How to make my cat feel safe?
April 9, 2012 6:28 AM   Subscribe

How do I make my cat feel safe? Since I first got him, he won't let me pick him up. Ususally when I walk toward him he will run the other way. Most of the time he won't let me pet him unless he comes to me first. Won't come out of bedroom if I have a guest. Just a total scaredy cat. He has never been hit or abused. I talk to him all day long in a sweet, loving voice. I've had him for 3 years. I need to take him to the vet, but can't pick him up. I heard about pheremones, but I think I also need some cat psychology 101. Anyone have similar experiences? I would love suggestions. Also, the people who brought him to my home, were carrying him.
posted by lovecatsalways to Pets & Animals (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Some cats just plain don't like being picked up. I'd had my own cat for nine years before I could actually pick him up and hold him for more than five seconds. Nothing wrong with him, nothing wrong with the way I was treating him -- he just plain didn't like it. He got over it.

For times when you need to put him in a cat carrier for a vet visit, you just have to grit your teeth, trap the little bugger, remind yourself that you're ten times his size and do it. The rest of the time, just let him come to you at his own pace.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:42 AM on April 9, 2012 [7 favorites]

"...he won't let me pet him unless he comes to me first."

I don't know any cat that will do anything it doesn't want to do. This is completely normal. I suggest that what you need to do is; listen to him, instead of talking to him; let him come to you instead of walking towards him.

Does he have his own inviolate space in the house where he can go to if he wants to get away from everyone? Is he able to get around the house on his own without getting shut into a room or trapped in a dead end?

Try slowly blinking at him. This is like "Hi, you're alright" in cat. See if he blinks back.
posted by BadMiker at 6:43 AM on April 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

As a teen, I took care of dozens of stray cats, built shelters for them on my parents' decks and fed them using some money I made on a couple of paper routes. I ended up domesticating enough of them that they found permanent homes (and not just my own) and it was a lot of guess and test.

What typically worked with wild or skittish cats is consistently pushing their boundaries a little bit at a time. For example, the next time you feed the cat, put the dish a few feet from you. Let the cat size the situation up and come to the realization that if it's going to eat, it's going to take a little risk. Don't approach the cat while it eats, just watch it.

Next week, get a little closer. Then a little more. Then use treats to draw the cat close enough that you might touch it. Eventually, most cats will allow you to be in touching distance from them and even lightly touch them. That's when you're in.

Take your time and don't rush the cat. If it's natural instinct is to flee, it will take some time to play cat and mouse with its sense of security. In my experience, however, the cats who were the most skittish often turn out to be the most affectionate and cuddly cats you can find.

For the pics or it didn't happen people, I adopted a litter runt whose mom was killed by a fox. He was terrified of everything all of the time. A couple of years later, after some real work with trust, little Freddie Mercury was typically found like this. What a life.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 6:44 AM on April 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yeah - what you're describing is normal Executive Cat behavior. You are, after all, just a staff member.

My cats - both of them - hate being picked up, but my fiancee has gently been desensitizing the male over time. She would pick him up, hold him for about ten seconds and put him down. Gradually, he's gotten used to it, and will let her hold him for ten minutes before he starts struggling to be put down.

Small moves.
posted by Thistledown at 6:46 AM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

We have a cat who is 16, who has never liked being picked up. Some cats are like this. We have a cat is four and who has never been bothered about it.

Adjust your expectations.
posted by pompomtom at 6:52 AM on April 9, 2012

I live with a sometimes hostile kitty. She has allowed me to pick her up only if I do it by the scruff of the neck, at which times she becomes immobile, which is handy when she is comfortably set up in my room and I need her out. However, one must be careful in the approach as kitty has claws and is not afraid to use them. She and I have had a standoffish relationship which involves a lot of swipes at my feet as I walk by, probably because I am the new roommate and she wants me to know who's boss, or something. After six months, she sat on my bed and purred and allowed me to pet her, which I feel was a breakthrough milestone. Other roommates have mixed success, but one picks her up more often by the scruff and claims this has led the cat to relax around her.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:52 AM on April 9, 2012

Well, seems like normal skittish cat behavior. As for the vet..... if you have two people, it can go easier. Either put your carrier upright on its 'butt' so you can pretty much dump the cat in the open door, or much better, get a carrier that opens on the top. Getting cats in carriers is almost never easy or elegant. Contrary to the cat's fussing, yelling and other protests, you are NOT scarring it for life.

As for in home actions... whats the setup like? Toys? Cat tree? Other cats? dogs? Lots of strange people frequently? Do you walk fast? talk loudly? Smoke? Lots of incense/perfume/smelly cleaning stuff? Any, all, or none of these can sometimes set off cats. Oh, and make darn sure the litterboxes are clean. Cats often like having places they can be up high.

