Should I adopt a bold or timid shelter cat?

You could categorize cat personalities into two types:

  1. confident, bold and outgoing
  2. timid, shy and retiring

A confident cat is more likely to be a friendly cat as they are more outgoing. They are less fearful than shy cats. Bold cats are naturally more friendly. Of the purebred cats, Siamese are rated as friendly and sociable. Pedigree cats are said to be friendlier than non-pedigree cats.  Although this is a generalization and based on one study, as far as I am aware. Is the Sphynx more friendly than the Siamese?

Bold and Timid Cats

Bold and Timid Cats. Bold cat photo by Rocky Mountain Feline Rescue. This is a calico feral cat turned domestic and confident in that role. Timid cat by La Melodie. The descriptions of bold and timid come from the photographers’ captions.

Animal experts advise people who adopt from shelters to choose a bold, friendly cat. If you put your hand in the cage of a shelter cat, the kitten or cat might come up to your hand, sniff it and rub against it. Alternatively, she may remain at the rear of the cage and be fearful.

Or you can go to a room with a selection of cats and see which one comes to you. If a cat plays with you and is immediately friendly, the selection process is complete.

But is it? Are timid, shy cats to be consigned to the cat dustbin or garbage bin of life? Are all timid cats just waiting to be euthanised at cat shelters? Isn’t it fairer to adopt a timid cat and make that cat, through love, play and attention, less timid and more confident?

When an expert advises people to only adopt the confident cat it is like a consumer magazine or a website rating and reviewing products. The best cat is confident; the worst cat is timid. The best washing machine is Miele; the worst is Zanussi. The thing about cats is that they are living creatures and any “defects in manufacturing” can often be rectified over time through gently rehabilitation and socialisation. I am not saying it will be easy or that there will a guaranteed result. However, it is very satisfying to bring on a timid cat and she her flourish and develop into a more confident one.

Also a timid cat can actually be more suited to some people and some situations. Fearful cats are less likely to chase out of the house or get into trouble etc. They are more passive and possibly less demanding. This will certainly suit many people.

My advice is not to take the advice of so-called cat and animal experts all the time. Yes, most people will prefer the outgoing cat. But many people will prefer a shy little thing who needs a human hand to lead her to a more confident and contented life. There is a lot of pleasure in nurturing a cat along. There is peace of mind, too, in knowing that your timid cat is likely to be less demanding of space and adventure.

Also, it seems to me that once you have been granted the confidence of a shy cat, he/she is going to be very attached and loyal to you. They are “one cat” household cats.


Note: Black cats are meant to be more laid-back. Orange male cats are said to be more aggressive than black cats. I think orange cats are generally more confident.


How do you make a timid cat more confident? A timid cat/kitten is probably like that because of inadequate socialisation. This means the kitten, in early life, was not around people and household noises and activities etc. Most breeders will put their kittens in their own homes. People visit and there is the usual interaction with other pets and people. This makes cats relaxed and that equates to confidence in the human home and environs.

Common sense dictates that a shy cat needs to be brought on gently by plenty of play and interaction with his new owner and perhaps other pets. It is harder to socialise (at least to a certain extent) a cat later in life but not impossible. It is the same with feral cats. They can often be domesticated. They are an extreme example. A shy domestic cat should be much easier.

If a cat is shy because of prior bad experiences, then over the long term, a quiet, secure and peaceful environment with excellent food and no unexpected noises etc. should bring the cat out of her shell. Patience and acceptance is the byword.

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Should I adopt a bold or timid shelter cat? — 20 Comments

  1. Good advice Michael, timid or anxious cats tend to be passed by for adoption in favour of bold friendly cats, when given the chance of some love and patient care a timid cat would thrive and the adopter would be well rewarded with that cat’s love and trust.
    Most shy or anxious cats have had a bad experience, our Walter was the most nervous little kitten we’ve ever had, he was shaking when we brought himm away from the horrible home he lived in. It was wonderful to see him opening up and his real character appearing.
    But it’s no good anyone impatient who doesn’t understand cats adopting a timid cat and then punishing him if he doesn’t settle in straight away. Shy cats need much more time to adjust and to get to know someone new.
    Cats are just like us humans really, some of us outgoing, some of us shy, we all have different personalities.

