Socializing Cats

Birman Cats

I first fell in love with Birman cats ten years ago when I went to an acquaintances’ house to see her new cat, a gorgeous pure-bred Birman male named Darshan. Darshan sat regally on top of a very high cat tree that looked like it was made for a king, alongside another beautiful Birman female.

I was captivated by their beauty, and when I learned more about this breed, their folk lore, and their history, I promised myself my next cat would be a Birman. However, I put that thought in the back of my mind and eventually forgot about it.

How I Won the Heart of my Unsocialized Birman Cat

A few years later, my cat died, and because I always have a cat in my household, I went looking for a new cat companion almost immediately. I strongly believe in adopting pets from shelters or sanctuaries because of the enormous problem of over-population of cats and dogs. So, I started looking on the Pet Finders website, and was surprised to see a cat that looked almost identical to Darshan available at a local pet sanctuary. I immediately got on the phone and asked if she was still available. The owner told me the cat’s name was Leanne and was a Himalayan mix. However, when I went to see her, I could see she was a Birman.

Purebred Birmans are very expensive and can range from $500-$700. I was thrilled and immediately wanted to adopt her in spite of the fact she had a history of neglect and socialization issues-she was extremely shy and hid from people all of the time. It was almost impossible to find her when I came to meet her for the first time at the sanctuary, and no one had been able to bond with her after months of trying. The Director of the sanctuary warned that Leanne might never become socialized.

When I adopted Leanne, she was two, and now at six, she’s a fully socialized member of my household who loves my dog, Beardog, greets people who come by, and loves to sit on my lap and sleep with me at night. It took me many months to help coax her out of her shell, and she continued hiding for a long time. But now she has all the wonderful traits of Birman cats. They are gentle cats that generally like people and other animals, they are strong and healthy with few genetic problems, and they are charming and highly social.

These were my strategies to make Leanne love me and come out of the closet:

I bribed her with toys and play time – I found that if I brought her toys at the end of the day, she was willing to play with me (this was amazing because she absolutely refused to interact with anyone at the sanctuary). Every day when I arrived home from work, I would bring her some new interactive toy and sit on the floor with her for about an hour as she jumped around like any normal kitten who loves to play.

By far the best and most well-made toy I found was Da Bird. A friend who had recently adopted two cats recommended Da Bird, and it really brought her out of her shell. While relaxing and watching television, I would keep my unsocialized cat busy, literally for hours, jumping and doing amazing back flips I didn’t know were possible even for gymnastic felines. The way to my Birman’s heart was gymnastics!

I found some cat furniture she could call her own – All cats must scratch to exercise their muscles and sharpen their claws (please do not declaw your cat!), so you must provide adequate scratching posts – I found a great post online!

Cats, like dogs, kids, and most adults, are easily impressed with treats – Treats are a great way to teach your cat to come when you call. After they know there are treats in a bag, simply shake the bag and call, and you can usually get even unsocialized cats to show up. Get treats that are good for your cat!

Catnip makes cats happy – Catnip is to cats like chocolate is to humans. It makes their brains feel good and seems to provoke a positive response in felines. Buying toys with catnip, providing catnip plants, or fresh dried catnip, is a great way to show your unsocialized cat you have lots to offer and are a great provider.

In addition to cat toys, cat furniture, cat treats, and catnip, I also employed some important cat psychology to build trust in my skittish Birman. Money alone cannot buy the love of an unsocialized cat. Leanne was, in spite of all of the treats, toys, and bribes still hiding in the basement ceiling more often than I wanted. Here are tips for developing a healthy long-term relationship with a cat:

  • Never yell at a cat – it doesn’t work, especially if a cat is already skittish.
  • If you must discipline a feline, it is best to clap loudly when they are naughty so they associate an uncomfortable sound with their behavior rather than attribute discipline directly to you.
  • Never hit a cat – cats will never forgive any kind of physical discipline, and they will lose any trust you have worked hard to win.
  • Be patient and do not expect socialization to occur quickly – it took about 3 months before Leanne was comfortable walking around my room freely, and another month before she would move freely around my house. For a long time, she would run with her tail low from one hiding place to another, just coming out for play times and treats and then retreating to her safe hiding places.
  • Do not pull cats out of their hiding places – allow them to come out on their own when they are ready.
  • Once you have set up their litter box and sleeping and eating areas, do not change them! Cats hate change and when they are just becoming socialized, it is best not to make too many changes.
  • Brush your cat often, and show as much affection as they will tolerate. Leanne loved to be brushed even when she was still in her hiding phase. Grooming is a great way to bond with animals.

It’s true that many cats, such as ferals, cannot be socialized, and it isn’t a good idea to bring one home. But there are those cats that you find at a shelter that may be very shy, yet still have a chance at happy domestic life. If you have the patience and the time to work with such a cat, you can have wonderful companion. These tips will make all the difference.