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Cat Town Shares How to Help Shy and Fearful Cats

Kitty Corner

Cat Town’s claim to fame is opening the first cat cafe in the United States — but that is just the tip of the iceberg. This little organization has an outsized impact on animal rescue in Oakland and across the nation by focusing on the populations of shelter cats who are least likely to receive help.

Cat Town’s executive director and founder, Ann Dunn, started Cat Town while volunteering at Oakland Animal Services. There, she saw cats reacting to their surroundings with either confidence or fear, and being judged by that reaction. At the time, the common belief was that the cats who would cower or hiss in a shelter cage were unwanted and unadoptable. Dunn created Cat Town in 2011 as a cage-free alternative for cats who become too stressed in a cage to show potential adopters their true personalities. “Getting those cats out of their cages and into foster homes let us learn who they really were — mostly shy and sensitive souls or scared kittens who needed gentle encouragement to overcome their fear,” says Dunn.

This cage-free approach took a deeper dive when Dunn joined forces with Adam Myatt, the Cat Man of West Oakland, to launch the nation’s first cat cafe in 2014. The new adoption center not only helped reduce the euthanasia rate for Oakland’s cats by 70 percent, it offered new insight on helping fearful kittens deemed too old to socialize by most animal shelter standards. In this open space, youngsters can watch more confident cats interact with people and quickly begin to mimic their older role models, leading to dramatic transformations. With a little time, the cats who appeared fearful in a cage reveal hidden confidence, and teach the new batch of kittens to trust humans. “It’s like Miracle Grow,” says Dunn.

Cat Town’s approach has become a blueprint for cat cafes across the country and beyond, and they’ve even begun hosting rescue workers from all over the nation to demonstrate how to intervene for cats who struggle in a shelter setting. “When you see cats shutting down or becoming aggressive in a cage, and you don’t give them a chance to show who they are on the outside, you’ll never know who they really were,” says Dunn. “By giving these cats a second chance to show us who they are, we learn so much about how we can do more for them.”

If you want to help a scaredy cat of your own, it just takes a little extra encouragement.

First, don’t judge a book by its cover. The cats who often struggle most to show well in a cage are, in fact, surrendered from homes. These cats are often angry, or traumatized, from losing all that was familiar. They don’t understand their new situation. But they can make great companions, because they’ve already learned how to be part of a family.

Next, consider adopting two cats instead of one. Fearful cats do best in pairs, so adopting two cats will let one teach the other to be braver day by day and take some pressure off of you.

Third, if you find your new cat companion is hiding, don’t force them out — cats need to feel safe to build trust, and hiding helps them feel safe. Instead, get down to their level. Try sitting on the floor and reading to them — with some patience, they’ll get curious about you and come explore.

Finally, try treats! Luring cats on their own terms with high-value treats is a great way to build trust. Once they associate you with food they find irresistible, they’ll understand you’re their new best friend. Helping shy and fearful cats takes a little more patience than bringing home a confident cat, but you’ll be rewarded with a deep bond as you celebrate their milestones in building courage.

You can visit Cat Town to meet half of the adoptable cats (the other half are in foster care). Cat Town is open Wednesday through Sunday, and partner RAWR Coffee Bar serves up one of the best lattes in the city. It’s $10 to visit the adoptable cats for an hour, and every penny goes toward the mission to transform cat rescue, but if you are interested in adoption, entry is free. Make a reservation and learn about becoming a foster or volunteer at

Quinn White is development director for Cat Town and lives in Berkeley with her two cats, Phoenix and Peanut, and her husband. When she’s not working at Cat Town, she enjoys listening to podcasts, cooking, and dancing in her kitchen. 

ALICE, a tabby, at the top; MISTER, below, and SUZY, a tortie.

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Main article photo by: Courtesy Cat Town