#2: Why so Shy?

Kelsey says, "My cats are extremely shy. They run and hide under the bed when anyone comes over. They were well socialized as kittens so we don't know what happened. They are friendly with husband and myself and demand attention. But don't want anything to do with others. Also they run at sudden sounds."

To address Kelsey’s concerns, I’d like to take a look at the sources of shyness in animals.

The first factor is SPECIES. We often divide animals into predator and prey: the hunter, and the hunted. Cats have a reputation as fearless predators. What is often overlooked is that they are also prey animals, vulnerable to many predators larger than themselves. This translates into a tendency towards shyness on a species-wide level. That doesn’t mean individuals can’t buck the trend, but it takes a very outgoing cat to match the boldness of your average dog. It’s usually toms, pumped up with testosterone and swagger, who are the most daring...at the cost of a shortened lifespan.

Second is GENETICS. Shyness versus boldness is coded into our genes. Even fruit flies have been found to lean one way or the other (it takes a bold fly to try durians). Each set of behaviors succeeds where the other fails, so both tend to stick around in populations – although, as mentioned above, what “shy” and “bold” look like is dependent on species. Learning can help cautious animals become more daring, but they have to overcome their natural reticence to get there.

Which brings us to SOCIALIZATION, the part we have some control over. From the time their eyes and ears open, kittens start to form opinions about the world around them. What they experience from about 3 to 9 weeks of age will inform how they behave for the rest of their lives, so owners are encouraged to expose them to a variety of positive encounters. For kittens, one major goal of socialization is to get them comfortable with visitors. Providing a diverse parade of visitors bearing treats is a way to teach kittens that visitors = awesome things, in a way that should stick with them for a lifetime.

It may be that our definition of the socialization window is too narrow for cats with shy tendencies. A 9-week-old kitten doesn’t stop learning; the lessons we learn as teenagers, while not as impactful as those of childhood, are still very powerful. We also don’t have 100% control over what occurs during the socialization period. Try as we might to fill kittenhood with joy, there’s always a potential negative experience around the corner. We can’t always guess what youngsters – especially youngsters of another species - will find traumatizing (like E.T.; I hated that friendly alien’s guts when I was a kid). Ursa, my 5-year-old cat, thinks my dad is evil incarnate. We’ve wracked our brains thinking of any incident that might have brought that on, but can’t come up with anything. Whatever it was, Ursa sure remembers it!

Socialization, done right, can inoculate kittens against a certain level of shyness. It can’t completely override what is given to them by nature, but it can do a pretty good job. Another bit of good news is that anxious adults are not lost causes. It takes more time and effort to socialize an adult cat, but consistent, positive behavioral interventions can help them to come out from under the bed.