Dear Doctor – Socialization for shelter adoptees in cats

Letters to Tufts Veterinarians


Q For years, I adopted kitten siblings who required little to no socialization to adjust to living in my home. However, the last four cats I’ve adopted from shelters took a long time to feel comfortable enough to come out of hiding from under my bed or behind my sofa. I am happy to report that they are all now well adjusted and contented.

Lately, I’ve been encouraging friends to adopt from shelters. This is my request for some professional guidance and explanation for the nervous and anti-social behavior that some cats exhibit. I look forward to suggestions to help shelter adoptees adjust to their new homes.
Cathy Oliver

A Dear Cathy: It’s quite true that cats rescued from the street or from a shelter can turn out to be absolutely wonderful pets.

When adopted cats first appear in a new home, they can be shy and are often unseen and unheard. Frequently, the only indication you have that they are there is that the litter box has been used and the food disappears at night. Given time and kind treatment, these initially reclusive cats can blossom and can become an owner’s best friend.

The important thing when trying to rehabilitate a nervous cat is not to force the issue. The philosophy should be easy does it — be patient and take your time. Protecting such shy cats from the unwelcome advances of well-meaning people and simultaneously rewarding any excursions from their hiding places with high-valued treats, you can gradually coax them out of their reclusive shells and teach them to trust you.

In extreme cases, some anti-anxiety medication, like buspirone, can be helpful. Use of this medication has helped new owners rehabilitate even formerly feral cats into their home.
Nicholas Dodman, BVMS
Animal Behavior Clinic Director
Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University


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