternate roles with your husband as the mock guest who knocks or rings and then steps inside; follow up immediately with the reward.
Before a visitor even comes into your home, you can spray Feliway, a cat pheromone spray that is naturally calming for cats. If your cat isn’t too distraught, close the doors to rooms where your cat normally would hide. Do these things during your practice sessions a few days before visitors come so that your cat is already accustomed to being more social before an actual guest arrives.
Once You’ve Prepared, Practice
For a first visit, invite someone your cat is familiar with and has a positive or neutral association with. Ask your visitor to spray the feline pheromone spray on himself before he comes in; this may help calm your cat.
Have your guest ring or knock on the door; open the door only slightly so your cat can see the guest. Immediately start your reward session with your cat. As your cat grows more comfortable, have the guest walk inside with his body turned to the side so he is not facing or looking at your cat. He can also sit down, which will make him look less threatening. Keep some distance between your guest and your cat to begin with.
As your cat relaxes, gradually move the cat closer to the visitor, but only as long as your cat is still comfortable enough to take treats, play or enjoy petting. If your cat stays relaxed enough, you can do your clicker training work or your play with the visitor in the vicinity so that your cat gradually grows accustomed to a new person and builds up a positive association with him being there.
Keep hiding places available in your visitation room for your cat to venture to if she becomes afraid. Don’t ever force her to come out; instead, leave a trail of treats or cat nip on the way out of the hiding area, or use a feather toy to coax her out. You can also offer your cat a favorite treat — canned tuna, canned cat food or any other food that your cat especially enjoys. Set it just outside her hiding area or near the visitor. Sometimes ignoring your cat takes the pressure off her and she will eventually venture out on her own.
As your cat builds confidence, gradually invite different people into your home over a period of weeks. Continue to reward your cat whenever someone comes to the door. Be careful not to overwhelm your cat with too many people, though, and don’t force interaction — always allow your cat to approach new people at her own pace. With patience, you can morph your scaredy-cat into a courageous cat.