How to tempt a cat out from hiding
May 9, 2008 4:28 AM   Subscribe

How do I coax a new cat out from hiding?

I adopted a cat from the RSPCA on Monday, and he is very shy. He was a stray, an adult cat of indeterminate age (but not old) and had been at the shelter for just over 2 weeks. He was neutered on admission to the shelter (so about 2 weeks ago). I don't blame him for being pissed off at humanity!

Since we got him home he has been hiding under the kitchen units. He comes out to eat, drink and use the litter tray, but only when he's dead sure we're not around, and if we interrupt him he will immediately run back to his hiding place. If we put a hand near him he hisses and growls.

I guess time and consistent feeding is the answer - but he's due for his second round of vaccinations in less than two weeks, so is there any way I can get him to come out and be a little bit approachable so I can take him for his shots?
posted by altolinguistic to Pets & Animals (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Give him a little more time. It can take a while for a cat to get acclimated to a new environment. He'll come out and start exploring when he's comfortable.
posted by MegoSteve at 4:43 AM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you can, get him into a separate room (spare bedroom, extra bath, maybe laundry room); what he seems to need is his own territory. Like MegoSteve said, he'll explore more when he's comfortable, and in the meantime he needs his own space to get comfortable in. The smaller the better, as long as you can get the essentials in there (food, water, litter box). Having him confined in a small room will also allow you to spend some more time with him and show him you're not a threat. Just sitting in the room with him, quietly, will help him see you're not the enemy and should bring him around after a few days, at least to the point of coming up for a sniff or two.

If you miss his shots by a couple of weeks or so, that shouldn't be a huge deal (I'm making the assumption that these are routine preventative shots and not something like insulin or anything like that).
posted by tigerjade at 4:52 AM on May 9, 2008

See if you can enclose him in one room, so he doesn't feel so overwhelmed with the entire house. Then spend time in that room, just sitting quietly. He'll figure out that you're not going anywhere, and that you're harmless. Don't try to grab for him, chase him, etc. Keep feeding him on a regular schedule, so he realizes you're taking care of him now.

Owner of a former scaredy-cat... He somehow got under our floorboards when we first brought him home, after three days we had to cut the floor open because he wasn't coming out on his own!
posted by LolaGeek at 4:56 AM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

You are right about time, you need to take it easy with the fella as going into a shelter and being rehomed after life on the streets can be pretty traumatic for animals.

Just for now, stop trying to touch him in any way at all. Try avoiding eye contact with him, if he catches your eye, just do a slow blink and look away, maybe follow up with a slow yawn (that's cat lingo for "Hi, I see you, all is well"). Ask everyone in your home to follow the same rules about this. Put up a couple of Feliway diffusers, one in the kitchen, where he's lurking and one in the room nearest to it. The pheromone from this will tell him that the place already smells of him, and he'll feel more relaxed and probably more willing to come out.

Put his food and water on the other side of the kitchen to where he is. I'd also use definate feeding times, not leaving food out, but serving it up say two or three times a day. You know that chirruping noise a cat makes when it's pleased to see you? - practice some of that yourself when you put his food down. but not too loudly. When you put the food down, go sit on the floor on the other side of the room for as long as you can manage, arm yourself with a book to read and just wait it out, ignoring him. He'll come out when he's hungry, when he does, just ignore him and stay quiet.

Eventually, say over a few days, he'll start to show some interest in you. Let him make the first approach to you, respond with brief eye contact, the slow blink/looking away and things should move on well from there. Offering him a finger to sniff is a good start to physical contact, if he rubs against it, he's marking you as his. That's a good time to start fussing him gently with the finger, around his face and ears. Copying a circular, cat lick motion is a good move. Just take it gently.

Space his food, water, litter tray and bedding around the kitchen so he's more inclined to explore.

The key overall is not to pursue him, in any way at all. His confidence will grow quicker if you let him make the moves. This is a situation where if you approach it as if you have all the time in the world, you will get results sooner rather than later. Cats are quick learners, he'll soon see that you represent safety and food and eventually the good life.

