Cats hate change and prefer the security of their familiar territory. It's only natural that new people, places or things may cause them to be fearful. One common situation a cat may fear is having strangers come into the house. As soon as the doorbell rings, he may take off for the farthest closet.
Here's an exercise you can do: Ask a friend to come over (make sure it's not someone your cat already hates). Have him or her sit in the living room while you go into the room where your cat is hiding. With total nonchalance, sit down on the floor and casually conduct an interactive playtime (key word: casually). Don't try to entice your hiding cat out, just lightly play with a toy, gently moving it around a small area of the room. Use your voice in a calm, comforting way. The effect is for your cat to start picking up the signal from you that this is no big deal. So what if there's a guest in the house -- who cares? You want to play with your cat. If you're relaxed and make no attempts to force your cat out of his comfort zone, he'll relax too. He may not actually play or even venture out of the closet the first few times, but he will begin to relax.
After several minutes with your cat, leave him alone. But instead of going back to your guest, sit on the floor in the hallway. Engage in a quiet conversation with the guest but dangle the toy gently to get your cat's attention. You can also offer cat treats. Although your cat may not come out of the room, he may risk leaving the closet. He may even come as far as the hallway. If he'll play, engage in a session but don't try to take it any farther into the living room. Have your guest leave, then reward your cat. Ask your friend to return again the next day and repeat the same exercise. Keep up these visits, and move inch by inch closer to the living room. Eventually your cat should be calm enough that you can sit in the living room and he will make an appearance (however brief). If he can be distracted with playtime, let your guest conduct a game with him. The guest must remain in his or her seat, though, so as not to frighten the cat. Remember to give your friend a treat too (such as lunch) for being such a good sport.
This slow and steady way helps a cat get over whatever frightens him. Conduct light play sessions. Let your cat dictate the pace, though. If he only wants to come as far as the hallway, then be content with that for now. Eventually, as he sees there's no threat, he'll inch closer. Your behavior throughout should be casual and relaxed.
Often, in an attempt to comfort a cat, the owner tries to hold the struggling pet. The owner's voice also often sounds worried, and the cat interprets this as confirmation that there really is something to fear. He needs to know there's a secure place for him besides the back of the closet.
About the author:
Pam Johnson-Bennett began her career when her own problem cat was labeled hopeless by the vet. After successfully treating her own cat, as well as hundreds of other "hopeless" pets, she became a veterinary technician and the award-winning author of four books on cats. She's now a popular guest on national TV and radio, writes regularly for three major cat magazines and runs a private vet-referred counseling practice in Tennessee.
Do you have a question for this feline-friendly expert? Visit the Think Like a Cat message board and find a solution.