What should I do if my cat is fearful of visitors?

Have you ever had company for the evening or weekend and your cat was never to be seen? If this is an infrequent visit, this might be the best thing for your cat – staying away in a comfortable, quiet place. But what about a new boyfriend or girlfriend, a new cleaning person, or new members of the family that live nearby? You may want to assimilate your cat into the new situation or lifestyle change in order to reduce his ongoing stress.

Cats may be fearful of visitors for several reasons. A common reason is lack of experience with visitors when they were kittens. If they were not introduced to different people during their socialization period (5–12 weeks of age), as adults, they may be more apprehensive of strangers. Additionally, the arrival of visitors is often accompanied by other scary things such as knocking, large packages or suitcases being moved about, loud talking, or laughing. Just like people, some cats simply possess more timid or less social personalities or temperaments.

You can help your cat feel more comfortable around visitors with a few easy preparations:

• Provide your cat with a safe place to go to before the strangers arrive. The safe area should be an out-of-the-way location, such as a back room where the sound of knocking or the doorbell is muffled. In the safe area, your cat does not have to interact with your guests, and consequently, she can feel calm and relaxed. Before guests arrive, the room should be set up with a comfortable resting area, water, and a litter box.

• A few minutes before guests arrive, take your cat to the safe room. Once inside, provide her with a special treat and an interactive or food-dispensing toy to distract her and create positive associations with the presence of strangers in the house.

If your guests will be a regular part of your life, you can help your cat become more comfortable around by asking a current friend or relative to pretend they are a stranger coming to visit. The basic idea is that the cat learns to associate the arrival of the stranger with comfort and calmness.

Once the stranger has arrived, ask her to either stand or sit, but remain motionless while you remove your cat from the safe room. Place your cat at a safe starting distance away from the stranger, the point where your cat does not show any anxiety. Reward your cat with treats, petting, and attention for remaining calm in the stranger’s presence. Watch his behavior and body language very closely and adjust accordingly.

If your cat becomes anxious, move him further away from the stranger until he is no longer fearful. At this distance, reward him for calm behavior and then end the session. During the next session, start the exercise again at a distance that is further away from the stranger. When you decrease the distance, do so in smaller increments. Over multiple sessions, your cat will be able to remain completely relaxed sitting next to the stranger.

Your cat’s ability to generalize and display calm behavior toward strangers will depend on how often you can repeat these exercises and add different elements. You need to be aware that behavior modification takes time and progress may be slow. So be patient and remember that your efforts are helping to improve your cat’s quality of life.

If you need further help with your kitty’s behavior, please contact the Nevada Humane Society Animal Help Desk at animalhelp@nevadahumanesociety.org or 775-856-2000, ext. 200.


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