Young kittens may have shy or fearful personalities, especially if they have not experienced a lot of gentle affectionate handling before they are adopted. As a breeder, I seldom allow one of my kittens to leave my home before it is fourteen to sixteen weeks of age. It takes this long, with the youngster living in a secure environment with lots of handling and confidence-building experiences with humans and other cats, for my kittens to have the self- assurance and outgoing personalities that their new families want them to have. A kitten adopted at six to eight weeks of age from a shelter or home where little deliberate socialization has taken place is certain to be skittish or, worse, aggressive. Such babies are merely acting defensively because they have an inborn mistrust of human beings and their noisy home environments. Overcoming this natural mistrust, which allows survival in the wild, takes time and plenty of careful, gentle handling.
If you adopt a kitten that is not outgoing but rather defensive and fearful, you will need to commit the time in the first weeks after adoption to socializing your new family member. This can be done with enough time and patience and will reward that effort with a gentle, confident, friendly cat in the end. Remember to start slowly. The fearful kitten must become convinced that the world is a loving, caring place, not a dangerous one. This change of attitude does not happen in a day or two.
It is a good idea to keep a shy or aggressive kitten in a small area with no furniture at first. This will prevent the kitten from hiding under couches and beds where it becomes difficult to provide positive experiences that will convince the baby that its new home is a safe one. A small room, such as a bathroom or utility room, can be made into the kitten’s safe space for the first weeks in its new home. Place the litter box; porcelain, metal, or glass dish- es for food and water; and a nice bed in this area. The kitten will spend the first few minutes in this new territory investigating every nook and cranny, to make sure that there are no unseen dangers. It is a good idea not to interrupt this investigation or interfere with it in any way. This is typical behavior for any cat in a new environment. Once the kitten knows the room is a safe place, it will turn its attention to settling in, and the owner can sit quietly in the area, allowing the kitten to approach at its own pace.
Offering food or perhaps a toy to play with is a good first step toward winning the kitten’s trust. Do not attempt to pick up the kitten if it resists this by struggling or hissing. Unless a kitten has been picked up and held safely already, and learned to expect good care from someone who lifts it, it will fear being dropped or otherwise mishandled when held above the ground in human hands. It may be best just to allow the kitten to approach slowly. Make no sudden moves that will seem threatening. After a period of time of quiet companionship with the baby, you will notice the kitten relaxing, at least a bit. This kind of socialization, with the human present but with no forced contact, can work wonders with any kitten that has the ability to adapt to human presence.
Hand-feeding foods that are especially appetizing, like meat baby food or canned cat food that the kitten likes, can break down trust barriers rapidly. The key to success with a fearful kitten is not to rush the process, but to make the times together very pleasurable for the baby. If the kitten is so terrified that it will not approach the owner at all, it may be necessary to take the affection to the kitten. Petting a young cat that is cowering in a corner, as long as it is not rushed or rough will usually cause a kitten to relax and begin to open up. Take as much time as necessary, in as many sessions a few hours apart as is necessary, to start bringing the kitten’s defenses down.