  2. I would always choose the timid one and I know there are people who would. I made a comment yesterday about Molly being incredibly timid. She is opening up now and it’s more than wonderful to gain her trust. I don’t need her to like other people since I don’t have people over that much – I need her to be happy and satisfied and she seems to be getting there. I think alot of people would go for the confident cat, especially people who adopt a cat in a more consumer sort of way where they don’t want to put so much into the relationship themselves but still have a cat come for cuddles and generally be around. But people who want to put something in are more likely to want to help a shy cat. If cats were euthanised by the barrel where I live I would not even question it- I would go in and take the first few cats on the unwantable/less adoptable list and get them the hell out of there as a matter of principle. There are lots of people who would do similarly but the majority is still huge and wouldn’t I would guess. Also I am sure there are outgoing cats who get shy in a shelter. It’s the young ones who are curious and come to the front. Not the ones who had a home and a life and lost it. They may have been the most outgoing cats you can imagine but I think the loss of love and home would lead them to become very different in character. So you don’t even know if when you take a shy cat who is older (another nice helpful thing more people should consider- the older ones) then it might turn out to be quite the opposite in a short time once home with you. My Molly is shy. Even Red was shy of people he didn’t know in my flat. It suprised me actually. But he wasn’t interested in people except me. He was interested in other things and other cats and animals. You might think he was a shy one. Lilly is not shy – very outgoing and a black cat too. She sniffs whoever comes through the door and will go sit on them right away – no fear there, only curiosity. I believe Gigi will be similar as she grows up and I am almost certain Molly will be a quiet and shy cat if it’s not just me who is around her. The reward is enormous when she opens up and enjoys herself and asks for cuddle. But it’s not about reward and it’s not about what I get out of it, not at all. It’s about – as i said – my need for her to be happy. It’s a genuine need and I would suffer it she remained closed. She has such a wonderful character when she opens up too. It just goes to show that a couple of wrong experiences at a young age can have a lifelong lasting effect.

    I think you make them more confident through play obviously but I would say the main thing is that you always do things and approach and so on their terms. You let them come to you and welcome them. You don’t walk over and pick them up and cuddle them. You play with a wand toy until they come to you. If they come to you it’s important to drop what your doing and respond well to them I think. It’s that extra bit of effort that makes them realise you are there for them rather than they are there for you. Molly knows now that when I say don’t worry – she will be ok. Sometimes its just when I must step over her. I slow down to a stop and say ‘dont worry’ and slowly step over her. That was a big thing because for months she’d bolt. She knows when she headbutts she will get a familiar response – she knows how I will respond to her in different situations and I make a real point of being consistent. Even if I am busy or in a hurry I never let it make a mess of things with her. So I have become reliable to her and she is sweet as a button to me now in her very shy and unassuming way. She is Red’s little sister and has alot of his traits. One thing about Red was he was unassuming and also a bit shy. He was never a super cuddly guy unless half asleep on his back. Not a lap cat or anything. Molly has alot of Red’s qualities. I would never think less of a shy cat. I thought Red was the best cat ever – and he was shy. He wasn’t so much shy as just busy and not interested, so not used to being directly affectionate and so on. He used to show me he loved me in other ways more akin to the shy kind of cat.

    All cats deserve a chance – the shy ones don’t deserve more of a chance but they certainly don’t deserve less. Let’s hope humans begin to realise it is we who have alot to learn and appreciate and be thankful for when it comes to being accepted and befriended by a cat.

  3. Adapt a cat lol lol I take it that should be adopt?
    Yes timid cats deserve a chance but many don’t get one because most people want a confident friendly pet and that is sad.
    I’ve had timid rescue cats and all with time become settled and happy, the tip is to let them have time to adjust and learn to trust you.

  4. Selecting a kitten to adopt based upon its personality is by no means as simple or clear-cut as some “experts” would have us believe. There are in reality many facets of cat personality to consider. After ruling out cats displaying obvious forms of antisocial behavior, there are frequently no obvious “right” or “wrong” choices among the remaining candidates for adoption. For example, a shy cat is not necessarily a timid cat. And even a timid cat may often make an ideal companion.

    Robin, the male kitten we adopted from a farm, was an aloof, quiet, introverted kitten, although neither timid nor fearful. Not that Robin wasn’t sociable. He gratefully accepted attention when it was offered. He just didn’t demand it the way his extraverted brother Carl did. (As a solid black kitten, Robin was certainly more laid-back than his solid blue brother.) Now as an adult, Robin is mellow, even-tempered and easygoing. His personality is fascinatingly complex and has a real “depth” to it.

    My wife believes that an introverted cat may even offer many advantages over a more extraverted one. She points out that our other cat, Bobbie (a female), is very self-centered, even to the point of daring to steal treats from Robin. Nevertheless, Robin graciously tolerates Bobbie’s selfish moods. A more assertive cat would likely not be so magnanimous. Such a cat would also get along well with other non-feline pets. And in some households, a cat that does not demand constant attention may be a more appropriate choice. (Although that is certainly not a license to neglect a cat’s or other pet’s social and emotional needs!)

    • I think you split up ‘shy’ perfectly there into a few things the initial word might have been interpreted from. Aloof, timid, fearful, and so on. My cat Red could have been mistaken for shy actually, but it was more that he was aloof actually. And I totally agree with what is concluded from your comment that whichever type of character one might see in a cat to begin with (that might have come accross as shy in simplistic terms) – might be the basis for a very good natured cat in the future once he or she has grown up a bit – and that nice trait is far from shy, perhaps laid back and without need to be first or in front of other cats in the household. It’s not shy, it might well just be polite:)

    • I agree. I think what you are saying is you can’t simply choose a “confident” cat. The range of personalities is wide and complex and also timid cats can be better than confident cats as human companions.