As for getting the cat used to you... i bribe mine with treats pretty much any time I need to do something like nail clipping or vet transport. Course, she will lets us pick her up for small doses. Just stay calm as possible and be gentle as possible. Cats are trainable.
posted by Jacen at 6:56 AM on April 9, 2012

Definitive Answer is impossible without a picture of the cat in question.

Cats are weird.

Those two answers should fit every cat situation.

But seriously. I bred cats as a kid (long story) and handled them constantly from nearly the minute they were born. This created great family cats that didnt blink if someone petted them while they ate, or caught them in mid leap, or dressed them in doll clothes.

Since yours is all grown up now, carry some kitty treats sometimes. Every now and then kitty gets one. But never when you're doing something he shouldn't interrupt - you set those parameters. I don't let cats harrass me in bed, but some people think that's cute. Whatever.

Once you've established that you are the great machine when the cat approaches you, become the great machine when you approach him. Pat him on the head, give a treat. Tomorrow, scratch his back and he gets another treat. Save the hug him and squeeze him and call him George routine for a few months down the road.

Don't bother your cat when he's in a private place - under a bed, behind the couch, and for an adult cat that wasn't hand raised by a precocious child - never while they eat or sleep until its very clear the cat loves your doting affection.
posted by bilabial at 6:57 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

As Paul there mentions, picking a cat up by the scruff of the neck, while it seems odd to humans, works ok with cats. They have a good deal of loose skin there, and mother cats use this to carry around kittens.

Oh, and be sure you know cat language. Ears back = bad. Hissing = unhappy cat. Low growl usually = alert to claw time cat.
posted by Jacen at 6:58 AM on April 9, 2012

What do you mean when you say he "won't let you" pet him? I'm asking because one of my cats is like this with other people - if most people pet him he will smack. He will smack me if I pet him for too long. He also really likes to smack people in general.

Anyway I agree that to take him to the vet you will just have to corner him and get him in a carrier.

Have you tried speaking to the cat in different tones of voice? Sometimes cats respond to one way of calling them and not another.

My cats were like this when they were younger (they're 7 now) but they've both mellowed out a lot. They even come out when I have people over but one still doesn't like for anyone to pet him. He also doesn't like to be picked up at all, and the other will only let me pick him up if no one is looking - which is hilarious to me. If he sees someone looking at him while I'm holding him he freaks out.
posted by fromageball at 6:58 AM on April 9, 2012

Just a tip on getting him to the vet: Use a pillowcase to trap him. He won't love it, but it's effective and won't hurt him. Then you can put the whole bundle in the carrier and let him free himself.

As for the "don't touch me" behavior -- yeah, cats do this. It varies on how best to handle cat to cat, but whenever people meet my "don't come near me" cat (she doesn't run -- she growls), I just tell them to not reach out to her, and let her investigate on her own. It's kind of, if you ignore them, they'll get interested in you. I did this (ignored) with my roommate's cats (2 of them are scaredy kittehs) and the one is usually chill around me and lets me pick her up and pet her. The other one has stopped freaking out and running away at the distant sound of my footfalls.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:30 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

How old is this cat? If he's only around 4 he's still a youngster and will likely mellow with age and the stability that you can provide. He might not turn into a snugglebug overnight but in a few more years you're likely to have the sort of cat who will enjoyably sit next to you on the couch and encroach your seat whenever you fidget until you're wedged up against the arm. If he was an adult kitty in his previous situation, then there's really no way for you to know what factors contributed to his current scarediness. You just have to be patient and consistent.

I don't think I've ever lived with a cat who agreeably got into a carrier. You can try getting the carrier all set up and waiting for the cat to fall asleep, and then ambushing him with a towel dropped over him and then scooping him up, wrapping him burrito-style, and bundling him into the carrier. This is pretty much the only thing that worked with my most spitfire cat. For others I've kept the carrier out in the open for weeks, sometimes months, so that the cat considers it a normal part of its world and doesn't hightail it to the farthest corner under the bed when it's time to get in. There will still be squirming and cat-anger but there's nothing to be done about that. (This never works for the spitfire, she somehow knew what was up every time.)