Best of luck!
posted by Arqa at 5:04 AM on May 9, 2008 [5 favorites]

Nthing "give him some time." Our "new" older cat hid for a few days, then explored only at night for a few more days, then came out to see us (but RAN if anyone else came by), and only now (3+ weeks) is starting to come out when other people are around. Even now, he's still pretty skittery with loud noises and things.

It IS better if you don't make a big deal every time he emerges. Say hi, make eye contact, look away. He'll come to you.
posted by nkknkk at 5:17 AM on May 9, 2008

My cat--who had lived with me since being a foundling kitten--has been moved three times. Each time, he disappeared behind the couch for 2-3 weeks. Whereas the cat I had in college (who now lives with my sister) has been moved at least twice as many times and neither hides nor avoids people when he moves. Some cats are just very very hesitant about new surroundings. The suggestions above are about the best I've heard: give him time; give him a very secure den; don't force yourself on him (that's the hardest part) and place his food and water apart from where he is. Chirping at him is a good plan.

If you can get to where he is, swap out bedding (old towels, for instance) so you can spread his scent around your place. Leave the bedding where he is for a day, then replace it with fresh bedding and place the (unwashed) bedding across the room. Over all, like Arqa says, do not force yourself on him. Let him approach you. Then, when he's comfortable, you can chase him around and punish him with cuddling all you like!
posted by crush-onastick at 5:50 AM on May 9, 2008

It took my cat Doodlebug three weeks to decide to come out from her hiding place -- behind the washer and dryer. I knew she was eating, drinking and using the box when I was asleep or at work.

Even after she decided it was safe, she still was very timid and cautious for a few more weeks.

Now she always hangs out with me. Cats do things on their schedule so give the kitty time.

Both of my cats aren't big human fans. If I have someone over for the weekend, they might see peanut after a day, but not ever see the Doodlebug. I had someone stay with me for a week and she didn't see the cat. As soon as my houseguest left, my cats came out of hiding.
posted by birdherder at 5:55 AM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Leave him :)
But let him observe you from a safe and secure vantage point, so he can decide that you're ok.

Maybe lay on the floor and read the paper (what cat doesn't love 'reading' the paper). Or some other quiet and interesting activity - the idea is to seem more intent on whatever it may be. So he can decide than you are perhaps not that interested in.. eating him. (They are little hunters themselves - so they know all the tricks!!)

Eye contact can be interpreted as a challenge in cat language but blinking very slowly means 'I love you'.

This PDF from the aafp - has a section on socializing kittens with ideas that you should be able to adapt. (And other helpful stuff too!!)

Cats are really odd little buggers but not so much when you start to learn the 'language'. For your own sanity, I highly recommend you do this! It's like ASL only with ears and tails ect. and then there's some other stuff too but it's all pretty simple. As you get to know your kitty you'll know what to take on board and what to disregard.

(ie. Loopy doesn't like people and isn't into eye contact at all. Only some slow blinking with me and that's it! Scruff LOVES people! And after observing them, has decided 'people' like eye contact. From a cat - it's a glove slap in the face but when it's from people it means "Hey, how ya doin'? Come here for cuddles." Which she doesn't mind at all :)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 6:07 AM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

More anecdotal evidence that "give it time" works:

My cat Curtis came to live with me in an NYC apartment after living the first few weeks of his life in an almost-feral situation out in the NJ burbs. For several days, this tiny little gray kitten lived under the bed, only coming out to eat and use the box (which he happily took to without any instruction). I was at home a lot at the time, so was able to give him lots of attention, when he was willing to accept it. Eventually, he became more accustomed to other people and the other cat in the house. Years on, he was a big fat mama's boy and had a very loving relationship with a "little brother."
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:29 AM on May 9, 2008

If you're asking this same question in three weeks, I'll tell you to have even more patience. We took in a cat that was pretty traumatized when she came into our home. For the first three months, she lived in a closet. For the second three months, she expanded her range from the closet to the room itself. After 6 months, she came out of the room and announced her presence to the world. After that, we moved twice and eventually had to find her a new home due to my health issues. However, she never went back into hiding again. Her current owner reported that she arrived at her new home like she already owned the place.
posted by onhazier at 6:33 AM on May 9, 2008

Best answer: If you're worried about how to get the cat into the carrier for transporting to the vet, what has worked for us is leaving the carrier out, 24/7, in whatever room the cat likes to spend time in, and putting nonperishable treats in it. Catnip, bonito flakes, and dehydrated liver, in our cat's case (he is also a rescue, who hid for the first 2 weeks and wouldn't let us touch him for several months).

