Socializing Adoptable Cats Through Positive Reinforcement

Socializing Shy Adoptable Cats

Unlocking Shy Cats’ Inner Social Butterfly

By Annie Valuska, PhD

PROBLEM: The Animal Protection Agency (APA) Adoption Center in St. Louis, Missouri had some “shy” cats that had been at the shelter for several weeks. They were being overlooked for adoption because they were not very social and tended to hide at the back of their condos.

GOAL: Help bring the “shy” cats out of their shells to get them interacting with potential adopters and, eventually, thriving in forever homes.

APPROACH: The APA Adoption Center reached out to me to help organize a training session with staff and volunteers to teach them socialization methods that they could use during their volunteer shifts. As part of the training session, I worked with Chloe, a particularly shy cat who often hissed and swatted when offered a hand.

Before I jumped into any socialization techniques with Chloe, I first had to get to know her so I could come up with a plan that suited her unique needs, likes and personality. After reviewing the staff’s notes and observing the cat myself, I was ready to approach.

Even though cats are excellent predators themselves, they are also a prey species.

So, to appear as safe and unthreatening as possible, I made sure to:

Avoid eye contact
Speak in a low volume, high-pitched voice
Give Chloe time to adjust to my presence
Offer her something that smells like me in a way that will minimize potential harm (The back of my fist, a piece of clothing, etc.)

As I approached, I closely watched Chloe’s body language. When I reached out my hand and Chloe hissed and swatted, I knew I had found her boundary-line.

The next step was to slowly and safely broaden Chloe’s boundaries using positive reinforcement training — rewarding Chloe for gradually stepping up to more and more social activities. My two most important considerations when it came to shaping Chloe’s behavior were:

1)  Making sure to choose the right reward — Does the cat crave dry treats, soft treats, wet cat food, canned tuna? It’s important to find each cat’s go-to. And while food is often effective, it’s important not to rule out other rewards, like petting or playtime.

2) Making sure to reward the right behavior — Start with a clear goal in mind and be sure to give the reward when the cat is engaging in the behavior. For example, if you are trying to reinforce a cat coming closer to the front of the condo, make sure you actually give the reward when the cat is engaging in that behavior. If you reward her when she’s already started taking steps toward the back you’re actually encouraging her to move in the wrong direction!

By the time I had stopped working with her over the course of several short sessions (less than 5 minutes each), Chloe had gone from a cat who was aggressive towards me to a cat that was happily letting me pet her.

OUTCOME: Every “shy” cat, including Chloe, found their forever home! There was also a paradigm shift for some of the staff as they realized that every interaction with a cat was an opportunity to teach that cat about humans — they could either leave a great impression or a negative one. Staff and volunteers were more likely to take a few extra seconds to leave a treat or give a pet, even when they were rushing around, and especially after a stressful encounter like a vet exam or transport.

TAKEAWAY: Socialization through positive reinforcement is a safe and relatively low-cost, low-time endeavor that can make a really big impact in the lives of shelter cats.

For more tips on how to enrich the lives of adoptable cats, check out our Cat Enrichment Video.


Annie Valuska | Animal Behavior Scientist
Annie Valuska, PhD, is a senior scientist on the Nestlé Purina Pet Behavior and Welfare Team. She has a PhD in Animal Behavior from the University of California, Davis. She’s been passionate about pets her entire life. Whether she’s at work, volunteering her time at a local shelter, or at home with her own furry friends, Annie is always excited to use her animal behavior expertise to make a real impact on pets’ lives.