Stranger danger! Does your cat do a disappearing act when visitors appear?

Do you have a friendly feline who likes meeting new people? Or is your cat likely to turn tail and rush out the room when guests arrive? For some pets, (dogs, we’re looking at you) the arrival of visitors is generally a positive, tail-wagging, making-a-fuss-of experience. However, for cats, unfamiliar humans entering their territory can send them running for cover.
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19th March 2024

Do you have a friendly feline who likes meeting new people? Or is your cat likely to turn tail and rush out the room when guests arrive?

For some pets, (dogs, we’re looking at you) the arrival of visitors is generally a positive, tail-wagging, making-a-fuss-of experience. However, for cats, unfamiliar humans entering their territory can send them running for cover. So why is this the case?

Perhaps it’s because humans and dogs are social species who enjoy the company of others. Our cats, on the other hand, as naturally solitary creatures descended from the African wildcat, often find the whole business of socialising tips them right out of their comfort zone.

Got a cat question? Whatever your feline query, we've got answers for you >>

From your cat’s perspective, they have no idea who these new people are, why they are impinging on their space, or if they have good or bad intentions. That’s why, rather than trying to impress your guests or seizing the chance to expand their friendship group, your cat prefers to make a swift exit.

A state of independence

Blue Cross, a charity which helps sick, injured and abandoned pets, explains it like this: “By their nature, cats are solitary creatures. While dogs descend from wolves which live in family groups, most wild cats live alone. Domestic cats are, by their nature, more independent than domestic dogs – in part because they weren’t bred to spend a lot of time around humans, and also because the wild ancestors of our house felines don’t live naturally in the same sort of family groups that canines do.”


TOP TIP

Introduce people one-by-one. Cats may feel overwhelmed if you try to introduce many people at once, especially if they are naturally shy or timid. By introducing people one at a time, you can help your cat to gradually accept and trust new people.

Source: Cats Protection


Understanding how a cat thinks also sheds light on – what seems to us – their unsociable behaviour. For a cat, their home is a place of safety and security that has to be protected. The arrival of a stranger in their territory is therefore viewed with the utmost suspicion.

Feline welfare charity International Cat Care explains: “A cat’s territory consists of a core area, or den, where it feels secure enough to sleep, eat, play and potentially enjoy social interaction. This forms the hub of the territory which is the area beyond the core area that the cat actively defends against invasion from others.”

Cats Protection adds: “While many cats become more relaxed over time, particularly as they learn that people do not pose a threat, some cats remain cautious of strangers for their entire lives.”

Cats certainly have their funny little ways, which even avid cat watchers struggle to understand >>


TOP TIP

Go slowly. Encourage family members and visitors to take their time in getting to know your cat. It's best to sit back and let the cat make the first move. This is much less confrontational. Your cat will also appreciate having an escape route or somewhere high to hide if they get scared.

Source: Cats Protection


Unexpected alliances and close friendships

Yet, with their chosen people, it’s a very different story. Blue Cross says: “Domesticated cats can form very close bonds to people, as well as forming unlikely friendships with other animals such as dogs. Indeed, cats can come to rely on the companionship of humans.”

“Cats do get attached to people,” comments Dr Carlo Siracusa of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in The Guardian. “They get attached to other animals too.” He explains that cats often show affection by proximity, if not physical interaction, “being in the same room as you or physically close to you”. More demonstrative cats will sleep on or near their owners, or other cats.

“This idea that cats don’t really care about people or respond to them isn’t holding up,” reveals Dr Kristyn Vitale, an animal behaviour scientist at Oregon State University. In one study, Dr Vitale and her colleagues found that the majority of cats prefer interacting with a person over eating or playing with a toy. In another, researchers found that cats adjust their behaviour according to how much attention a person gives them.

Experts suggest that how your cat acts around people – both those they know and those that are unfamiliar – is down to a combination of genetics and early experiences. There are bold cats and nervous cats, just as there are people, but those who have had a range of experiences and met lots of new people – and learned positively from this during the first two months of life – will be much better equipped to cope with the unfamiliar.

