Training Tips to Help Socialize a Shy Cat

Cat hiding under couch
Find out what motivates your shy cat and use that as a reward.

Reward-based training is a simple and effective way to boost your cat’s confidence and strengthen her bond with you. For a shy or cautious cat, though, the benefits of training may be even greater.

Shy cats tend to keep to themselves, particularly in uncomfortable situations — which can include everything from friends visiting your home to a trip to the vet’s office. One downside of this is that when your cat is prone to hiding, it can be difficult to spot the small changes in behavior that may signal a health problem. Your shy cat may also aggress when she feels threatened, and this behavior can make even routine vet visits difficult.

Luckily, a cat doesn’t need to be born bold to become a confident kitty. I have seen shy adult cats learn to be more relaxed around people. Reward-based training can help your cat feel more comfortable around humans, both those she sees often, like your friends, and those who are new to her, like the staff at the vet’s office. Training doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming; rewarding everyday behaviors can help foster communication and trust between you and your cat.

Your cat may never become the life of the party, but these simple training strategies may help her to be more comfortable in social situations.

How to Train a Shy Cat

The key to fostering a feline’s comfort relies on two things: allowing your cat to choose when and how she interacts with people and making every interaction as safe and predictable as possible for her. I follow five simple steps to help reserved cats learn to be more confident around humans. Try these with your shy feline and watch her personality bloom.

Step one: Create an environment that makes your cat feel safe and protected. Cats need both high spaces, like those found on cat shelving or cat trees, and hiding areas, such as tunnels, boxes and covered beds, in order to feel safe in your home. Your feline is more likely to relax if she has ample places where she can retreat from perceived dangers. Access to cat-safe quiet areas away from heavy traffic and noises can also help your shy cat manage her anxiety.

Step two: Use only positive reinforcement training. This approach teaches your cat that certain behaviors are rewarded. Clicker training is a simple type of positive reinforcement training; the desired behavior is pinpointed with the clicker and immediately rewarded with something the cat desires. Clicker training teaches your feline that she has a choice, because she does the behavior of her own free will; it can also teach her to associate certain people and behaviors with positive consequences. (Note: Some shy cats may be afraid of the clicker noise — for those cats, you can muffle the clicker by holding it behind your back or you can substitute something quieter, like a ballpoint pen. Another alternative is to use a verbal cue, like “yes” or “good,” to mark the behavior.)

Step three: Find out what motivates your cat and use that as a reward. When your cat does a desired behavior, mark it with the clicker — and immediately follow that with a reward. The reward must be something that is desired by the cat; examples include a treat, a toy or, for very shy cats, a little space. Keep in mind that some of the things that you may think of as a reward, like petting, may be frightening for your cat. Pay attention to your cat’s body language and behavior and pace your interactions accordingly.