This weekend, I had the chance to catch up with my friend, Ashley, who just adopted a cat. She grew up with dogs, so her experience with cats didn’t extend beyond the three times she stayed at my place to pet sit for me while I was traveling.
My cat, Bailey, was the perfect example of a confident cat. He was the ideal host for visitors because his actions and demeanor reflected his willingness to let others feel relaxed and confident while in his presence.
He wasn’t skittish or nervous when strangers entered. His general aire of “How are you today? Oh wait, I just realized I don’t care” put people and other animals at ease, and in most cases, peaked interest in wanting to get to know him.
Given this was Ashley’s only frame of reference for healthy cat behavior, she was a little concerned that the cat she just adopted didn’t seem to have Bailey’s carefree attitude.
“She’s been hiding under my bed since I got her home yesterday,” she said, a slight panic in her voice. “I’m pretty sure she hates me.”
I explained that this was pretty typical behavior when a cat first comes home because she hasn’t had enough time to feel confident with her new surroundings. There are so many new images, scents, and noises — and it can be a little overwhelming.
So we talked through some ways to ease her into her new space. Since it was fresh in my head, I figured I’d share some of that insight with you all as well.
Here’s how to give your new companion plenty of time and space to become acquainted with her new home and the people who live there.
1. Let Her ‘Map’ It Out
Your job during cat socialization is to see things from your cat’s point of view. She’s frightened, in a strange environment inhabited by “giants” (you and your family) who always want to hug her and scoop her up. This can be overwhelming, especially for timid cats.
With this in mind, instruct your family to keep a safe distance as she makes her way around the house. She needs time to smell, investigate, and ultimately identify safe places she likes to escape to for a bit. This allows her to develop her own internal “map” of the house by learning whose room belongs to whom.
2. Mind your manners.
At the very beginning, everyone in your household should sit quietly or go about their business.
If your cat comes to you, place your hand down slowly to allow her to sniff. Moving quietly, start petting your new cat on the back. If she allows it, stroking her cheeks is also a fine way to greet her as she rubs her scent onto you, thus marking you as her property. Watch her tail for signs of distress or affection; cat tails can tell you how they’re feeling.
3. Long time, no see
If your cat has been hidden away for a while, or hasn’t seen certain people for some time, she may be fearful around them as if they’re new again.
Make sure your family and friends let her sniff them at her leisure—I suggest extending an index finger to start.
It may take her a few minutes to connect (or reconnect) that scent with a special ally. Nonetheless, she’ll let you know when the connection is made by rubbing against you, purring, or giving the happy welcome-back “chirp” that some cats give when saying hello to someone they haven’t seen in a long time.
4. Offer a Safe Place
Cat socialization should always include a safe place for her to go if she becomes frightened—not just when she’s new to the home. You should leave her crate or carrier in the room at the start so she has a place to retreat to if she is startled. Place a towel or something soft inside so she can snuggle up.
A cardboard box with a door cut out for easy entrance and exit is also a simple refuge to help a socializing cat develop confidence in you over time.
5. Reward Social Behavior, Ignore the Rest
When your cat comes out to investigate you and your family, greet her with praise, treats, and gentle strokes. If she hides, just ignore her instead of chasing after her. It’s important to reward desirable behavior and simply ignore undesirable responses during the ongoing cat socialization process.
The more receptive you are to her affection when she’s ready to give it, the less shy she’ll be.
6. Gain Trust through a Routine
Cat socialization is easier when she can rely on the casual nature of others right from the start. This allows her to find security in knowing what to expect from guests and other residents of the home. Create a routine of petting and feeding as you host relatives she may see regularly.
This can make strangers more approachable and easier for her to remember. Feed her at regular intervals will let her know she can rely on you as well, which in turn will make her feel less vulnerable. Food is a great motivator when building a healthy relationship.
Spend as much time as possible around your cat without directly interacting with her; don’t pressure her to play or come to you. Watch television in the same room or read a book. As long as you stay in common places, she’ll be confident enough to come and join you eventually.
Just take it slow. Cats are like people in at least one way: They can be outgoing, shy, aggressive, and passive. Depending on your cat’s unique personality, she may warm up to the family quickly or it may take her several days. Let her set the pace, and never force her to accept affection she doesn’t want to give.
One of the reasons I love cats so much is because they insist on a life lived on their own terms. Respect your cat’s terms, and they’ll (eventually) respect you.