Socializing a cat into a new family takes just as much patience as it does the love you have for her. Even an adult cat adopted from an animal shelter may be frightened, shy or unsure of her new housemates, no matter welcoming they are at heart. Here's how to give your new companion plenty of time and space to become acquainted with her new home and the people who live there.
1. Let Her 'Map' It Out
Your job during cat socialization is to see things from your cat's point of view: She's frightened, in a strange environment inhabited by "giants" (you and your family) who always want to hug her and scoop her up. This can be overwhelming, especially for timid cats. With this in mind, instruct your family to keep a safe distance as she makes her way around the house. She needs time to smell, investigate, and ultimately identify safe places she likes to escape to for a bit. This allows her to develop her own internal "map" of the house by learning whose room belongs to whom.
2. The Gentle Giant
At the very beginning, everyone should sit quietly or go about their business. If your cat comes to you, place your hand down slowly to allow her to sniff. Moving quietly, start petting your new cat on the back. If she allows it, stroking her cheeks is also a fine way to greet her as she rubs her scent onto you, thus marking you as her property. Watch her tail for signs of distress or affection; cat tails can tell you how they're feeling.
3. There's the Rub
If your cat has been hidden away for a while, or hasn't seen certain people for some time, she may be fearful around them as if they're new again. Make sure your family and friends let her sniff them at her leisure—cat behaviorist Marilyn Krieger suggests extending an index finger to start. It may take her a few minutes to connect (or reconnect) that scent with a special ally. Nonetheless, she'll let you know when the connection is made by rubbing against you, purring, or giving the happy welcome-back "chirp" that some cats give when saying hello to someone they haven't seen in a long time.
4. Offer a Safe Place
Cat socialization should always include a safe place for her to go if she becomes frightened—not just when she's new to the home. You should leave her crate or carrier in the room at the start so she has a place to retreat to if she is startled. Place a towel or something soft inside so she can snuggle up. A cardboard box with a door cut out for easy entrance and exit is also a simple refuge to help a socializing cat develop confidence in you over time.
5. Reward Social Behavior, Ignore the Rest
When your cat comes out to investigate you and your family, greet her with praise, treats, and gentle strokes. If she hides, just ignore her instead of chasing after her. It's important to reward desirable behavior and simply ignore undesirable responses during the ongoing cat socialization process. The more receptive you are to her affection when she's ready to give it, the less shy she'll be.
6. Gain Trust through a Routine
Cat socialization is easier when she can rely on the casual nature of others right from the start. This allows her to find security in knowing what to expect from guests and other residents of the home. Create a routine of petting and feeding as you host relatives she may see regularly. This can make strangers more approachable and easier for her to remember. Feed her at regular intervals will let her know she can rely on you as well, which in turn will make her feel less vulnerable. Food, as you can imagine, is a great motivator when building a healthy relationship.
Spend as much time as possible around your cat without directly interacting with her; don't pressure her to play or come to you. Watch television in the same room or read a book. As long as you stay in common places, she'll be confident enough to come and join you eventually.
It may be cliché, but take it slow. Cats are like people in at least one way: They can be outgoing, shy, aggressive, and passive. Depending on your cat's unique personality, she may warm up to the family quickly or it may take her several days. Let her set the pace, and never force her to accept affection she doesn't want to give.
Jeanne Grunert is a freelance writer, blogger, and book author. She's the guardian of six adopted cats and one adopted dog, and writes extensively about pet care, gardening and other lifestyle topics. Learn more about Jeanne and her writing on her author website.