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Ask Amy: Cat Stranger Danger

My cats hate company; how can I increase their sociability?

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Photo of Scared Cat Hiding

Scared Cat Hiding

Photo Credit: © iStock Photo/Eimantas Buzas

Question: “My cats hate company.”

Lei writes, “I have two female cats. One (age four) is warm and loving when we're alone in the house. But whenever anyone comes to the house, she goes under the bed and refuses to come out of the bedroom--no matter how long the guest stays. The other cat (age three) comes out when guests are visiting and will even let them pet her. However, in the normal course of things, she refuses to be picked up by anyone, including me, and screams bloody murder when she is picked up.  

Both were injured/shelter cats that I adopted as kittens at less than six months old. They seem to be afraid that people are out to get them but if they would just relax, they would find that my guests (and I) are very kind and just want to show them affection.  Any advice for getting my two girls to be more sociable?

Amy’s Answer 

There is a range of “normal” social behavior for cats, and from your description, both fall into this normal range. There may be ways to increase their sociability, but first let’s look at why they act this way, using the H.I.S.S. Test. Some of the information may not apply in your case, but will be included to give other readers some insight into this issue. 

H=Health

Feeling bad often prompts cats to become more reclusive. They may have painful joints from arthritis, and so it hurts to be picked up, for example.

I=Instinct

Cats instinctively protect themselves from danger. When they’ve been properly socialized as kittens, adult cats have learned to recognize what’s safe and what’s scary, and they react accordingly. The prime socialization period for kittens is two to seven weeks of age! Since you adopted the pair at age six months, they’d already been taught these important lessons. In other words, had they been handled frequently by many strangers during this period of time, they might be more social when strangers now visit the house. 

The “stranger danger” instinct keeps cats from being injured by that strange dog, or the visiting toddler. Caution is a good thing designed to protect kitty. A fearful cat simply takes this to extremes. She has no way of knowing that the stranger person visiting you is safe, or not—it takes cats not hours, but days or even weeks of visits to accept a stranger as a friend. 

S=Stress

As with health, any sort of stress can prompt some of these behaviors. Hiding under the bed keeps your cat away from the potential danger of the visitors. It’s a safe place, that smells like her, and so reduces her stress. Similarly, “screaming bloody murder” is an obvious expression of stress, as cats typically vocalize to show their emotions and warn or otherwise communicate with owners.

S=Symptom, Signs & Solutions 

Bravo to you for adopting the pair and helping them heal from their injuries. Helping them feel more comfortable when you have guests is a worthy goal. But remember, they are YOUR guests, the cats didn’t invite them! So it can be helpful to put yourself in the cat’s paws to see thinks from their viewpoint, and better understand why they act the way they do. 

The cats know and love you, having been in your house for three or more years. The home feels familiar to them. They are safe, and comfortable around you. When strangers arrive, one cat dives under the bed simply as a reflex reaction to “stranger-danger!” She doesn’t know they’re harmless.  Even the more confident cat, though willing to interact with visitors, objects to relinquishing all control by being lifted up in the air. That’s just one too many changes to deal with. 

Maybe the visitors smell funny, like dog or other cats, or wear odd cologne or perfume. Perhaps she’s never been around a man with a beard before, or a toddler, and they sound, move and smell differently than a woman. A cat that weighs 10 pounds looks upward at these giants who come into her house, and then her beloved owner spends time with the strangers! Your cat sees absolutely no benefit to interacting with these folks, who will eventually go away (the sooner the better, according to cats!). 

Therefore, change the association for your cats. Discover what your cats love more than anything—perhaps a special interactive toy, or a favorite catnip treat—and when visitors arrive, have the strangers drop treats or bring out toys to play. Do this consistently and over time, the cats learn to associate positive, good things with the visitors. As that happens and they interact more with them, they’ll learn that your friends are safe and fun to be around. 

Don’t worry about the cat under the bed. If she wishes to come out, she will, perhaps when the other kitty reaps all these goodies. The Bach Flower essence Mimulus may prove helpful. There’s no rule that says your pet must like every guest who comes to the home. Isn’t it enough she loves you? Give her the privacy she craves that allows her to feel safe. And if she decides to come out and watch, IGNORE her from the distance and don’t make eye contact. Let her be the one to approach.  

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