As far cat psychology 101, be sure you're not overloading his senses. Cats have very refined senses of smell, for example. Do you use a lot of perfume or bodywash or something? A lot of cats dislike citrus (one of my cats loved lemons though, cats are weird) and it could be something in a product you use that is making him upset. Try also to be quiet and use slow, predictable movements when you approach him. If you're about to make a loud noise (movies, vacuum, garbage disposal) be sure that he has an escape route and a safe place to run to. Accidentally getting trapped in a bathroom or in the place with the vacuum can be surprisingly traumatizing. He might still be working through something that seemed innocuous to you but was totally horrible in his tiny cat brain.

Honestly though if he allows you to pet him at all, and if he actually comes to you when he's being agreeable, that's pretty good for a non-small segment of cats. I presume that this means he doesn't let you clip his claws often or at all, so have lots and lots of scratchy things (the corrugated cardboard types are very nice) in order to help him out. This should assist with the occasional forced pickup, too.
posted by Mizu at 7:34 AM on April 9, 2012

I agree that a 'safe space, is key. Mall Cop is this same way, he finally lets me pick him up for more than 5 minutes at a time after 4 years. But, if he goes under the coffee table, that's his 'safe space'. He can sit and watch us all, but we know that he's not in the mood for play or pets or pickups. Us humans respect that, and it helps.
posted by spinifex23 at 8:01 AM on April 9, 2012

Nthing the people who recommend time and patience (and the natural consequences of aging kitty). Our 17yo cat still isn't a picker-upper, but she does like to sit or sleep on people who are holding still in a bed, and she's done that far more over the last five years than she did when she was young. Our 6yo is doing the same kind of warm-up to lap-sitting, although she will most likely never be a picker-upper either. I've seen it happen with previous cats--I had one who wouldn't ever sit on a lap until I'd had her for about five years, and by the end of her life not only was she running to sit on my lap every time I sat down, she was sleeping on my back or my hip most nights.

The best you can do is call and encourage your cat if she's nearby and you're down on the couch for TV or book time, when you know you won't have to get up for a while. (Ours have always seemed to prefer horizontal people for lap time, so lying down may also help you.) The third cat I mention above wouldn't sit on my lap at first unless she could be under a blanket (I suspect she didn't want the Cat Gods to see her succumbing); eventually she moved to above the blanket to not needing one at all, so you might try with a blanket as well.
posted by dlugoczaj at 8:11 AM on April 9, 2012

Definitive Answer is impossible without a picture of the cat in question.

Cats are weird.

Those two answers should fit every cat situation.
posted by bilabial at 8:57 AM on April 9 [+] [!]


Also... does your cat have places to get up off the floor? Some cats are uncomfortable on the floor and don't feel safe if they don't have access to high places they can escape too (shelves and things). Try getting kitty shelves or cat trees and see if his behavior mellows once he knows he has a safe place he can go.

Do you approach him from above, or do you get down to his level? That could make all of the difference in the world.
posted by patheral at 8:49 AM on April 9, 2012

I have indeed had luck getting stray cats to come to me wih the blinking trick.. try it.
posted by 3mendo at 9:02 AM on April 9, 2012

I have cats who don't like to be picked up, but they will all permit it. Some will put up with being held like a baby, but others will only let me snuggle them if they are able to look over my shoulder.

If you have food out all the time, switch to feeding twice a day. 99% of the anti-social cats I've encountered have had free access to food all day. (For your own sanity, do not set the AM feeding within 30 minutes of your typical wake up time).

More with food: it's a little gross, but you can buy baby food meat (by Gerber or whoever) at the grocery store. Put some of that on your finger and sit down on the floor near him at feeding time, I'm pretty sure he'll wander over to check it out.
posted by MeiraV at 9:05 AM on April 9, 2012

Take it slow. Baby steps. And provoke it's innate curiosity -- attract it's attention with colorful string or bobbles or whatever to make it think 'what the heck is that' and come over to you where you can ease into petting it. Start with the head behind the ears and work down the neck. As it starts to grow accustomed to you, try scratching them right at the base of the tail on their back -- most cats love this, but it is rather sensitive so some will react poorly if they aren't prepared for it.
posted by imagineerit at 9:16 AM on April 9, 2012

Wow, your kitty sounds just like my Brodie, who was adopted as a feral kitten and is now nearly three years old. I would say, first of all, not to worry that he's unhappy or constantly anxious or anything. The instinct to run when approached by a larger animal is actually very normal for cats in general, and some domestic cats, for whatever reason, just seem to retain more of that instinct than others. This is definitely apparent in my household's cat-family, as Brodie's brother and sister (Shadow and Coraline) both *can* be approached by (familiar) humans without running.

That said, as far as helping your cat feel safe...the things I've found work best with Brodie mainly involve (a) letting him be the one to take the initiative in making contact, and (b) offering plentiful opportunities for him to do so.

