In collaboration with Cat Educator, Intersand®’s cat experts would like to offer a few tips and tricks for new “parents” of cats, cat lovers and anyone who’s considering a feline addition to the family.
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 it 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 anxious and cowers under the bed all night, then the answer is yes. Its behaviour indicates that the presence of strangers in the house is so unsettling that, despite its hiding place, it just can’t handle the stress. If, despite being hidden, isolated from visitors, your cat shows significant signs of anxiety (dilated pupils, remains curled up in his corner, does not eat, can not sleep, …), he could be relevant to planning a consultation with the veterinarian to assess the level of anxiety of your cat 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 it is temporarily hiding and bring in its food, water and litter so that it can go about its business undisturbed until the time is right to make an appearance.
In both cases, rest assured you can desensitize 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 it has a bad association with strangers. 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 your cat 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.
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.
Advise your guests of your plan in advance and tell them not to pay any attention to your cat when it’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 it treats or take turns playing with it. 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 it to stay with your guests or prevent it from hiding if it 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—to and not away from your guests.
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 its stress to those items. Combine desensitization to counterconditioning by giving your cat a treat or its favourite food while exposing it to the element triggering his fear. If it stops or refuse eating, that means it is too scary. Give more space to your cat 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.