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Socialising a cat into a new family takes just as much patience as it does love. Even an adult cat adopted from an animal shelter may be frightened, shy or unsure of their new housemates, no matter how welcoming they are at heart. Here's how to give your new furry friend plenty of time and space to become acquainted with their new home and the people who live there.
1. Let them 'Map' It Out
Your job during cat socialisation is to see things from your cat's point of view: everything is new and different, everything SMELLS different, and the environment is inhabited by "giants" (you and your family) who always want to hug them and scoop them up. This can be overwhelming, especially for timid cats. With this in mind, instruct your family to keep a safe distance as they make their way around the house. They need time to smell, investigate, and ultimately identify safe places they can escape to for a bit. This allows them to develop their own internal "map" of the house by learning where everything is located.
2. The Gentle Giant
At the very beginning, everyone should sit quietly or go about their business. If your cat comes to you, The Battersea Cats Home recommends gently holding your hand out to your cat to see if they choose to rub against it or not. If the cat doesn’t rub against you, they may not want to be touched right now. But if your cat allows you, calmly start to stroke them on the back. If they allow it, stroking their cheeks is also a fine way to greet them as they rub their scent onto you, thus marking you as their property. Watch their tail for signs of distress or affection; cat tails can tell you how they're feeling.
3. There's the Rub
If your cat has been hidden away for a while, or hasn't seen certain people for some time, they may be fearful around them as if they're new again. Make sure your family and friends let them sniff them at their leisure; it may take them a few minutes to connect (or reconnect) that scent with a special ally. Nonetheless, they'll let you know when the connection is made by rubbing against you, purring, or giving the happy welcome-back "chirp" that some cats give when saying hello to someone they haven't seen in a long time.
4. Offer a Safe Place
Cat socialisation should always include a safe place for them to go if they become frightened—not just when they’re new to the home. You should leave their crate or carrier in the room at the start so they have a place to retreat to if they are startled. Place a towel or something soft inside so they can snuggle up and try to locate it somewhere with a little bit of height; cats feel safer when they are on top of something as this gives them a vantage point to spot potential danger. A cardboard box with a door cut out for easy entrance and exit is also a simple refuge to help a socialising cat develop confidence over time.
5. Reward Social Behaviour, Ignore the Rest
When your cat comes out to investigate you and your family, greet them with praise, treats, and gentle strokes. If they hide, just ignore them instead of chasing after them. It's important to reward desirable behaviour, e.g. being sociable, but also to recognise that your cat may need a bit more time to be comfortable with everyone. The more receptive you are to their affection when they’re ready to give it, the less shy they’ll be.
6. Gain Trust through a Routine
Cat socialisation is easier when they can rely on the casual nature of others right from the start. This allows them to find security in knowing what to expect from guests and other residents of the home. Create a routine of petting and feeding as you host visitors they may see regularly. This can make strangers more approachable and easier for them to remember. Feeding them at regular intervals will help to reinforce the idea of you as the provider of good things. Food, as you can imagine, is a great motivator when building a healthy relationship.
Spend as much time as possible around your cat without directly interacting with them; don't pressure them to play or come to you. Watch television in the same room or read a book. As long as you stay in common places, they’ll be confident enough to come and join you eventually.
It may be cliché, but take it slowly. Cats are like people in at least one way: they can be outgoing, shy, aggressive, and passive. Depending on your cat's unique personality, they may warm up to the family quickly or it may take them several days. Let them set the pace, and never force them to accept affection they don't want to give. If you have other pets in the home, read our article about introducing a new cat to other pets.
Jeanne Grunert is a freelance writer, blogger, and book author. She's the guardian of six adopted cats and one adopted dog, and writes extensively about pet care, gardening and other lifestyle topics. Learn more about Jeanne and her writing on her author website.