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Building Confidence and Raising A Happy Cat

Posted 03.16.16 by Emily Lindsey

Is your cat the life of the party or hiding under the bed in the back room? Does he stalk out to see who you brought home to watch a movie or hide in the laundry basket? Does he enjoy a car ride or howl the whole way to the vet’s office? We have a few tips to build their confidence.

Many cats tend to be shy and keep to themselves. The downsides of this include stressful trips to the veterinarian’s office and difficulty is spotting small behavioral changes that might let you know they don’t feel good. Cats are master of disguise when it comes to covering up sickness which can lead to delayed medical attention in times of need.

Reward-based training is a simple and effective way to boost your cat’s confidence and strengthen his bond with you.  Your cat doesn’t have to be born brave to be confident. Even adult cats can benefit from simple training techniques. Training  doesn’t have to be time-consuming or difficult.  The following tips will help you build your cat’s confidence and improve communication between you and your cat by rewarding everyday behaviors.

teach a cat confidence

How to Train a Shy Cat by: Mikkel Becker the daughter of Dr. Marty Becker, “America’s Veterinarian”

The key to fostering a feline’s comfort relies on two things: allowing your cat to choose when and how she interacts with people and making every interaction as safe and predictable as possible for her. I follow five simple steps to help reserved cats learn to be more confident around humans. Try these with your shy feline and watch her personality bloom.

Step one: Create an environment that makes your cat feel safe and protected. Cats need both high spaces, like those found on cat shelving or cat trees, and hiding areas, such as tunnels, boxes and covered beds, in order to feel safe in your home. Your feline is more likely to relax if she has ample places where she can retreat from perceived dangers. Access to cat-safe quiet areas away from heavy traffic and noises can also help you raise your shy cat, allowing her to manage her anxiety.

Step two: Use only positive reinforcement training. This approach teaches your cat that certain behaviors are rewarded. Clicker training is a simple type of positive reinforcement training; the desired behavior is pinpointed with the clicker and immediately rewarded with something the cat desires. Clicker training teaches your feline that she has a choice, because she does the behavior of her own free will; it can also teach her to associate certain people and behaviors with positive consequences. (Note: Some shy cats may be afraid of the clicker noise — for those cats, you can muffle the clicker by holding it behind your back or you can substitute something quieter, like a ballpoint pen. Another alternative is to use a verbal cue, like “yes” or “good,” to mark the behavior.)

Step three: Find out what motivates your cat and use that as a reward. When your cat does a desired behavior, mark it with the clicker — and immediately follow that with a reward. The reward must be something that is desired by the cat; examples include a treat, a toy or, for very shy cats, a little space. Keep in mind that some of the things that you may think of as a reward, like petting, may be frightening for your cat. Pay attention to your cat’s body language and behavior and pace your interactions accordingly.

Step four: Train behaviors that will have the most benefit for the cat. Rewarding signs of relaxation, confidence or social intent are good starting points with a shy cat. A clickable moment may be as simple as a moment of brief muscle relaxation or forward movement of the body, ears or eyes. Tricks are also highly useful for creating positive, predictable ways your cat can interact with people. Touching a target or hand, making eye contact, going to a spot, sitting, staying or high-fiving are all behaviors that can be taught with relative ease and can be used to help your cat feel more comfortable in social situations.

Step five: Pair frightening things with positive consequences. For instance, if your cat is touch-sensitive, a hand reaching to pet her may be terrifying. Turn petting into a positive by pairing reaching hands with a desirable reward to make the situation less aversive for your cat. The key is to slowly build your cat’s confidence and create a happy expectation of the event — in other words, to teach her that petting is accompanied by a tasty treat or a fun toy. The same strategy can be used for other potentially stressful events like nail trims and grooming.


The more frequently you interact with your cat in a gentle and positive way, the more confident she should become. As her confidence increases, you can use the same principles to expand her comfort zone and introduce her to new people and experiences. The process takes patience and forethought, but it will be worth it, both for you and for your cat.

Ms Becker’s methods are tried and true. Even a little confidence will make your kitty’s trip to the vet’s office much more pleasant for you and your cat. If you find yourself frustrated or not making progress, please give us a call. We do have local behaviorists we recommend  and some cats require medication to enhance the process.

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