At first, he scarfed the treats at night or when we weren't around. Later (much later) he got to the point of hanging out in the carrier several times a day, as a way of asking for treats. The carrier became the primary method by which he could get treats (we occasionally gave him treats for nothing, but we try to use treats mostly for reinforcing desired behaviours.) The point is, to make the carrier familiar to him (part of the furniture of his new environment), and associate it with something positive, because otherwise, all the carrier means to our cat is injections, getting thermometers stuck up his butt, and other indignities.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 8:48 AM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yup, give him time. One of our cats was a feral. We did not see him for most of the first year and yet now he is always looking for hugs and cuddles. As ci says leave the carrier out and open. Line it with a nice warm soft something. Our cats use it as a favorite bed so getting them in it for a trip to the vet is nothing at all.
posted by arse_hat at 9:36 AM on May 9, 2008

Laser pointer or feathers-on-stick toy. I haven't found a cat that could resist either. Instinct takes over and they MUST attack. It doesn't mean he won't go right back into hiding, though.
posted by desjardins at 10:41 AM on May 9, 2008

Cats-need-time-to-adjust anecdote:

I once got a cat from a co-worker. He went from being the only cat in a house with kids to a childless house with two other cats. I gave him his own room; he hid under the bed every time I came in to change the litter or feed him. After a couple of days of this he bolted out the bedroom door when I opened it and promptly vanished on me. The front door at the time had this tendancy to not shut properly...and when I chased after him, I noticed it was slightly ajar.
I could not find him anywhere in the house. I thought he ran away. I put up posters, I went to the local Humane Society luck. The other cats I had went about their business without incident. No hissing at strange corners, for example. I assumed was gone for good. It felt terrible.
Cue to a month (yes! a month!) later. I can no longer afford to keep the house, so I was moving out. The last night in the house, I went into the basement late, late at night to check and see if I was forgetting anything. And who should be there, eyes glowing in the dark, then this cat I had given up for lost.
Well, he didn't like moving to yet another new place, this one smaller than before. He hid under the bed again, rarely coming out except for food or litter. But I left him more or less alone, just letting him know occasionally that I was there, and petting him whenever he gave me half a chance.
Its now five years later, and I cannot pry him off of my feet at night when I'm trying to sleep. He yells if I don't pet him right away when I come home from work. He cuddles up to me on the couch. Heck, he even plays with my other cats. He still hides when people come over, but eventually he will come out for a pat.
Yes, Mr. Hidey-Pants (not his real name) turned out to be a complete and utter suck-boy. He just needed time.
posted by sandraregina at 11:00 AM on May 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

All the advice above about leaving out the carrier and confining him to one (quiet) room is excellent. You should also spend a lot (and I mean A LOT) of time sitting with him, being as absolutely non-threatening as possible. Sit on the floor, don't look directly at him, don't reach towards him, and don't make sudden movements (but don't sit stock-still either, that'll just weird him out more). As silly as it sounds, you also should talk to him as much as possible. He can't understand the words, obviously, but he can understand your tone, and getting him used to your voice (and human voices in general) will help socialize him. Every time you go in there, keep up some friendly prattle: "Well, hey Buster, how are you? No need to hide, I'm just changing your water, see? Looks like you didn't care for yesterday's dinner, there's still a lot left," et cetera. When you're spending all those hours sitting with him, have a one-sided conversation with him, or read aloud in a low voice. You can also leave the radio on quietly when you're not around. It sounds dumb, I know, and it will make you sound dumb, but it works.

Since he wasn't properly socialized as a kitten, he may never like being touched. He may also continue to be terrified of strangers. However, cats are very social animals, so it's a near certainty that he will warm up to you eventually. Just keep at it.
posted by Commander Rachek at 11:12 AM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

(I'm typing with a cat draped over me.)

