Social enrichment ideas for cats

Social enrichment ideas for cats

If your cat responds negatively to change, she may need some social enrichment! Here are a few techniques to try.

Cats are notoriously creatures of comfort and feel most secure when the status quo is uninterrupted. They don’t typically respond well to changes in their environment, and their usual reaction to any unwelcome shifts is to distance themselves. They may simply retreat to a nice, safe hiding spot or, if pushed further, they may even react aggressively. There are certain social enrichment techniques that can be used to help your cat adjust to change more smoothly. Before we dive into those, let’s look at why cats are the way they are.

Why cats run and hide

Illness

For our feline friends, hiding away, even for long periods of time, is a normal response to a frightening or new situation. Sometimes, though, cats can become fearful and shy because of an underlying illness. If such behavior is new, have your cat’s health checked by a veterinarian.

New people or pets

Some cats can also respond to having a new person in the house (like a visitor or a baby), by running away and hiding. Introducing a new dog or another cat into the home could certainly elicit the same response.

Other frightening/startling events

An cat that is allowed to roam outdoors may be startled by another animal or a stranger and shoot into the house and hide. Such experiences can result in fearfulness that leads to ongoing shyness. A sudden clap of thunder, an engine backfire or a firecracker could send a fearful cat under the bed for weeks.

Phobic shyness

A phobically shy cat suggests that proper socialization did not occur when they were an unweaned kitten. Proper socialization occurs when a variety of people cuddle and handle the animal at a young age, when the kitten is sniffed and touched by other animals, and when they are exposed to a wide variety of noises that occur in everyday life. These things become much less frightening when they are experienced in the security and comfort of their mother and/or familiar humans.

Kitten socialization

The most sensitive time in a kitten’s development is between the age of two and seven weeks. During this time, a kitten should receive an increasing amount of gentle handling. Up to three months of age, a cat should have already had many positive experiences with other animals and people, as well as a wide variety of other activities – being carried, going to see the vet, riding in the car and so on. All of this is designed to foster an outgoing nature.

When the primary fear is people

When a cat is afraid of people, a slow, consistent method of reconditioning them is necessary. Enlist the help of a friend – preferably a female, as deeper voices are more threatening to a cat. Sit calmly on the floor and gently and patiently coax them out with toys and treats to recondition them to associate new people with positive experiences.

Alternatively, when you have guests, place your cat in a comfortable, large, and partially covered carrier and keep them in the room with you. This familiarizes them with the noise of guests’ voices while allowing them to remain hidden. Gradually increase the guests’ gentle interactions through the carrier door before finally letting your cat out. It’s a slow process, and you may even need to rely on some natural calming products to assist, but it can be very effective in the long run.

Other social enrichment tips

  • Keep the radio on for several hours a day to desensitize your cat to a variety of noises
  • Make gentle eye contact, but blink slowly and often to indicate that you are not a threat
  • Spend time laying low with them, or even under the covers
  • Talk in a soothing, soft voice
  • Move predictably and slowly
  • Introduce fleece padded sticks and feather wands for them to inspect; gently touch the sides of their face with the wands, and gradually slide your hand down the wand until you can stroke their chin and cheeks
  • Give foods, treats and catnip, etc. while socializing with people
  • Keep their everyday basics such as feeding times and litter box locations as predictable as possible
  • Consider bringing in a vet who makes house calls if necessary.

Ensure that you provide your kitty with a snug retreat that they can relax in, especially during times of stress. This should be a large enough enclosed space to include a bed, water bowl and litter box. Giving an anxious cat a place of their own to rest in can make it easier for them to venture back out when they feel calmer.

Ideally, proper socialization needs to start soon after a cat is born, but a variety of factors can still lead to them feeling shy and fearful. So long as they feel safe and secure and you follow some tried and tested social enrichment steps with gentle patience, it should only be a matter of time before your cat is much more calm and confident.

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