Creature Feature: Taking a cat from ‘fraidy to friendly

1 Jun
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 1E, Family, June 1, 2011
Rhonda Owen, Special to the Democrat-Gazette

You wrote about cats and dogs being afraid of storms, but I have a different problem. My cat, Jackson, seems afraid of people. When I have company, he hides in another room or behind the sofa. Sometimes he’ll come out after 10 or 15 minutes but he’ll run away if anyone tries to pet him. We got him from a rescue outfit and think he’s about a year old. Can we get him to be friendlier?

Cats are individuals so the way each reacts to people usually reflects his unique personality. Some cats are gregarious and love to give and receive attention, while others are timid and shy away from unfamiliar people and situations.

Still other cats are watchers. They’ll come into a room, find a perch and enjoy observing the social activity but prefer not to participate.

Some cats are fearful of visitors, which can be related to temperament but often can be traced to a lack of socialization early in life. A rescue or stray cat’s background often is a mystery and owners won’t know if the cat was abused or simply didn’t get enough exposure to humans during the first couple of months of kittenhood.

Since Jackson is a rescue pet, it’s reasonable to assume that he may not have had much experience with people during the most critical socialization period of 3 to 9 weeks old. If he’s calm and friendly around family members but hides only around strangers, then this could be the case.

There are steps you can take to make him more comfortable around visitors, but keep in mind that he may never be an extroverted cat.

Here are tips from personal experience and animal behavior experts at Best Friends Animal Society (bestfriends. org), the American Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ( and

Make your cat more comfortable by providing him with a safe area where he doesn’t have to interact with guests. Set up an out-of-theway area, like a back room, with a resting area, water and a litter box. Before guests arrive, put him in this space and give him a treat and an interactive toy.

After guests arrive, you can bring your cat out of the safe room and into the room with other people. Just pet him and give him treats but don’t make him interact with anyone unless he wants to. After a few minutes, take him back to his room. The point isn’t to force interaction but to let him know being around people can be pleasant.

After several sessions like this, you may move closer to your guests with your cat. If he’s not distressed, move closer the next time. Gradually, you may have people speak to him or offer him treats.

In the room where you have guests, make sure there are perches such as cat trees in case Jackson prefers watching people from a distance. If so, he may sit and watch until he decides he wants to participate or desires attention.

Offer your guests some tips for dealing with your cat’s shyness:

  • Ask them to let Jackson approach them.
  • Tell them to avoid eye contact. Cats don’t like direct eye contact and feel threatened by it. Conversely, they’re often drawn to the person who seems least interested in them. Ever hear people talk about how their cat always seems to prefer the friend who doesn’t care for cats? That’s why.
  • Have guests squat down to the floor or get closer to the cat’s level when speaking to him to make them seem less threatening.

    If Jackson’s naturally reserved, he’ll never be as outgoing as you might want him to be. But as long as he feels secure and doesn’t seem stressed out by visitors, continue the socializing process and you’ll make progress over time. Just remember to not force situations, because that could set back any progress.

Creature Feature appears each Wednesday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Send your pet questions to

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