Intro: Ginny S asked this question in a comment. She starts by describing socialisation.
Cats need to be socialised to integrate with people and other animals. If this is missed at the best period of 3-9 weeks of age a cat may not necessarily get over its innate instinct to fear us and avoid us.
Poorly socialized cats may be difficult (aggressive towards) both people and cats or other animals. This is relatively rare in my experience and a decent environment, good food and warmth will satisfy a domestic cat resulting in a relaxed cat provided health is not an issue either.
I got my cat when he was 6 years old. He was already aggressive towards people and other animals, but as I am his food-giver, he seems to like me okay.
A few years ago we moved in with my daughter’s home where we share a room & bath. This has been very stressful for him since he feels threatened by their 3 young children, another cat and a dog.
He’s gradually gotten a bit better, but the children are afraid of him still. He has diabetes controlled by diet and is otherwise very healthy.
He stayed at the vet for a week when I was on vacation and they reported he scratched every one of their staff during that time. They wore welding gloves to handle him.
How do I socialize him at this late stage? He usually gets along with those who “show no fear”, but it has to be genuine! Food seems to be his only motivator. I welcome suggestions.
The placing of your cat, who you say lacks proper socialisation, with strangers predictably caused him to be defensively aggressive. It is a worse case scenario for a cat like that.
The first point to make is that there is very little information on the internet or in books about how to socialise an adult cat – it is all about kittens. It has been argued that unsocialised cats are in effect wild cats depending on the extent of the lack of socialisation. It is essentially true.
The “default personality” of a newborn kitten is that of a feral cat. That is the argument. You change that to a domesticated cat through getting the kitten used to being around people and other animals so he learns they are not to be feared, in fact the opposite — it is socialisation which makes the cat domesticated.
The process of socialisation of an adult cat is the same as the socialisation of a kitten only it takes much longer, is likely to be less successful and certain techniques probably have to be employed to make it work.
Some cats may be socialised but have had a bad experience and are fearful under certain circumstances and of course some cats are naturally more timid. So, you can’t necessarily presume that an adult cat is unsocialised. Also there are degrees of socialisation.
The lack of information about socialising adult cats indicates that “experts” possibly don’t believe it is possible and therefore it is not worth writing about.
My view (and of most people, I believe) is that it is possible to socialise an adult cat but he/she will not end up being as well socialised as a kitten socialised during the sensitive period when it works most effectively.
Socialising an adult cat takes a lot of patience and sensitivity. Nothing can be forced. Unsocialised cats will be fearful when with people and animals and find a place to hide to relieve that fear. If forced to be in the company of strangers he/she may become aggressive.
A place to hide is important and/or a high place to feel more secure. If hiding feels good for an unsocialised cat then a person has to find something else that feels equally good or better while at the same time desensitising the cat to the stimulus that makes him fearful (people).
To desensitise a cat you have to gradually expose the cat to the thing that frightens him in a controlled way. This is socialisation really. He has to learn that the things that make him nervous aren’t dangerous.
Sarah Hartwell recommends a kittening pen which is placed in the corner of a room with the top and three sides covered with a blanket (creating a safe and secure place).
In order for the cat to relate to the pen as a pleasant place to be (a positive experience) he/she should be given favorite foods in the pen. The pen should become a relaxing and secure place.
Once that initial phase has been established the cat can be exposed to the experiences that makes him nervous while he is in the pen. This is desensitisation but it shouldn’t be forced. The things that make him nervous should be at a distance.
A stranger could visit the home while he is in the pen. The stranger behaves quitely and gives the cat a favorite treat. This is a way of changing the cat’s perceptions from fear of unknown persons to perceiving them as non-threatening and friendly – a lack of danger and therefore no need to hide or be aggressively defensive.
Patience as opposed to forcing the issue is a key element in the process. Forcing the cat to interact just makes the cat worse. After a while the cat can interact with strangers in the room rather than from a secure den.
Food is a good positive reinforcer. Cats respond well to treats and attach the pleasure of a food treat to the person thereby removing the fear. Food treats are used as a positive reinforcer in cat training.
The commercial companies promote products such as Feliway an artificial cat pheromone to help calm cats in multicat homes. It may work for some cats and it may ease the process of adult cat socialisation.
Another product to calm a cat is the human product: Bach Rescue Remedy. Adding some drops in water but check with your vet first although this has been frequently recommended on the internet.
The conclusion is that it is possible to socialise an adult cat to a certain extent with patience and gentleness but I would doubt if the end result will be as good as socialisation a cat at the right time.
Associated: Taming wild feral cats and kittens.