How to Calm a Nervous Kitty

posted: 01/23/13
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Nine years ago, my husband and I adopted two kitties: Molly and Agnes. Agnes has never weighed more than 6 pounds (2.7 kilograms) and is what our vet calls a "snuffler." Because she started life as an alley cat, she has a virus in her lungs that makes her breathing sound labored. Agnes had a rough start, and when we opened the cat carrier for the first time to introduce her to her new home, she hissed at Molly, then spent two months hiding from us. For Agnes, the world was a scary place full of mean dogs, cruel people, and not enough food, but after living in our house she's come out of her shell.

A nervous kitty is often head-shy, meaning she will shy away if you try to pet her on the head. She'll also be prone to hiding, and you might notice her slinking -- walking with her legs bent so she's low to the ground. She might also twitch her ears or lower her tail with the very tip curved upward. Our nervous kitty grooms obsessively, and when she's agitated she will sometimes groom until she has bald spots on her back legs.

It's hard watching her feeling so scared! A little bit of hiding and nervousness is normal for any kitty in a new situation, but when nervousness persists for more than a few days it can be stressful for you and the cat. But you can help teach her that she's safe in your home and maybe even with company over time. It just takes some patience, a few training tricks, and a lot of love.

Knowing why a cat is nervous can help you sort out the best treatment. It can also help you manage your own expectations. A cat that's predisposed to skittishness might not ever become the cuddly kitty that you envisioned when you adopted her, and if you know this up front you won't be as likely to blame yourself if your cat doesn't make as much progress or doesn't open up as quickly as you want her to.

If you adopted a feral or wild cat, chances are she's going to be more nervous than a domesticated one, but nervousness and anxiety are not a breed-specific problem.

Just like people, there are all manner of reasons that your kitty could be nervous. Many nervous cats have experienced some kind of trauma like abuse or a dog attack. Others are just not socialized, so they aren't used to being around people and living in a home, especially if they were alley cats. They may be afraid of dogs, other cats, or even strange things like trash cans. It's all about familiarity and instincts. Unlike dogs, cats don't travel in a pack so when they feel threatened (even if it's just by you wanting a pat), they'll run and hide in a safe place.

In general, a nervous cat does best in a quiet home, but that doesn't mean you can't acclimate your kitty if you live somewhere noisy or have kids. What's important is that you give the cat a safe place to hide and that you be patient and work with her. In a more hectic environment, it can take a long time for your nervous kitty to mellow out and come out of her shell, but there are some ways to help her be more confident.

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Love and patience go a long way in making your nervous cat more comfortable in her new home, but you can also use training techniques and medications to help your kitty acclimate. I was fortunate enough to speak to Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant at Paws, Whiskers, & Claws Feline Hospital just outside of Atlanta, about techniques that can help. I wish I'd known her when we first adopted Agnes.

"With a new cat one of the best things that you can do is put her in a small, confined space, like a bathroom, where she can hide but you can also get to force a little bit of love on her," explains Johnson. You should have everything in this room that your kitty needs: food, water, litter, something cozy to sleep on, maybe even a scratching post and a toy or two. She could be in that space for a few days to a few weeks before she's ready to venture into the rest the house, so you want to make it comfortable for her.

Johnson says that young cats are socialized by the time they're 8 to 12 weeks old, so after that it's going to take some extra effort to acclimate a cat to living with you. If you're adopting an adult cat that's already been "shaped," she recommends using food rewards to bribe her to spend time with you. Give your cat food on a schedule, of course, but use something high-reward like cooked chicken as a treat when you're training. So, if the cat goes from having an arched back and twitching ears to sitting calmly, give her a little piece of chicken. If she takes a few steps towards you, give her a little bit more. You want her to associate you with the positive reward.

If you feel like training alone isn't doing enough for your nervous cat, there are some herbal remedies that you can try. Rescue Remedy herbal extracts for pets can help ease anxiety. You drop it into her water or apply onto her ears. Johnson also suggested Feeliway - a feline pheromone that makes cats feel comfortable in a strange place. You can spray Feeliway around the room or use it in a diffuser. Cats like the smell of lavender or honeysuckle essential oils, but don't put the oils on their skin, because they are toxic to cats if ingested.

There are also prescription medications that can help a nervous cat, but what will work really depends on the dynamics in your home -- dogs, other cats, kids -- and you should talk to your vet to see what's best.

When we adopted Agnes, it was just my husband and I in our apartment, but we did have people over frequently. It took years for her to gain the confidence to come out of hiding when guests were over. She is much braver when it's just the family at home and things are quiet, but now when folks come over she will march around and even try to get pettings from them after we've settled in to watch a movie.

Your cat is much more likely to make an appearance if she feels safe in the room, so if you want to encourage her to socialize a little, entertain in a room that is not sparsely furnished. She needs baskets and furniture to hide behind, so she feels safer exploring. You can use treats in this situation, as well. If your cat comes to the doorway to check things out, toss her a high reward treat like a small piece of chicken.

If you have certain guests who come over frequently, you may want to introduce your kitty to them in a one-on-one setting. Take her into a small bathroom, just as when you were teaching her to love you, and bring the guest. Don't push the cat too hard, but reward any relaxed behavior with high-value treats. It might take more than one introduction before your kitty acclimates, and you want to make sure that the friend is totally on board with your training plan.

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