Socializing Shy Cats
Adopting a cat is an exciting time for humans; but for a shy cat, the process of moving from a familiar shelter or foster home to a strange environment can be traumatizing.

The most fundamental idea to keep in mind is that socializing your shy cat takes a great deal of patience. Cats don’t always understand that we are trying to help them, so take it one step at a time. Make a point to work with your cat daily, preferably multiple times a day, for about 15-20 minutes each session. Each step will need at least 3-5 sessions before progressing to the next step, and make sure the cat is 100% comfortable before moving to the next level. The entire process can take anywhere from several weeks to more than a year…but it will all be worth it in the end! If at any point in the process you need help, don't hesitate to contact us for tips!

 Part I - Setting Up a Space                                                                                                                                                                   Every Cat Needs a "Home Base"

Cats are territorial animals, but too large of an initial territory can be overwhelming; therefore we advise you to set up a small room, without hiding places, for your shy cat to use as “Home Base.” Any small room or bathroom works well, just be sure that you have blocked off ALL hiding spaces - stuff blankets under furniture if necessary! Your personal bedroom can be especially effective since it helps the cat get used to you and your smell. If you use a bathroom, be sure your cat won’t be startled by the sounds of running water and flushing toilets. 
Provide the cat with food, water, and a litter box.  You will also want a place your cat can use as a “safe spot” This could be his carrier with a soft blanket inside, a hut-type cat bed purchased from a pet store, a cardboard box with an opening cut in the side and bedding placed inside (keep the top flaps closed but don’t seal them), or a plastic shelving unit with bedding on one of the higher shelves and a towel or blanket draped over the front. Put your cat’s hiding place somewhere that is easily accessible by you and your cat. Also consider leaving a radio or television on for the cat, preferably on calm channels, so he can get used to non-threatening human noise. Keep the cat in this room until you have worked through the entire socialization process. Letting your cat out of the room prematurely may allow him to find a hiding spot, and make the socialization process much more difficult!

Part II – Introductions                                                                                                                                                                 Take it slowly!

Introduce yourself very slowly. At first, just sit in the same room with the cat. Don’t try to touch him right away – let him come to you when he is ready. Always talk softly and move slowly, as cats do not take well to sudden loud movements. At the beginning of this process, soft talking can be more soothing than petting. 
When the cat seems comfortable with you just being in the room, hold out your hand, palm down and relaxed, and let the cat smell you thoroughly. If the cat approaches and seems interested, hold your position and speak to the cat softly. Begin by gently stroking the top of your cat’s head and cheeks. Watch body language carefully!! If at any point, the cat backs away and/or hisses or swats, you have gone too far. Give him the freedom to leave when he wants to, and never grab him or try to pull him onto your lap before he is ready.

Part III - Create Positive Experiences with Food                                                                                                           The way to a cat's heart is through her stomach

The next step in the quest to get your shy kitty to trust you is to start creating positive food experiences for the cat while you are with him. Offer treats like tuna, baby food (meat flavors with no onion powder or garlic), Fancy Feast, or even deli meat. Be sure that you don’t give him these items at any other time except when you are with him, so he learns to associate you (the thing he fears) with the food (a positive experience).  Begin each socialization session with about 1 tablespoon of the treat and talk softly to your cat while he eats it. If the cat has not eaten the treat by the time you leave the room, take the treat with you. It may take a few sessions before the cat will eat the treat in your presence – remember to be patient, and let your cat learn at his own pace.

Part IV - Create Positive Experiences Through Play
Every cat is a kitten at heart

Once the cat is eating comfortably with you in the room, move on to creating positive play experiences. We recommend using an interactive toy, such as a Cat Dancer, Da Bird, or Cat Charmer. Catnip can also be used to help the cat relax and feel more at ease. (Beware, though, as catnip excites or agitates some cats.)
Set the toy gently near your cat to let him get used to it. Do not shove it towards him, or place it too close at first – you want the cat to approach the toy on his own. Once he seems comfortable with the object, slowly pick up the toy and use it to stroke your cat gently, beginning with the cheeks and head. The TOY is petting the cat, not you. (This particular step is best done with a Cat Charmer, as you can wrap the fleece ribbon around the stick to create a soft petting tool.) 
From there, you can try several different techniques – you may need to experiment to see which works best with your cat. In the first approach, as your new cat becomes more comfortable with being touched by the toy, move your hand closer to the cat along the toy until you are eventually touching the cat with your hand instead of the toy. If your cat is more receptive to play, then use the toy in a playful manner to slowly lure the cat near you. When the cat is comfortable coming near you while playing, give him a quick pet as you continue to play. The key is to keep playing so she associates fun and positive feelings with human touch. As the cat continues to make progress while you are playing with her, you can stop the play for a few moments to pet her, then continue to play. Keep lengthening these pauses gradually over time.
Regardless of the approach you use, always start petting on the cheeks and the top of the head, then progress slowly to the rest of the body. Increase petting gradually, depending on how much the cat will tolerate. Do not approach from directly above the head, since this may make the cat feel cornered and may trigger a bite.
Once the cat is allowing you to pet him all over the body, try moving the cat a little closer to you by holding the cat with one hand and continuing petting with the other. After doing this for a few minutes, release the cat but continue petting with one hand. You can move the cat closer to you each time.

Time and Patience will Pay off

 When socializing a shy cat, your strongest asset is TIME. Be patient with your cat, and take the process one small step at a time. If at any point your cat becomes uncomfortable with what you are doing, go back to a previously mastered step to help him feel safe and successful. Always move slowly and quietly, remain calm, and pay close attention to body language. Cats who are frightened may hide, freeze in place, and/or hunch down into the smallest posture possible.  Cats who are about to bite or swat may also freeze in one position with their bodies tense and their head turned a little to the side. The tail might be still or flicking back and forth, and they may be silent or growling and hissing. After you have worked with shy cats for a while, you will become proficient at reading their body language.

Cats will progress at different speeds. Some – especially kittens – will come to appreciate humans quickly, while others take a long time before they can trust you. Don’t be discouraged if the progress seems slow. Each positive interaction with a human will pay off in the end. The reward in socialization is watching cats move from step to step, making your hard work worthwhile.

(adapted from Tenth Life Cat Rescue)