You just have to relax and back off. Forcing the issue is only going to make it worse. He can sense your anxiety and is probably retreating from you further because of it. The more you consider his being off under the cabinets an emergency, the more he'll want to stay there.

Cats are very much their own creatures. As they say, people don't adopt cats, cats adopt people. You have to let them (at least think they) have the initiative.

And really, they will. Except for the most feral of cats, they are social, just in their own way. They associate people with food and affection. If they once did this, then went through abandonment or maltreatment, only to have that followed by an aggressive shelter checklist of pokes and prods, they're going to feel like their trust in humans was misplaced. He'll probably come around, just at his own pace. What you have to show to him is that this is his new permanent home and there's nothing to be anxious about. So just relax and shut up and find ways to sit quietly near him, working on a laptop or reading the newspaper. Leave a toy for him where he can get at it. If he does start to look out, acknowledge his presence briefly, but don't reach for him right away or even talk to him. If he comes out, start to coo or trill or say his name affectionately, then be quiet again. "Oh, hello, there you are." The more matter-of-fact you are about this, the more comfortable he'll feel around you.
posted by dhartung at 11:23 AM on May 9, 2008

I definitely agree with the talking to him and being patient. My neighbors had a feral cat that they used to feed and take care of, who was really shy. As a kid, I would sit in their back yard and try to coax him out of hiding. I just sat and talked and sang to him and was very (uncharacteristically for me) patient. Eventually he would let me get closer and closer and then would let me pet him. It was frustrating, but worth it.
posted by radioamy at 8:55 PM on May 9, 2008

My cat Gremlin lives in the bathroom.

When she was a tiny kitten, she lived in my batheroom because she was too sick to socialize with the other cat. Ever since, I think she associates it with safety. She was a feral kitten when I got her, and she likes people for short periods of time, but she is alarmed by other animals and lots of activitiy.

So now, 16 years and many houses later, Gremlin has a bed, litter boxes, and food dishes in the guest bathroom. The bathroom door has a kitty-flap in it to allow her to come and go as she pleases, but she mostly stays in there, playing in the sink and cat-napping. She comes out at night and when we're gone and observes nature from her perch in the living room. We let guests know about the "bathroom attendant" and Gremlin gets the limited social contact she can deal with.
posted by answergrape at 9:40 PM on May 9, 2008

Tuna fish?
posted by Jacqueline at 3:22 AM on May 10, 2008

One of my cats is incredibly skittish and enjoys hiding to the point where visiting friends have been unaware that I have two cats, and not just the friendly social one. When the skittish one is in his "safe place" behind the television, I'll usually leave him alone, but now I have to give him medicine twice a day for a few weeks, so I've had to coax him out... which means I run the vacuum cleaner nearby and he pops out to hide somewhere else. In the meantime I'm usually able to grab him...

I will say that all of a sudden the skittish cat hasn't been hiding/running away NEARLY as much since I started doing this. I don't know why, but he let's me pick him up and everything now.
posted by eric1200 at 1:43 PM on May 10, 2008

Response by poster: belated thanks, everyone - especially the advice about leaving the carrier open, I hadn't thought of that.

He's been here a week now and still hasn't come out - he still has ten days before I have to take drastic action to get him to the vet.
posted by altolinguistic at 6:22 AM on May 12, 2008

So...did he come out?
posted by sandraregina at 8:09 PM on May 29, 2008

Response by poster: not yet! he once got hungry enough that he came out to eat while my husband was cooking dinner, but is otherwise still under the cooker. I bought him a cat toy - he expressed no interest, then when I walked off he kidnapped it and now has it under the cooker with him. He doesn't seem to want to play at all.
posted by altolinguistic at 9:41 AM on May 30, 2008

Response by poster: Update! In the space of two days, this cat went from a hissing growling under-bed monster to a complete softy who follows me everywhere and sleeps on my legs. We didn't change anything, just gave him time and space to himself. He's now a perfectly normal indoor-outdoor cat.
posted by altolinguistic at 11:42 AM on July 1, 2008 [4 favorites]

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