Friday, 6 March 2020

Helping a nervous cat overcome their fears

Cats arrive in Cats Protection’s care for a number of reasons. Perhaps they’ve been found abandoned and living on the street, or maybe their loving owner could no longer keep them or had passed away.

Whatever their story, suddenly finding themselves in the strange new environment of a cat pen can be a stressful and frightening experience.

black-and-white cat sitting on top of bed in Cats Protection pen
Alfie was very nervous when he arrived at Cats Protection. Read his story below
With lots of new sights, smells, sounds and humans around them it’s often quite overwhelming and can cause them to shy away from the people caring from them, as well as potential adopters. Some cats will get used to this change quicker than others, but for those that struggle to cope with their new surroundings, help is at hand.

At Cats Protection we offer the particularly nervous cats in our care a one-on-one desensitisation programme to grow their confidence and help them catch the eye of a new owner.

What is cat desensitisation? 


Desensitisation is the process of gently exposing a cat to the things they are afraid of, at a pace they are comfortable with, to help them overcome their fears. At Cats Protection, this is carried out by our dedicated desensitisation volunteers and requires a lot of patience and understanding.

For most shy cats, the key thing they are scared of is human presence or contact, so the goal of the desensitisation volunteer is to get the cat accustomed to people and develop their confidence to the point where they are happy to come out and engage with them.

How to bring a nervous cat out of their shell 


black-and-white cat sitting on shelf in Cats Protection pen
Alfie needed to grow in confidence to encourage him down from his shelf
Building the trust and confidence of a shy cat can take days, weeks or even months as it must always be done on the cat’s terms. Suddenly flooding them with attention and contact is likely to make them more scared and stressed in the short term and have lasting negative effects on their wellbeing in the long term, so instead a slow, step-by-step approach is needed.

Step 1 
The first step is usually to ignore the cat altogether. The desensitisation volunteer will simply sit near the cat and maybe even read a book, just so the cat can get used to having them around.

Step 2 
If the cat seems comfortable, the volunteer may then make eye-contact and slowly blink in their direction. This is thought to be a sign of trust to cats and hopefully they will return the gesture.

Step 3 
Next the volunteer will try quietly talking to the cat to get them used to their voice and may move closer towards them.

Step 4
If the cat is still calm, the volunteer will offer out their hand to see if the cat comes forward for a sniff. If the cat starts coming forward regularly, they can then repeat the process and try giving a gentle head rub or chin stroke.

Our desensitisation volunteers are trained to read cat body language, so they can recognise if the cat is stressed at each stage. If at any point the cat is not ready for the next step, they will go back and start from the beginning, working at a pace the cat is comfortable with.

Throughout the process, our volunteers can always ask for advice and guidance from Cats Protection’s team of qualified cat behaviourists, whose roles in 2020 are being funded by the kind support of People’s Postcode Lottery players.

Alfie: From frightened cat to forever friend 


black-and-white cat
Alfie underwent an incredible transformation thanks to a dedicated volunteer
When Alfie arrived at Cats Protection’s National Cat Adoption Centre in Sussex, it was immediately obvious that this poor boy was stressed. He would hide away whenever anyone approached his pen, or sit up high on his shelf so he was out of reach.

To help him overcome his fear of humans, volunteer Vicki Greenfield began a desensitisation programme with him, and her patience and dedication soon paid off.



“For about a week, my only interaction with Alfie was sitting just inside his pen, reading my book while he sat up high on his shelf watching me,” said Vicki. “After a week or so, he began to stay in his bed in the cosy front section of his pen when I opened the door, and at this stage I’d sit and chat to him for short periods in a low, calm, quiet voice.

“It was almost three weeks before Alfie started showing a lot more interest in my visits and we had a ‘breakthrough’ moment when I slowly lifted up the cat brush for him to sniff and he leaned right into it and started grooming himself on it!

“After another few days he was walking over to me and sniffing my t-shirt and eventually my hand when I held it out still for him to ‘investigate’. It soon became clear that Alfie was an affectionate and gentle boy who loved a chin tickle and a good old brush!

brunette woman stroking black-and-white cat in Cats Protection pen
Vicky with the newly confident Alfie, enjoying a fuss
“It was another few weeks before Alfie’s gorgeous personality caught the eye of some visitors to the centre and I’m pleased to say he has now found his forever home!”

Alfie isn’t the only cat who we’ve taken on a life-changing journey from fear to friendship. Casper also gained confidence thanks to the kindness and patience of another of our desensitisation volunteers. 


black-and-white cat lying in cat bed
Casper overcame his fears thanks to our desensitisation programme
Read his story at www.cats.org.uk/springappeal20MB where you can also donate a one-off or monthly gift to fund our desensitisation programmes across the UK.

To find out more about caring for shy and nervous cats, visit www.cats.org.uk/shy-cats and to join our team of dedicated desensitisation volunteers visit www.cats.org.uk/volunteering

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