4 min.

Scaredy-cats? Two tricks that never fail

Do your friends have trouble believing that you actually have a cat? If your cat decided to come out of hiding when people were over, chances are that your guests would be so surprised that they’d all turn to him and shout: “WHAT?! You have a cat?!” All of the clamour and attention would no doubt scare the poor thing back into hiding, with the clear resolve never to come back out when strangers are in the house.

So, what can you do to stop your cat from being afraid of guests? The first question you need to ask is whether you need to do anything at all. If your cat gets really stressed and cowers under the bed all night, then the answer is yes. His behaviour indicates that the presence of strangers in the house is so unsettling that, despite his hiding place, he just can’t handle the stress. If, despite being hidden and isolated from visitors, your cat shows significant signs of stress (dilated pupils, remains curled up in his corner, does not eat, cannot sleep, etc.), it may be useful to schedule a visit to the veterinarian to assess your cat’s level of anxiety and the solutions to consider to alleviate this malaise. However, if your cat runs under the bed but then relaxes after your guests have arrived, and returns to normal soon after, then you don’t really have a problem. Just close the door to the room where he’s temporarily hiding and bring in his food, water and litter so that he can go about his business undisturbed until the time is right to make an appearance.

In both cases, rest assured you can acclimate your cat to visitors! All you need to do is change what the arrival of company means for your cat. If your cat is scared, that’s because he associates strangers with negativity. The source of this association can be different for each cat and it doesn’t even really matter what the inciting incident was, because the technique used to address the issue is the same in all cases. In fact, the key is to use a combination of two techniques called desensitization and counterconditioning.

Often cats start to get scared before guests even show up because they’ve learned to read the signs that precede their arrival. Hearing the doorbell ring is a common trigger or seeing the tablecloth that’s only brought out for special occasions. If this is the case for your cat, desensitizing him to the triggering element might be important, but usually cats go into hiding when the guests physically arrive. Then you have to start the desensitization and counterconditioning at that stage.

Step 1: Desensitize the arrival of guests

You need to start desensitization as soon as your guests arrive in your home. Therefore, give your cat treats or food when guests enter your house, taking care to do it at enough of a distance from them that your cat feels comfortable eating. If you have to start under the bed where your cat runs to hide, with the door closed, then start there! Then gradually open the door and bring the food closer and closer to the guests.

Step 2: Counterconditioning towards visitors

Advise your guests of your plan in advance and tell them not to pay any attention to your cat when he’s in close enough proximity to see them. That way, the situation will be far less intimidating than if everyone suddenly directed their attention at your cat and tried to make friends on the spot.

When your cat seems to be sufficiently at ease, ask your guests to give him treats or take turns playing with him. That way, your cat will quickly come to understand that the arrival of guests isn’t a scary thing, but a pretty sweet deal, and its fear will quickly dissipate.

The key with this technique is to respect your cat’s pace and be patient. Do not force him to stay with your guests or prevent him from hiding if he needs to at any point. With cats, it’s often slow going at the start, but once they get the idea, they can make progress in leaps and bounds—toward, not away from, your guests.

What if my cat is afraid of other things?

If your cat is scared of other things like the ringing of the doorbell or seeing the tablecloth, you have to use the same techniques to lower his stress. Combine desensitization with counterconditioning by giving your cat a treat or his favourite food while exposing him to the fear trigger. If he stops eating or refuses to start, that means it’s too scary. Give your cat more space or lower the intensity of the trigger to a level where you cat will keep eating. Do 5-minute sessions like this a few times a day, gradually decreasing the distance or increasing the intensity of the trigger (as long as your cat keeps eating). Keep on going until the trigger no longer scares your cat.