One of my cats grew up in a hoarding situation, so she wasn't well socialized with people when she was young (she's excellently socialized with other cats, however!). Next month will be her 6 year anniversary with us, and just this past year she's started letting people other than myself and my husband pet her. The Siamese Cat Rescue gave us a lot of advice with her, and other info I've pulled from a few behavioral books (Understanding Cat Behavior, by Roger Tabor and Starting from Scratch by Pam Johnson-Bennett).
When we first got Juliet, I was frustrated by the lack of information (the Johnson-Bennett reference is about acclimating your cat to strangers, and Tabor is general "how your cat thinks" stuff that then has to be applied), so I'm writing this to be complete, as if you just brought her into your home. Some things your cat may not need since she's lived in your house for a year.
Build Her Confidence in the Environment
The basic idea in this section is to create a home where she feels comfortable, happy, and relaxed.
- Build cat highways through your home. Your cat should be able to move around most of your home without walking on the floor if she wants to. You can use wall shelves, cat trees, bookcases, and other sturdy furniture to accomplish this. The goal is to prevent her from becoming accidentally cornered (a source of stress) by you, other household members, or guests. Jackson Galaxy's Catification pages are a good source of ideas.
- Build a few perches in rooms you frequent with a good views. Try a couple of different things until you figure out what she likes, since some cats like to hide (in a box, behind an artificial plant, etc) and some like to be in the open. Other cats want to hang out up high, while some prefer to be close to the ground. There should be somewhere that she wants to be in rooms where you are.
- Give her a quiet place away from the household noise. If you have a busy family, make sure there's a quiet room (closet, etc) where she can easily escape to get away if she gets overwhelmed. She grew up alone without much interaction from anyone, and that may be "comfortable" for her.
- Address any conflicts with other pets in the house. If you have other pets (or small children) who may be harassing her, those conflicts MUST be addressed so that she can relax.
Build Her Confidence in You
The basic idea in this section is to make her become accustomed to you, and (eventually) associate you with good things.
- Talk to your cat. It seems funny at first to talk to your cats (there's a stigma against the "crazy cat lady/gent"), but getting
your cat used to you making noise without harming her is a huge first
step. The rescue often suggests simply sitting in the same room as a
new cat and reading aloud (anything) to get her used to the sound of
- Learn how to read/respond to her body language. If
you're petting her and she gets overstimulated, she'll start to lash
her tail. That's cat language for "I've had enough, please stop". If
you respect her signals, she'll feel better in the future because she
won't associate petting with being overstimulated and uncomfortable.
- Establish a consistent daily routine. If she knows when to expect food and play time, she won't be anxious wondering if she'll have the
things she needs.
- Do not punish bad behaviors. There's a high
chance that she'll associate those punishments with you and not with
the bad behavior.
- Establish regular play times with interactive
toys. Wand toys like Da Bird are an excellent way to get
exercise (endorphins!), use the hunting instincts/aggression on an
appropriate object (so fewer bad behaviors to frustrate you).
- If you free feed, switch to meal feeding. Meal feeding reinforces the connection that you are the source of food (the good stuff!), and can help start a positive bond. We also had a rule that once we put the food down, our cat had to touch our hand before she could eat (she was REALLY SKITTISH). We didn't chase her down and force ourselves on her, though. We would just sit there with our hand hovering over the food bowl until she gave it a touch. For a long time it was just a darting touch, but now she jumps on the bed to yell at us and headbutt us like everyone else when it's meal time and we're trying to sleep in.
- Again, don't force her to accept your affection. Cats are territorial, and if you're in her space insisting on touching her, that's very threatening! You should always offer your hand to be clear that you'll pet her, but let her take the last 6 inches or so toward you herself. If she just stares at you and doesn't want affection, then try again later. One good sign that she would be receptive to attention at the moment is if she looks at you and raises her tail (or has it raised). That's a friendly welcome signal among cats.
- Get down on her level. You're HUGE compared to her, and that can be very scary! If you lay down on the floor (or give her perches at your eye level), that can build her confidence since you're less scary.