I’m going to rely on Chapter 19 of Jackson Galaxy’s book Total Cat Mojo to answer the question in the title. Jackson calls timid cats “Wallflowers”. They are wallflowers because of their genetics, perhaps a lack of early years socialisation, threats in the environment or a combination of all these. This is a long page and I felt the need to provide my thoughts and a summary before I go into some detail about Jackson Galaxy’s approach to timid cats. This is because I don’t necessarily agree with everything he states. Nonetheless, his thoughts are very important because he’s a well respected cat behaviourist in America.
The basic technique that Jackson Galaxy employs is to enlarge a timid cat’s world by expanding their ‘challenge lines’ by which he means the boundaries beyond which they don’t normally go because they want to feel safe. You have to gently entice them out of their ‘caves’ and hiding places with patience. My thoughts are that there may be limitations in some households to this technique because in multi-cat households a timid cat may be “bullied” by a cat or cats which keeps the more fearful cat in a subdued state. You can’t fix this as long as you have the more dominant cat around him or her.
I feel that I also need to add my thoughts to this article which, as mentioned, is based almost exclusively on Jackson Galaxy’s thoughts. One point I want to make is that it may be better both for the cat owner and the timid cat to leave them as they are. If a timid cat is happy living with a quiet and reclusive person then the arrangement should not be disturbed. There is no automatic obligation to aspire to making a timid cat more confident. There are advantages to living with an unconfident cat and for the cat himself. One is that they are more inclined to stay inside the home if they have access to the outside and they’re more likely to be happy inside the home. This would suit a lot of people. Keeping a cat full-time inside the home suits certain types of cat personalities more than others. And certainly the more confident outgoing cat is less likely to feel comfortable when confined. I’m making a point about the necessity or otherwise of developing a domestic cat’s personality.
Cat challenge lines
People normally think of timid cats as being timid because of their personality. They have what Jackson Galaxy calls “challenge lines”. That is they tend to restrict their world to those places they consider safe and they like to revert to “caves” – places where they can hide.
Human challenge lines
He also refers to the need for cat owners to expand their personal challenge lines. I think what he’s saying here is that some cat owners can reinforce the timid behavioural characteristics of their cat by, for example, feeding them under their bed rather than gently, through techniques described by Jackson Galaxy, encouraging their cat to be less fearful and live a more whole life.
I think he is right about people. A lot of people live only half a life or less because they’re fearful. They never push the boundaries of their life and try things out, make mistakes and gradually expand their world. They live a safe life but a very restricted life. I’ve always thought it and this is not a criticism because it is perfectly normal, and indeed the world can be quite scary, but we owe it to ourselves to live as full a life as possible. We also owe it to ourselves as cat owners to allow our cat to live as full a life as possible within the context of the cat’s limitations because you can’t completely change a cat’s personality. You can simply do the best with your cat that that personality allows. Jackson Galaxy talks about challenge lines both in terms of the cat and the owner.
He likes to refer to detective work. He likes cat guardians to be as scientific as possible in finding out what is going on and you do this by observing your cat in finding out where he or she spends their time and deciding those areas where your cat feels safe. He says that you have to expand that safe area; enlarge it to the point where it’s as big as it can be. This might be the entire home if he is a full-time indoor cat and if she is an indoor/outdoor cat it could be outdoors in the backyard and beyond if it’s safe.
Jackson refers to hiding places as the “Unders”. He means places underneath objects such as under a bed where timid cats hide. You have to block these areas off bit by bit to stop your cat going into them. You don’t block them off from the front but from the back so you gradually restrict the size of the area to the point where it no longer exists. In parallel you provide what he describes as “Base Camp”.
Base camp is a very safe place for your cat where she’ll enjoy spending time if she’s timid and which contains all the smells with which she is familiar together with perches, tunnels and your scent. Then you expand base camp and enlarge her world.
Expanding challenge lines – Catification
As mentioned he refers a lot to “challenge lines”. These are the boundaries within which your timid cat lives. You need to expand these lines by, for example, feeding your cat beyond those lines. And you can “catify” – another Jackson Galaxy’s expression – the home which allows your cat to move around in comfort zones. “Catification” is making a home very pleasant for a domestic cat, which translates to lots of vertical spaces and a “Superhighway”. This is a construction in the home which allows a domestic cat to move around the home without putting a “paw on the ground”. This allows the cat to move in vertical spaces because he’s right in saying that cats are mentally attuned to moving vertically rather than just horizontally on the ground. Without wishing to be negative, I think very few people will build a true “Superhighway” and true catification means altering a home to the point which may be unacceptable to a lot of cat owners.
That’s not to say is not a good idea. It is, because we share our home with our cat and we treat a domestic cat is a member of the family and therefore the home should be designed equally for both cat and human but in very very rarely is.
Play – an important tool
Playing with your cat is one way of breaking those challenge lines. When you play with a cat they forget their fear and their timidness because their instincts take over. Play is a form of hunting and attacking an animal which is entirely instinctive and hardwired into their brains. So by playing with your cat you can significantly break down their timidness and it is best if you do it beyond their known challenge lines. It makes new areas of the home acceptable to them.
Strangers – Santa Claus Effect
Timid cats are often fearful of strangers and in this regard you can have visitors not ring the doorbell because we know that doorbells can frighten a lot of cats not only timid cats. They learn that the doorbell is a precursor to something horrible. It is troublesome if a visitor has to call ahead and then you open the door without them ringing the doorbell but he recommends it. Visitors should not attempt to interact with Wallflowers on their first visit. They should come into the home and do nothing. They can bring a present for your cat. He calls this the “Santa Claus Effect”. He also refers to techniques to meet a cat – the Michelangelo greeting – which I write about on another page you can access by clicking on this link.
Jackson has another technique to get a Wallflower cat to accept being petted by a stranger. He calls it “The Handoff”. The cat’s gardian teaches other people how to touch their cat i.e. what their cat enjoys and accepts. As the cat guardian pets her cat the new human i.e. stranger, should slowly and quietly “get closer while the cat is in a relaxed state, “eventually replacing the guardian’s hand with hers”.
Finally, sometimes a second cat can act as a “Social Bridge”. Sometimes shy cat follow the leader so when they see another cat behaving confidently they might be encouraged to do the same.
P.S. Jackson Galaxy has a language all of his own which he uses freely in describing how to become a great cat guardian. That’s why I have referred to some of his sayings in this article.