Living With a Fraidy Cat: Tips From the Field

Nemo is one of those gorgeous longhaired cats you just want to pick up and cuddle. Sadly, this has never happened. After 12 years, this fearful cat is still a work in progress.

I rescued Nemo as a feral kitten being hunted by hawks and brought him inside to live with me. There were two occasions where I grabbed him, once during the rescue and again while I was fostering. I noticed the panic in his eyes as he desperately tried to squirm out of my grasp. I was very new to feral cat rescue, and this was long before Fear Free, so I did not know how damaging those grabs could be nor what I could have done differently.

As an indoor-only kitty, Nemo developed a friendly relationship with the other rescues in the house, but he stayed clear of me. If I walked briskly through a room he was in or looked him in the eyes, he bolted. He went to his food dish only after I removed myself. It broke my heart, but two breakthroughs have helped us achieve a relationship.

Look Who’s Talking

Feral cats typically do not “speak” to humans the way companion cats do, so for the first three years Nemo never made a sound in my presence. One evening as I lounged on the couch, I heard an unfamiliar soft meow coming from the kitchen. There sat Nemo in the middle of the floor looking at me! He meowed again. I mewed back. From that day on he talked to me, but I still could not touch him.

Touch Not the Cat; Let Him Touch You

Nearly a year later I was on the couch and he came to me, climbed onto my legs and stretched out on his belly with his back to me. I was afraid to move but his big bushy tail was on my lap just begging to be stroked. As I tentatively reached out, he felt the movement and ran. Even though I had spoiled the moment, I was thrilled that he had initiated physical contact.

What I Learned

Talk about the patience required to gain the trust of a fraidy cat! By fostering scores of nursing feral moms and their kittens, and reading, writing about, and learning as much as I could about feline communication, I developed a set of skills to help reach Nemo.

  • I learned to slow down and walk quietly through the house if any cat was present. If I forgot and moved quickly, felines ran for cover, turning to stare at me with big eyes from bodies still poised to fight or flee, reminding me that I had crossed a line of trust.
  • Making direct eye contact with Nemo has always resulted in fear, so I began to use the slow eye blink and the yawn. Both of these say that I am not a threat, and I repeat them until Nemo “answers” me back with his own blink and softening eyes.
  • Danger often comes from above for kittens and cats and as a result, I do my best to be in a low position when I want to interact with Nemo. As long as I’m lying down or sitting with my eyes averted, he sometimes glides by to offer his beautiful tail for petting.
  • I began using a grooming brush to touch him whenever he graced my lap. Since it wasn’t actually me touching him, he felt less threatened and we both discovered that he loved being brushed and would break into loud purring. If I held the brush out to him to sniff, he would rub his face against it. I’m happy to report that he now accepts actual petting! Of course, there are rules: I must either be sitting or lying down before I can touch him and must stay clear of his throat area and make no sudden movements.

Nemo now initiates interaction with me but remains untouchable otherwise. The work continues.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Marci Kladnik, her rescue dog, and four rescue cats live in a small California town. A retired graphic designer and medical technical writer, she turned her talents to championing feral cats in 2007. Involved in TNR and feral rescue, she sat on the Board of Directors of Catalyst for Cats from 2007-2013 and in her spare time, still traps and fosters feral cats and kittens. Her award-winning column on cats ran for seven years in three newspapers and can still be read on www.catalystforcats.org. She is an award-winning photographer and winner of the 2015 Kari Winters Rescue and Rehabilitation Award for her articles on www.catster.com, and she served as president of the Cat Writers’ Association from 2014 to 2018.