Ask Ms. Kitty: Courage for your cowardly lion
By Sara Ferguson
Dear Ms Kitty,
My cat Fitz is the perfect loving and happy companion until my friends come over. Then he hides so much, it’s like I don’t even have a cat! And don’t get me started on what July fireworks do. How can I help him be brave so they can see the Fitz I know and love?
Scared in Stetson Hills
Being brave is all about feeling safe. Cats are very small animals in a very big world, so feeling unsafe and scared is very common. When cats get stuck in a fear state, they literally think they are going to die.
As veterinarian Tony Buffington says, “Cats’ two primary predators are larger carnivores and primates. So who do they live with? Dogs and people.”
Add the fact that most kittens start life outside, so they may never have felt completely safe. If kittens don’t get consistent, gentle handling in their first 3 months, they simply may not be equipped to deal with their adult fears.
That’s where you come in. Here are 8 tips to help your Cowardly Lion find courage:
- Listen to his body language. This can show you signs of fear before he hides. Cats can be harder to read, so look for subtle signs like pulling away from you, ears flattening a bit, whiskers folding back, pupils dilated, or being frozen in place.
- Give him a Safe Room. This is a quiet place to retreat to when he feels threatened. It’s often the room he started in when he first came home and should be somewhere he knows he’s completely safe. Keep favorite beds and toys and give him regular treats there.
- Offer safety nests and perches. Many cats like to go up, which can be a high cat tree or shelves for catification. Shy cats will be more apt to come out to watch company if they know they are above the activity and can retreat if needed.
- Don’t force him into scary situations. If Fitz retreats from your friends, don’t poison his Safe Room by invading it. Sitting on the floor, rather than towering over him, can help your friends be less scary to him. Also, never let a new person try to pick him up. Unless cats have been taught as kittens to enjoy that, being picked up can be terrifying. Be patient and allow him to come out at his own pace.
- Please toss the cookies! We all do better when we get rewarded for being brave, so give him a few of his favorite treats when he’s out with you. Then when your friends come over, they can gently toss him a few without getting too close at first. A trail of treats, like a trail of breadcrumbs, can lead to a braver Fitz.
- Playtime is happy time too. Find a wand toy that Fitz likes and give him daily play sessions. Put the toy away so he looks forward to it every day. When your friends come over, they too get to be his hero by getting out his favorite toy.
- Plan ahead for scary events. Most animals get stressed with Independence Day fireworks, summer parties, home remodeling, etc. Set up Fitz with his favorite treats and toys in his Safe Room, turn on some consistent music and shut the door. You’ll have a much happier cat at the end of the night.
- Enjoy your happy cat! It’s rewarding when a cat who feels safe comes out with his people and their cat-savvy friends. Ask for pets—from his level–by offering a knuckle or finger and letting him pet you first. If you let him take the lead, a happy cat will push back into your hand. There’s nothing like the reward of a purring, happy cat!
Sara Ferguson is the Director of Happy Cats Haven. Ask Ms. Kitty is a free helpline offered by Happy Cats Haven and Colorado Cats Boarding, available on our website at HappyCatsHaven.org/helpline/.