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Last week, I got two kittens (SJ and JE) from a local shelter, a bonded male and female pair.

They were both very fearful at first, but I attempted to manage this by making sure they had their own room with all of their basic needs cared for: food, litter box, cat tree, heated bed -- and a large human bed to hide under. At first, they hid under the bed and one of them hissed at me when I approached, so I gave them space. They have been using the litter box, generally with no problem.

Eventually, through giving them treats and feeding them good food (I've been giving them high-quality wet food and boiling chicken for them), I've gotten them to come out of their shell a little bit. The male kitten has been much more adventurous and vocal and eats without issue. I've even gotten him to let me pet him a few times (though I haven't really tried picking him up) and to step out of the main room I have reserved for them for a little bit before he scurried back in. I'm not too worried about him.

The female kitten is very quiet (she almost never says anything), generally less-willing to try new things out, more likely to hide under the bed and less likely to approach me. She's also a little clumsier than her brother -- she's taken a few attempts to jump onto a high ledge, and she has a little trouble finding treats on the ground and keeping them in her mouth. She's also got a much more sensitive stomach and has had diarrhea after I gave them both new foods (which I have since cut back on). I still haven't been able to pet her, but I have been able to coax her out of her comfort zone a bit with treats and with playtime; she loves chasing little felt mice around the room.

Today, I went in for playtime with the kittens, and she discovered something that I hadn't -- the wand toy that I had been using had a plastic piece in it that she inadvertently pulled out, which made the toy start squeaking. This freaked both of them out, and she ran under the bed to hide, and I couldn't coax her back out with toys or treats, although five minutes later, her brother was fine and chasing other toys and eating dinner and behaving normally towards me. Meanwhile, the female kitten has gone deep under the bed and only stares unblinkingly back at me when I look at her or try to coax her out.

I have read other posts (like this one and this one) and I don't know much about these kittens' past aside from the fact that they are shelter animals that were found in a basement, but I'm a little worried about her, and I'm dreading taking them to the vet next week for an introductory visit. I'm happy to be patient and comforting to them both, and I accept that I may just have an especially skittish lady cat, but I also wanted to ask how much of this was normal and what I should prepare for in the future.

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    be sure your kitten get food,wet food is best for a scared kitten that might drink too little water. Apr 12, 2023 at 14:32

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A few general tips for skittish cats:

  • Don't look them directly in the eyes. Humans are a big exception in that they perceive eye contact as a positive social interaction. Almost all animals perceive it as a sign of aggression, so you should never stare an animal in the eyes. Instead deliberately do the "lazy cat blink" at them to communicate "I'm your friend and don't want to fight".
  • Let your cat approach you in her own time. You cannot force trust. If your cat wants to play with you or be pet by you, that's great. But if she doesn't want that, forcing yourself on her will not improve your relationship.
  • If a cat is spooked and hides away, staring at you with wide eyes, she's in "fight or flight" mode. In my experience any attempt at interacting with her (be it play, petting, talking to her or giving her treats) will only rile her up even more and possibly overload her senses. Instead you should stay very calm in the room and completely ignore her until she calms down on her own. That way she can learn that she doesn't have to fear you.

In general, when something spooks her, you should act as if nothing special happened. Keep calm yourself and give her some time to calm down.

The same is true for the vet visit. In another week she will hopefully gain some more trust in you. Yes, you have to put her through the uncomfortable experience of visiting the vet, but the less you act as if it's something bad, the faster she can calm down again. Some cats do act huffy for some hours or even days after such an experience. You should act as normal as always.

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In my experience, cats are usually very skittish animals so this is not too abnormal. However, to make your interactions with her go smoother, you should be very aware and knowledgeable of cat communication. First off, as a previous post stated I would never look her directly in the eyes, try looking past her or making quick glances. And another thing you could attempt to do and has been shown to actually work is to do a slow blink (The Slow Blink). This is the only time you should really be looking at your cat but start with eyes wide open and then SLOWLY close them and maybe even hold them closed for a few second before opening them up at least a little to see your cat's reaction. This can often times make cats more comfortable and relaxed around even strangers. And if your cat does the slow blink back at you, that's great! You ideally want her to do it back, it means she's calm and relaxed. Another thing to try is to gently reach your hand out for her to sniff. This should be done slowly and if she hisses at you, stop. We don't want to push her. But if she does hiss, keep your hand there and wait a bit, see if she comes to you. This will help get her used to your scent and because cats are curious creatures she will be drawn to sniff your hand. This close contact will help to show her that she can get close to you without anything bad happening. Just make sure your body is as far away as possible (or at least as far away as she will allow) to make her feel safer in approaching.

Another thing you want to be careful of is when you play with her. Fast sudden movements are great at encouraging play, but unfortunately they're also great at scaring cats. If her eyes go big along with her pupils, that could either mean she's interested in the play o you're scaring her. So you want to look at other body signs such as tail being tucked close to body, scooting backwards and deeper into her hiding spot (even if its as subtle as just leaning away from you) or her ears starting to flatten against her face. Those are all generally signs of fear in cats and a sign that you should stop playing (at least where she can see you, stop playing with the male is unfair to him cause she's the one scared of you) and that your relationship is not at that level of trust. Giving her treats and food is still a good idea though. Just try leaving the treats/food out where she has to leave hiding spot to get it. If she refuses to leave, try leaving the room, see if she's comfortable enough in coming out for food. But if she still refuses, then try pushing treats closer to her. But don't push them all way to her, this can freak her out as you now physically have to get closer when she's not ready, but it also allows you to judge her comfort zone by seeing how far away you can keep the treats and still have her move towards what she would see as the danger zone.

If you follow these steps, then hopefully she will start becoming comfortable enough that you can push her safe zone. But this has to be done in small, incremental steps so you don't freak her out. Just following those behavioral cues I told you about above should really be all you need. If she starts showing those behaviors, STOP. Take whatever you're doing away and instead try a smaller or safer alternative. Exhibiting some of those behaviors above is normal, after all she's still afraid of you. But you really want to look for hissing, trying to move away from you (especially if done with quick movements), fur bushing up, and ears ALL THE WAY back (some slight ear flattening is alright, but the farther back they go the more you should stop). Behaviors you should expect but still keep going (although at a slower, more relaxed pace) are eyes getting bigger and tail becoming tucked close to body.

One last concern I'd like to make is the vet visit. If you can get her into the carrier without any fight from her, that's great the vet shouldn't be a problem. However, I'm concerned that at this stage in your relationship, if you have to fight her into the carrier then that could be more damaging than good, especially if you have to invade her hiding spot to pull her out (you should NEVER do this! It might work for a cat who knows you well, but for a skittish cat like her, this hiding spot is her only safe zone and you're proving to her its not safe from the one thing she's scared of: you). Obviously she does need to see vet, but if she's otherwise healthy and you do think you might have to manhandle her into that carrier, than I'd postpone it for at least a couple of weeks and hopefully your relationship would've improved by then (or at the very least she starts leaving her hiding spot with you in the room so that you can easily scoop her up and drop her in the carrier).

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