Many of my guests don’t believe me when I tell them I have two cats. They see Toothless crying for attention and plopping on the ground for belly rubs, while the only signs of a second cat are the two food and water bowls in my kitchen. Boots is long gone under the bed by the time visitors enter my home.

Boots is your stereotypical shy cat. She takes a long time to warm up to people and fears loud noises. She can be affectionate with my husband and me but swats our hands away when she’s done receiving pets. Caring for Boots is sometimes difficult—like when I gave her flea medication and she was so upset she hid under the bed for three days. I know she will never be the cat who jumps into my lap for attention, but I also know that having a shy cat like Boots comes with all its own perks.

While it can take time and patience to help a shy cat build trust and confidence in their new environment and with their new owners, watching them blossom is incredibly rewarding.

Amanda Kowalski, San Diego Humane Society

Worth the wait

“While it can take time and patience to help a shy cat build trust and confidence in their new environment and with their new owners, watching them blossom is incredibly rewarding,” says Amanda Kowalski, vice president of behavior programs at San Diego Humane Society. “The first time they start to interact with you, like giving you a nose touch or rubbing against you, is so gratifying and worth the wait.”

I still remember every milestone Boots passed when my husband and I started socializing her eight years ago. When I found her eating out of our garbage bin one dreary morning, skeletal and soaking wet from a recent rainstorm, I didn’t think I would end up adopting her. I figured I would feed her for a few days to earn her trust before bringing her to a local shelter to get adopted. But as my husband and I started caring for her, and saw how much work went into forming a bond, we knew she would be our cat.

The first time she let us sit within a few feet of her while she ate felt like a major breakthrough. Then, a few weeks later, she let us pet her (my husband and I silently cheered so as not to scare her). Even today, years after bringing her into our home, we still get to watch Boots grow. After being enclosed in the bathroom for hours when my husband and I moved last year, Boots remained calm as I pulled her out of her hiding spot and put her into a cat carrier. I could tell that although she had no clue what I was doing, she trusted me.

A lot of times cats in a shelter environment, or even in foster homes, may come across as really shy but when you put them in a different environment, such as a home environment, they can really blossom.

Danielle Bays, The HSUS

When I worked at a cat rescue, I gravitated to the many shy cats who crossed our doors, inspired by my experience with Boots. Slowly, over time, they transformed with some patience and one-on-one work. I loved discovering new aspects of their personalities as they came out of their shells. At the same time, it was difficult to watch them struggle to find adoptive homes. I knew these cats could be loving companions, but potential adopters sometimes couldn’t see past their timid demeanor and evasive behavior.

When looking at cats in a shelter or rescue, it’s important to remember that “what you see is not necessarily what you’re gonna get,” says Nancy Puro, volunteer and behavior programs manager at Cat Adoption Team, the largest cat shelter in the Pacific Northwest. She explains that the behavior a cat is displaying at a shelter or rescue may not reflect what their personality will be like once they settle into a home.

A spectrum of shy

The term “shy cat” encompasses a wide array of personalities: Some shy cats—like Boots—did not fully socialize to humans as kittens, while others behave fearfully because they are overwhelmed. “A lot of times cats in a shelter environment, or even in foster homes, may come across as really shy but when you put them in a different environment, such as a home environment, they can really blossom,” says Danielle Bays, HSUS senior analyst of cat protection and policy.

A black and white cat
It took lots of patience, love and respect for Boots’ preferences, but today Boots is a more confident kitty who seeks affection on her own terms.
Brianna Grant
/
The HSUS

Many of the cats displaying fearful behavior at Cat Adoption Team’s shelter in Sherwood, Oregon, are surrendered by owners and were friendly and affectionate in their previous homes. Puro says these cats typically adjust quicker to new homes than cats who are behaving shyly because they have not fully socialized to humans.

Cats with scant social skills can still make great pets, but adopters should be aware that their cat may always be a little reserved. My husband and I learned that Boots seeks us out when she wants attention. She is the most affectionate when we first wake up in the morning, so we make sure to treasure that time with her before she goes off to nap alone in the afternoon.

Progress may be slow, especially when you first bring your new companion home, but it’s important to go at their pace. “How would you interact with a shy person? Would you run up to them and hug them?” says Bays. “You don’t want to force it; you want them to come to you.”

Many shelters and rescues also offer resources to help owners. San Diego Humane Society runs an online shy cat training class where, for $110, attendees learn how to better understand their cat over the course of five weeks; it includes exercises they can do together to help the kitty feel more comfortable. 

Read More About Reducing Stress for Cats

Kowalski says students have shared lots of positive feedback. One woman learned how to interact with her 5-year-old cat who was rescued from a neglectful situation and spent all his time hiding. “It was incredible to know he finally trusted me enough to want to be close,” his owner said after he rubbed against her arms and legs for the first time. He now jumps on the couch in the mornings and evenings for pets or just to spend time near her.

For shy cat owners, sometimes the smallest gestures are the biggest rewards.

Want more content like this?

This was written and produced by the team behind All Animals, our award-winning magazine. Each issue is packed with inspiring stories about how we are changing the world for animals together.

Learn MoreSubscribe
Cover of All Animals Winter 2024 Issue