MSD Vet Manual states: “Although many people think of cats as solitary animals, they are very sociable in the right circumstances. Factors such as being unfriendly, timid, or shy are hereditary and are often inherited from the father. However, kittens between two to seven weeks of age that are handled by people are friendlier towards people, are more outgoing, and may be less aggressive.”

Caring for kittens: Discover how you can help your kitten get the very best start in life >>


TOP TIP

Keep quiet. Cats are more likely to bolt if your visitors are noisy. By speaking in a calm, soothing voice you can help the cat to feel safe. Avoid handling. Cats generally don't like to be picked up unless they're being handled by someone familiar.

Source: Cats Protection


Can a cat change its spots?

While you may want your feline companion to be a friendly, sociable cat, it’s important to take things slowly. Cats Protection adds: “Never force your cat to socialise if it would rather hide. By forcing your cat to do something, you are more likely to make it more shy and timid, and less likely to enjoy meeting new people.”

PDSA advises: “Give your cat time to adjust when introducing new things, people or pets to the household and let them choose when they want your attention. Sometimes, even if we mean well, our cats can get stressed over too much attention. Then it will be all the more rewarding when your cat chooses to spend time with you!”

10 things I hate about you: If our feline friends could tell us what they really think, here’s what they’d probably say about the things they’re none too happy about >>

It’s also important to acknowledge that cats will be cats and have their own way of doing things. “Cats are not people,” says Dr Siracusa, “and they are not dogs. Humans hug and kiss. Dogs become very excited and jump around. Cats don’t do anything like that. They are much more elegant. They approach us. They bump their heads. Then they have some contact with us and walk away.”

Writer John Gray, author of Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Lifeobserves that cats do what they want, all the time: “Cats are a window outside the human world. They are themselves, and they stay themselves. They adapt to human ways. But they don’t adopt human ways.”


TOP TIP

Start with play. Playing with cats is a great way to bond. It gives cats a chance to get used to you, without having to get too close.

Source: Cats Protection


How to help your cat cope with meeting strangers

For cats that see strangers as dangerous, it’s up to their human to help them learn that being with people can be rewarding. With a bit of time, patience and dedication, it’s usually possible to make your feline friend feel more comfortable around visitors.

  • Ensure that, as kittens, cats have pleasant and gentle handling by a number of people of different ages and sexes and get used to all the sights, sounds and smells associated with living with humans. This can provide a brilliant basis for positive experiences with people in the future.
  • Plan visits carefully with one or two calm and quiet people. Let them in without the need for a doorbell to ring or any knocking, as this is often the signal for the cat to run away.
  • Bring the visitors inside slowly and quietly. Get them to sit in a warm place where the cat feels comfortable and safe and just ignore the cat.
  • Talk quietly and move slowly. Then, get the visitor to leave equally quietly so that there is nothing frightening for the cat and the experience is a positive one.
  • If there’s a treatthat your cat loves, or a toy or game, as things progress each time, get the visitor to give this reward, reinforcing the positive experience. Take time with each step and tailor it to the cat’s reactions.
  • Make life predictable for the cat in other everyday things. If the cat knows what is going to happen and when, they will have less anxiety and be calmer all round, and other changes to the usual routine will not be so frightening.
  • If unpredictable people or children are visiting, it’s probably best to make sure the cat is safely out of the way and does not have a chance to become scared. Otherwise, they’ll simply reassure themselves that fleeing was indeed the best policy!

How often should you feed your cat? Find out why little and often suits most cats – and why play should be part of your feeding routine >>

Every cat deserves a delicious, nutritious dinner. At Burgess, all our cat food is made using premium ingredients and is high in protein, to ensure excellent quality and superior taste to help keep your cat happy and healthy – from kitten, to adult and mature and our award-winning variety for neutered cats.

CARE MORE Get more advice on caring for your cat from Burgess, the pet experts. Training, nutrition, grooming and general care. It's all here >>

Is your cat a Burgess cat? Join the Burgess Pet Club for exclusive offers and rewards.

Adapting your cat’s diet throughout their life – what you choose to feed your cat can make all the difference >>


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