Monday, September 12, 2016

Shy cat adoptions: What to expect

Popoki the cat in her bed

Popoki the cat is so much fun to photograph. Every time I look up from my desk, it seems that she's doing something new and adorable. Last week, for example, she started sleeping belly up in her bed like this. It's almost too cute for words.

And it reminds me of how far she's come, and how her story might help other potential cat people out there.

You see, I've had two conversations this week with people who adopted completely shy or partially shy cats from the shelter. In both cases, these people were contemplating returning their shy cats to the shelter because the cats weren't integrating with other family members as quickly as the people might like. In both cases, those animals had been in their new homes for about a month.

While I'm glad to help people who have questions about their cats, it makes me wonder if people are really prepared BEFORE they take these cats home. It makes me wonder if they've really thought through what it means to take a shy creature into their homes. I'd rather that people were prepared, because returns are hard on a shy cat. It shuts them down yet more.

Popoki the cat reaches for the camera

I consider myself a bit of a shy cat expert, as Popoki was (and in some cases, is) desperately shy. In the shelter, she hid in the back of her kennel, trying to make herself small behind her litter pan. When I brought her home, she hid underneath the bed for weeks. She would only interact with me in very small doses, and even then, she was always planning her escape route. She didn't trust me at all.

Adopting her meant resigning myself to life with an animal that would judge me, dislike me and make me feel a little bad about myself---knowing that this would pass if I would do the work it takes to turn things around. That work involves:
  • Classical conditioning. I had to feed her from a spoon or with my fingers (not out of a bowl), so she'd associate good things with me.
  • Reducing hiding spaces. I kept her in a spare room with a bed that was taken off its frame. That way, she couldn't completely hide from me. 
  • Acceptance. Some days, she'd do better than others. Some days, she'd do worse. I had to be sure not to judge her on her bad days or get too excited on the good days. 
  • Cushioning. As she adjusted, I needed to keep her surroundings calm and serene. No loud noises, yelling, new animals, furniture moving or any other disruption. And no visitors. 
I had to do this work with her for MONTHS. She came into this home in early October, and she didn't come to me willingly until something like February. And only now, about a year later, does she feel comfortable enough to show me her belly when she sleeps.

Adopting a shy cat is more than rewarding. It's life changing. You help an animal learn to trust, you support their emotional growth and your bond at the end of the journey is nearly unbreakable. Taking home a cat like this will enhance your life in so many ways.

But it's a lot of work. It's a huge time commitment. It's not right for everyone.  If you don't think you can put in the work, it's not your fault or the cat's fault. It's just not a good fit.

But do this for me: If you read through this blog post and you think: "I couldn't do that!" let the next shy cat pass you by. Take home another one instead. Both you and the shy cat will be happier for it.

Any other shy cat lovers out there with tips I missed? Shoot me a note in the comments. Love to hear from you.


  1. This is a BEAUTIFUL post. Any cat ... EVERY cat ... is going to have issues because they are feeling/living beings just the same as us. EVERY cat is going to frustrate us at times because they are individuals and not entirely within our control. We wouldn't abandon a child JUST BECAUSE he didn't turn out as we expect or like ... why should a cat be any different? Love and patience goes a long way. UNDERSTANDING and valuing the life in front of us goes a long way. LOVE a cat for all he is. Bear is scared of a lot of things. I wish he wasn't so scared for his own well-being and peace of mind - but it's part of who he is and I love him just the way he is. Not despite or anyway - but AS HE IS. Every cat, every living being, every soul deserves that.

  2. There have been some really shy ones here, but patience and love usually pays off!

  3. That is very good advice. Flynn is more timid than shy but has got better with people over the years. We had 3 semi feral brothers years back. One was caught at a few weeks old and soon became a total love bug. The other 2 weren't caught until 3 or 4 months old and it took about 2 years before one would happily come to us, the other one only in the last 18 months or so of his life. Even though he wouldn't come to us, he still enjoyed to come and lie by the fire.

  4. Excellent post, I could have used it earlier this year when we took Brody in. He was in hiding for at least a month, but gradually came around and is a lap cat now. He does hide from company, but that is OK. Snowball rarely lets me touch her, she prefers other cats and i just have to accept that.

  5. Unfortunately I had a bad experience with a shy cat when I was a teenager. We adopted a very shy cat and a few days later she completely vanished. We look all around the neighborhood for weeks, but never saw him again. Since then, I had never had another shy cat, not because it was a deliberate decision, but simply because never happened.