Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I am a cat foster for a local animal shelter. I recently took in a beautiful and terrified female cat. Her owners were forced to surrender her to the shelter after a house fire that destroyed their home.
She did not do well at the shelter; she was overwhelmed and frightened. We pulled her for foster two days after she arrived. Now have her in her own room in our home, completely isolated from our “resident” pets. I have been spending time in the room with her, for short periods 10 minutes or so, ever since we brought her home. I sit on a chair in the room and she sits on a bookshelf about 5 feet away from me. She gets visibly scared when I stand to leave, shift positions, etc. When I first come in the room she begins breathing heavily and shakes a little. I sit in the chair and let her watch me, I have not tried to have any physical contact with her at all because of her apparent fear.
Is there anything else I can do to help her feel safe and relax? The ultimate goal is to have her ready for adoption, there is no time period for this so I quite literally have all of the time in the world to help her.
Siouxsie: Oh, purrs and blessings to you for being a foster home for kitties in need! It’s so hard for a cat that’s been incredibly traumatized by losing her home, losing her family, and then ending up in the shelter.
Thomas: Kitties can get post-traumatic stress disorder-type issues in response to situations like these. Right now she’s so keyed up because her world has been turned upside down and everything triggers her fear.
Bella: We’re so glad you wrote to us, because we’ve got some ideas for you!
Siouxsie: First, we’d recommend getting a Feliway Comfort Zone diffuser (you can get them at pet stores, vets’ offices and online pet supply sites) and installing it in your foster kitty’s room. The “happy cat” pheromone is really helpful for reducing stress.
Thomas: Yes, it is marketed for territorial peeing, but honestly — some of us kitties react to stress by being scared and hiding! When I first moved into Mama’s house. I was a very scared and traumatized cat, too, and the Feliway really helped me to come out of my shell.
Bella: We like the fact that you’re spending time in the room with this cat. That’s a really good idea. But let’s add something to the mix. Why not hang out in there for a while — maybe an hour or so at a time — and read or watch TV or listen to an audio book?
Siouxsie: If you have to work and you have a laptop computer, bring it into the room with you and do your thing there. Just by being in the room and going about your business (and ignoring the cat), you’ll get her used to your presence. And the more time you spend in there, the less freaked out she’ll be by your movements.
Thomas: If you want to, you could even read to her so she gets used to the sound of your voice.
Bella: Another important thing: don’t look directly at her.
Siouxsie: In cat language, a direct look or stare is a gesture of confrontation. If you do feel the need to observe her, do so with occasional sideways glances.
Bella: And here’s another really cool idea! Mama volunteered at an animal shelter with a wonderful woman named Sara Goldenthal, who developed a program to help cats just like your frightened foster.
Siouxsie: Sara’s program involved using a flower essence called Bach Rescue Remedy and a method of therapeutic touch, and it did wonders for cats that had languished in the shelter for years because they were thought to be too feral or scared to adopt out.
Thomas: The whole idea behind the flower essence program is to be gentle and non-invasive. Flower essences work on an energy level, and the effect they have is truly amazing.
Bella: Sara has made the details of her program available to shelters all over the world by offering it as a Kindle download called No More Scaredy Cat. It’s an easy and quick read, and it shows just how simple it can be to implement this program in any shelter or foster care situation.
Siouxsie: So, Annie, a cat as traumatized as your foster girl may take quite a while to come around, and it sounds like you’re ready to be in it for the long haul.
Thomas: But if you can spend decent chunks of time in the room being present but not actively watching her, you may be surprised that some big, positive changes could happen.
Bella: Of course, on the day this cat finally does decide to get close to you or hop up in your lap, resist the urge to reach out to her. Let her approach you. She’ll let you know when she’s ready for physical contact.
Siouxsie: Don’t lose heart if she takes a step (or more) backwards from time to time. Healing from trauma is a constant process, and it’s natural for a traumatized being to regress as well as to progress.
Thomas: We trust that it’s all going to end well for your sweet foster kitty and for you. Please write back and let us know how things are going. We’d love to hear from you.
Bella: How about you, dear readers? Do you have any other ideas for Annie and her fearful foster kitty? Please share them in the comments!