You might find, if you pay attention, that there are some spots in the house where your guy feels secure enough to relax. Look around and see where he likes to nap, and then perhaps pull up a chair yourself and sit nearby while he sleeps. Brodie will now almost always jump up and sit on *me* if I go and sit at my computer desk, and very often he will do the same if I sit on one particular side of the couch. I am not sure what it is about these spots, but I am guessing maybe the fact that they're both very close to the wall on at least one side have something to do with it...that is, he can relax because he knows nothing can sneak up on him.

Another important thing is to make sure and avoid doing things like following him around, staring at him, or making sudden moves with your arms, etc. Shy cats find that sort of thing extremely nerve-racking and it's very difficult for them to chill out if they feel like they're being pursued. The very first time Brodie ever jumped up on the couch to sit with me, I had been occupied with something else and was not looking at him or reaching for him or anything like that. Now when I need to give apply his flea medication or clip his nails all I have to do is sit down in one of his "safe" spots for a few minutes and he will generally come right up. And he is actually extremely affectionate once he comes and visits on his own terms -- like ridiculously so (he will rest his head on my hand and drool all over my trackpad if I'm not careful!). So I know in general he's a happy cat. Your guy probably is too, he just has a very strong retained flight instinct. And the best way to deal with that from a human standpoint is to avoid taking actions that trigger it. That way he will spend much more time in a relaxed state and gradually become more comfortable approaching others.
posted by aecorwin at 10:31 AM on April 9, 2012

Try not to wear heavy boots or shoes around the house. Loud noises and unfamiliar sights at the cat's eye level will make him skittish.

Don't approach your cat. Instead, use this tried and true method:

Sit on the floor. Do something, anything, EXCEPT pay attention to said cat. It's best if you have a book/computer/ papers, something quiet that is clearly absorbing all your attention.

When curious cat checks in to see what you are doing, ignore cat and keep doing it until cat physically impedes you from doing that thing.

When cat at last approaches you and sits on papers/books/laptop, talk to kitty in your soft voice. Praise him, pet him, make a fuss. If he walks away after a while, don't follow him. Let him be.

Do this a few times before you have to go to the vet. You should have thecarrier sitting out a couple days early. Close doors to all the other rooms in the house. Have some treats in a ziplock bag. You might also want to have a towel and catnip..

Sit as usual, employ catnip as added calming method if desired. Scoop up kitty and dump him unceremoniously in the carrier. If you gear he will bite or scratch, grab him by the scruff of the neck/ wrsp him in the towel quickly, then dump him in carrier and let him wriggle from tje towel as you close the carrier door. If the towel smells like the catnip, even better.

He will either go totally silentor make horrendous noises alo the way to the vet's. Either is normal. Let them help you get him out and put him back in the carrier. Be sure to give him a treat after the examinarion and praise him, even if he was terrible about the whole thing. You want to create at least one good association with going to the vet.

When you get home and let him go, be prepared for him to run away and hide under the bed and skulk around for a while, just to make you feel guilty.

After that, he may actually surprise you by being more affectionate for a while. My scaredy cat does this.

Cats are weird.
posted by misha at 11:09 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Stupid iPad. Sorry about all the typos.
posted by misha at 11:10 AM on April 9, 2012

I have four cats, two pairs of siblings. The older siblings (nine years old) love to be picked up and toted about. The second pair of siblings (five years old) are quite different. One of them will tolerate being picked up for a few minutes (and at 20+ pounds that's long enough) and the other one hates it. I have had all of them since they were eight weeks old. Cats are weird.

To try to make him more social, just sit somewhere with a book or watch tv and let him come to you. Perhaps have some treats with you. As frustrating as it may be, it may take years to have a cuddly kitty and it may never happen, but you cannot force it. Well, you can, but that usually ends in pain and blood and tears.

As for taking him to the vet, for now, you're just going to have to grab him by the scruff, dump him into his carrier and take him. However, for the future, leave his carrier out somewhere. Under a chair or somewhere out of the way but still accessible to the cat. Put treats in there once in a while, let him know it's nothing to be afraid of. Next time you need to take him you can probably lure him in with some treats. It's a good idea for animals to be comfortable with their carriers not just for vet visits, but if something happens (fire, earthquake, etc.) it will be a lot easier to get your pet out of danger.

PS: The rules for pet AskMes are you must show a photo of the animal in question!
posted by deborah at 3:17 PM on April 9, 2012

I have that cat.

