Dear Molly, "Shy/Nervous"

Dear Molly,

I’m reaching out because I recently adopted a cat from a rescue and she is so shy and nervous! She was feral the first 4 months of her life before being rescued, and after that she was with a foster for about 5 months before I got her. I’ve had her for about 3 weeks now, and she is still super scared and anxious around me. She eats and uses the litter box just fine, but she’s not interested in playing or coming close to me. She hardly comes out of hiding during the day, and will only explore a little bit in the evenings when I’m still awake. Once I go to bed she’ll explore the apartment more.

Is there anything I can do to help her? It’s been 3 weeks and she’s hardly had any improvement. Even the foster thought she’d warm up to me by now. I just bought the Feliway diffuser for Multicat (the classic didn’t work for her) so I’m hoping that will help.


Dear Shy/Nervous,

Thank you for giving a shelter cat – especially a shy one – a chance.


I think it's helpful to understand why some cats are more shy than others. Genetics plays about a 30% role in a cat’s personality. So if she was feral for the first four, formulative, months of her life, she had no human contact and will retain fear going forward. That’s not to say this can’t be modified somewhat, but she will probably never be the loves-your-guests-and-seeks-lap-cuddles kind of cat.


I did a handout to be included in cat adoption packets that explains how long it takes for a “normally socialized” cat to settle into a new home – see below. And as you can see, it takes about three months for them to fully settle in. With an under-socialized cat it will take quite a bit longer. So first thing is for you to have patience and release all expectations about how long this will take. It will proceed at the cat’s pace and any attempt to rush that will very likely lengthen the process.


The second thing to understand, and do, is the counter-conditioning process. Counter conditioning is changing her emotional response to a scary stimulus (people). You pair the scary stimulus (you) with something really wonderful – super yummy treat. Over time, her fear/negative associations with you/people will begin to shift to a more positive one, associated with the joy of getting the treat.

The treat has to be something that is different from normal treats/food – I like to use Lick 'n Lap by Vitakraft, or deli turkey; you can also use tuna or canned chicken. Start by tossing a small ball of turkey to her. (I ball it up because if you toss a flat slice it sticks to the floor and is difficult for them to pick up and eat.) Go to her hiding place; do not encroach on her comfort zone; take note of the distance you are from her when she starts to recoil or run and do not go any closer; toss the treat and after she’s eaten it, leave. Do this multiple times a day. Get closer each time if you can. Also stop free feeding dry food. Feed canned food on a schedule, multiple times a day. Deliver the meal to where she is hiding out during the day. This way she will associate you with getting the food. Also canned food (versus dry) is going to provide more serotonin to her, which is going to help calm her on a physiological level.


Thirdly, keep her environment very predictable and calm; stick to a routine/schedule; no loud music or TV. Postpone house guests, buying new or rearranging furniture, adopting more pets, etc. until after she’s fully settled in.


I want you to listen to these podcasts that I think will help you with ideas to bond with her:

Bonding with Traumatized Cat – Interview with Dr. Anabelle Bugatti

How to Bond with Your Cat

Fostering Aggressive/Shy/Shut Down cats


To recap: give her space/time by dropping expectations of how long this should take; use counter conditioning techniques to change her emotional response to you; feed canned food with a high protein/meat content to boost serotonin levels; listen to the three podcasts for more ideas that will help with your process.