  5. While visiting at The Cat Network the other day I observed a cat who was very athletic, adventurous, active– he was climbing up the brick wall in the front room of their shelter. Then he hung on by one paw to this little ledge under the table,just swinging there like a monkey from one limb. He was constantly on the go. My first instinct was to really wish I could bring him home. But I think he would be a real handful. Monty can be adventurous and I know he likes new experiences. But he doesn’t try to climb over our garden fence. He accepts it as a limit of how far he can go. It would be tougher to have a cat who will accept no limits on his freedom or mobility. I’d have to work a lot harder to keep him content and to keep him safe.
    Monty really is a very good cat, as I always tell him. He displays a good balance between timid and bold. He sometimes growls at people, but I figure he has a right to tell how he feels. At least he doesn’t always run and hide.
    I think the more outgoing cat could also be the more needy cat. Monty has that streak of independence and can be self entertaining. The most friendly cat may also not tolerate being left alone very well. There is also a difference between friendly and very physically active and inquisitive. The cat who is always into things could really be a fun cat to live with, but he would keep you on your toes.

    • I like your additional thoughts. Very good indeed. Monty is a nice balance. It is good for a cat to be a bit nervous and lack some confidence because it stops him/her getting into situations that can hurt or kill him/her. This is good for human and cat. It is also peace of mind for the human. I remember Helmi and Ken Flick talking about an F1 Chausie (jungle cat wild cat hybrid) they kept for a while. He was extremely confident and active and he was impossible to keep as a pet! Almost. The more active and confident, the more input the cat needs from the human. In short the more bold, the more demanding the cat becomes. Do you want that? Some people do and some don’t.

  6. As I’ve said before in comments, Tootsie my Maine Coon rescue cat, had a very discouraging description via Petfinder. Shy, needs patient person, etc. etc.

    I was okay with that. I’d pretty much made up my mind before I met her. But, I do remember thinking, when I saw her stretched out against the back wall of the enclosure something like “Oh, Tootsie, Beauty Cat, I just can’t leave you here to suffer”.

    It has been so gratifying to see how much she’s progressed since I adopted her. She was 6 yo at the time. I think she’s now a pretty happy cat, and she trusts me. I’ve always been a “cat person”, but creating that bond taught me so much more about cat behavior than I’d known before.

    • Oh, Tootsie, Beauty Cat, I just can’t leave you here to suffer

      You are a cat lover and a kind person and was drawn to helping a cat who needed help. You then got your reward in seeing her become more confident and bonding really nicely. Yours is a classic example of the good things about adopting a retiring and shy cat and going against the conventional advice of cat experts.

      • Michael, I remembered something I forgot to add, which I learned when I went to adopt Tootsie.

        She was one of two purebred Maine coons put into rescue by the same person, at the same time, from same household. (They weren’t related, but came from same “secondary” cattery who acquired them.) I didn’t see the ad for the other cat (not Tootsie). But I gather that he (Pinkerton) was a very outgoing boy cat, and was adopted almost immediately.

        On the other hand, Tootsie had been at rescue place for at least 4 months, and I was the first and only person who had shown any interest in adopting her.

        • Thanks for this VG. It seems visitors to the shelter did not recognise the qualities Tootsie had. Perhaps she was so fearful (as the picture indicates) and she didn’t present herself to maximum advantage, quite the opposite in fact, because looking at her now a person would have been a fool not to have adopted her from the shelter.

          • The shelter place was not open for visiting- Cats were only shown in the rather small area with about max 12 cages they had a local PetSmart or whatever it’s called. Some lived there (according to the number of cages), but others were brought in from shelter if someone was interested in adoption. I don’t know if the Maine coon boy lived in one of the cages, so someone saw him, or if someone saw the ad on petfinder. As I didn’t see the petfinder ad for the boy Maine coon I don’t know how he was described.

            But, Tootsie was brought from shelter to PetSmart place so I could visit her. She certainly was not the type of cat that they would have put in one of the public cages in their viewing area. She was totally one scared kitty when I met her in person. Flinched at every sound, etc. So, maybe another person who “met” her would not have adopted her. I just knew she and I would be okay.

            • Reading this comment, I think of all the less attractive cats who are shy and scared who end up being euthanised. It took someone like you VG (enlightened) to realise that Tootsie would be fine with you. Some scared cats will be aggressively defensive and deemed unsuitable for a human companion! Despite the fact that the reason why they are scared is because they are in cages in shelters.

              I just wonder how common mis-assessment of a cat’s character at a shelter is.

              • Late in the thread, but another addition- the unflattering description of Tootsie posted by the rescue place actually came from the person who gave her up for adoption, and the rescue place just repeated it. So sad!

                Maybe the shelter place felt they had to give “due warning”, because shelter does take cats back if they have been adopted, but the new “owner” finds the cat unsatisfactory for some reason.

                But, as we’ve discussed in the past, some places that offer cats for adoption actually make it very difficult, one way or another, for the cats to be adopted.

                Maybe it’s time to revisit that topic.

  7. Look into the eyes and adopt the one that speaks to your heart. It may be shy or it may be friendly. If you listen to what your heart is telling you then you’ll make the right decision.

  8. Our Jozef chose us, he was one of seven kittens and the only black and white one, the rest were ginger and we’d have loved a ginger, but Jozef the tiniest toddled across to us, so the decision was made.

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