It can take years to earn the trust of that sort of cat. If he's running off when you approach, that means you're giving him more contact than he's comfortable with. To get him to trust you, you're going to have to let him make the rules about how and when you handle him. If you're holding or petting him, and he expresses any trace of resistance, yield to his preference immediately. Your willingness to defer to the cat's boundaries has to be generous and consistent. Every cat's personality is different, so results can't be predicted or guaranteed. It's likely that he will eventually relax a lot with you, but he may never be sociable with guests.

Try being more aloof. Let the cat be the one to approach you. My shy cat (I have another who's a total flirt) is very sensitive to sounds, and likes quietness. Spend some time hanging out in the same room with him, but totally ignoring him -- don't look at him directly, don't talk to him (or do anything noisy) or pet him, unless he comes to you. Being ignored is very reassuring to a cat.

Another useful bit of cat body language (like the slow blink) is the yawn. Often, when one of my cats is just hanging out, feeling safe, and I come into the room, the cat will "greet" me with a big yawn. I think it's a cat equivalent of saying "Hi! glad to see you! everything's cool!". It seems to indicate that the cat is in a fairly sociable mood.

For getting to the vet, I think a sedative (for the cat) may be the best solution. I haven't solved this problem yet, but I know that if I trick, bully or cajole that cat into a container, 4 years of hard-won trust will be revoked. Call the vet, explain that you have a cat with a strong fear of being handled, and see if you can pick up a sedative to give the cat before you try to box him up for the visit. I'm not sure catnip would be the solution here -- it can be good as a reward, but it tends to be pretty stimulating. I don't think it would make a nervous cat more inclined to get calmly into a box.
posted by Corvid at 6:44 PM on April 9, 2012

Clicker training.

It's just classical conditioning, which works on pigeons, goldfish, mice... Your cat doesn't have to be especially tuned into humans for it to work, although it might take longer than it would for a cat who adores you.

Get a clicker or a bell. Figure out what food the cat goes crazy for. (For mine, it used to be only tuna, which was kind of smelly and disgusting to use for this, but I did. Now she has developed a worshipful relationship with cheese, thank god.)

When you have the cat's attention sometime, ring the bell/click the clicker, and throw her a piece of that food. Works best if she is a bit hungry. Do this multiple times. You want her to associate the noise with the food. You can test whether she gets it by ringing the bell and NOT rewarding immediately, and see if she looks in the direction of the food.

Then you ring/click and reward every time she does something even slightly like what you want her to do. So in your case, I'd start rewarding her every time she takes a step towards you. Eventually you'll hopefully find she comes close enough for you to touch. Then you reward every time you touch her. Eventually you only reward if she stays still while you touch her. Then you start rewarding when she lets you touch her in places you need to to pick her up (e.g. on the belly, or behind the butt). Eventually you pick her up really briefly, ring/click, put her down and reward. Do this often.

Once you get so she will let you pick her up, you can start training her to go into her carrier. Again, start by rewarding any movement in the direction of the carrier. Then any time she touches the carrier. Eventually you can try to lure her into it, by putting the rewards inside.

All of this will be slow progress - months to years. You want to have a training session at least once a day, maybe twice or three times a day, but for only a minute or two at a time. You want to leave her wanting more, not stressed and confused.

If you want to start with something less stressful to her than human touch, consider training her to follow/touch a stick. That's what I started with with mine, and it has been helpful in transitioning to other tricks, because I can use the stick to lead her towards the new thing.
posted by lollusc at 11:35 PM on April 9, 2012

And the bell/clicker is absolutely essential, by the way. You can't just use rewards without the signal that corresponds to success, otherwise it's hard for the cat to figure out exactly which bit of her recent behaviour got rewarded. With a bell/clicker you can let her know she succeeded during the moment of picking her up, for example, even though she might not get the reward until you put her down again. Otherwise she might start to associate the reward with being put back onto the floor - the opposite from what you want to do!
posted by lollusc at 11:38 PM on April 9, 2012

This site might help you with reading your kitty's body language.
posted by moira at 4:54 PM on April 10, 2012

My sweet tuxedo girl, Bouka, would duck under our touch for the first year/eighteen months we had her (got her at 8-10 weeks). Didn't like touches, let alone being picked up.

But I LOVED HER SO HARD. So when I found her snoozing on her favorite sleepspot, I would lightly (at first) stroke her. Eventually she relax into cute cuddles when I began stroking her. And one day, she began croaking out these little guttural sounds....then those sounds became rhythmic and I realized she was, for the first time, purring audibly. Then I was able to bury my face in her and tickle under her chin and coo at her and nibble on her ears and rub her chest and kiss her paws.

Now, every morning, she demands facescritches and spankies. Or else.
posted by Jezebella at 9:07 PM on April 16, 2012

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