How Can I Help a Terrified Kitty to Feel Safe?

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.

Scared cat hiding. Photo CC-BY-ND by Jon Ross

Scared cat hiding. Photo CC-BY-ND by Jon Ross

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.

~ Annie

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.

scaredy catBella: 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!

  • Lynn

    Have you tried leaving leaving some clothing you’ve been wearing throughout the day? leave a jumper in with her over night or day, Lay it out flat so she doesn’t thinks its going to jump at her, when your not in the room she can check it out and get used to your smell. Keep doing what you have been doing plus try this! It leaves your scent in the room after you have left. As long as the jumpers not been soiled if you don’t mind then put it back on so your scent goes on it again and may have hers on there too! Then place it back in with her. :)
    Hugs your doing great already by looking after her! xxxx

  • Gretchen

    Have you tried playing with her with a wand toy or something that doesn’t require you to be too close to her? Sometimes play can help kitties forget that they’re scared and help them come out of there shells. Maybe this is a better suggestion for further down the road though…

  • Barbara Jarrett

    Eye hugs! That eye thing that cats do when they feel comfortable with you. It’s a slow blink. That’s the only time at this point I’d look directly at her. Also, if you have a feather wand toy, try and play with her a couple times a day. All the other suggestions are all things I’ve used with my grandkittygirl, Beatrix. She’s made huge strides. Oh, just thought of this: Always let her know ahead of time that you’re coming in to her space. Don’t be too quiet coming up to the door, etc. Don’t want to startle her.

    Thank you for taking on a frightened kitty. I want to be able to foster cats at some point and I’ll take these kinds of cases.

  • Joanna

    Maybe try sitting on the floor instead of the chair while you’re doing something else (laptop, reading, etc).. being closer to her level. She might decide to come closer and check you out without having to try and jump up. Along with all the other wonderful suggestions. >^!^<

  • Dianne Douglas

    Leaving a radio in the room turned to a Classical music station has worked for me when my cats are stressed out or when I have a feral in a trap waiting to be spayed or neutered. After the surgery, I bring the feral back to my house and put them in their own room with the classical music on, and the ferals remain calm and relaxed until it’s time to release them.

    My cats all love Classical music and will lay down by the radio or stereo to listen to it. I’ve learned to appreciate it also because my cats like it so well. I’ve even bought a couple of CD’s of classical music. I now wake up to and go to sleep to classical music and my cats are right there by the radio listening to it. When I shut off the radio, they leave the room. I heard that jazz is also appealing to cats but I haven’t tried that since classical works so well for me.

    I’ve also tried the Feliway and it seemed to work, but I bought refills and put them in the heater and it smelled terrible. It smelled like the heater was burning up so I haven’t tried it since. I didn’t want to start a fire.

  • Adrianna Culver

    My cats often react well to recordings of cats purring. This one is nice . I agree that spending more time with your new friend will help. Just hang with her and let her dictate any interaction. Ignoring her will help her feel safe and convince her that you are not a predator.

  • Gail

    Listen to the Most Esteemed kitties and their Mama.
    The same thing happened to me when we had, what felt like the earthquake of all earthguakes in 2011. I awoke three days after the shakes, to 5 cats all asleep on my couch. They had come in through the cat door I had left open because my baby girl hadnt come back! (She actually didnt turn up until three weeks after the quake). One was my beautiful boy, two were juveniles cats under the age of 1 year, 1 was an older cat, and one was a kitten which the vet estimated to be no older than 9 weeks old. All of these cats, including my beautiful would have nothing to do with me.. get near them, they clawed, hissed and basically were so traumitised it wasnt funny. After 8 – 9 weeks of trying to find their homes and getting no where plus the use of fealiway I got them trusting me enough to be able to pick them up and get them to the vet to see if they had been chipped. I surprisingly, managed to get their trust and was able to rehouse the two junveniles plus the kitten, to fantastic places on farms where they had all the free reign of the place.. I still keep in touch with the people who took them all and they are doing well. The older boy and of course my boy are still with me and my beautiful baby girls turned up 3 weeks later in great health.. I to this day have no idea where she ended up, but they have to have been cat loving people. so what I am trying to say is…follow these kitty responses, like I did.. and you will be fine..

  • Amanda

    I think that all of the direction & advice that’s been given is great & I would urge you to follow it all with the added advice of keeping a schedule & journal. Sometimes we humans get discouraged because it seems there’s no progress. With a journal you can look back and see that there has been truly a lot of progress.

    I’ll add two suggestions that has helped with a kitten that just showed up in my garage one day & never left. I found it kind of strange that she would hiss & growl at me & my family but never had any inclination of leaving.

    I would go out into the garage in my sandles & wiggle my toes. She would become so interested in my toes that she forgot they were attached to me. Eventually she would start to sniff, then lick and now she bats at them. She never uses her claws which seems strange but she is always so gentle.

    Next I introduced a laser pointer. At first she didn’t know what to make of it but it wasn’t long before she was chasing it. When the play is over, I offer her some kitty treats so that the hunt cycle is completed.

    Now when I go out to the garage, she comes & begs for attention. She still won’t allow me to pick her up but if I sit on the floor, I’m allowed to pet her all day.

    She still loves the laser toy but seems more interested in a wand toy that I picked up on Amazon. It’s the neatest thing, I hope the link works -

    She will play with this toy for hours. My indoor cats love their’ s also.

    I wish you the best of luck & God Bless You for taking care of one of His creatures.

  • Catherine Murdoch

    As well as of instead of the Classical music, if you have a CD player you could try playing music that is supposed to be calming/soothing such as bush sounds e.g. rain falling, birds calling, wind in the trees etc. I can’t off the top of my head remember any titles but I own some discs of this genre myself and they might help. If you don’t own any try your local library. Also, when my cat Cindy came to live with me she was stressed and nervous too, and my vet told me if necessary they could try valium. I personally would try the Feliway and the Bach flowers first, but the option of valium is there, depending upon what you and your vet think is best for kitty. I also agree with the people who suggested just being near her but not attempting to touch her. I think that is an excellent idea. I did that with Cindy and it worked.

  • The Paws and Effect Gang

    Wow! You all have been giving such AMAZING advice and support. Thank you so much! We’re purring our hearts out with pride because we have such wonderful readers. <3 <3 <3

  • Bagheera

    This is very similar to the situation we are dealing with when it comes to Marley. She continues to be shy and she really does not like interacting with us felines. She LOVES the human, but we felines she does not like. She continues to warn us to go away.

    Jacey and I are determined to become furiends with her, though. Jacey knows she should not ambush Marley anymore, because it scares the poor girl. Now she will approach Marley and tap her gently. Marley does not like that too much, but she tolerates it.

    I am a little more determined than Jacey is to become furiends with Marley. Lately I have started to get closer to her, and last night I reached with one of my paws to try to tap her gently. She only growled quietly and didn’t get too agitated. I tried to build on that this morning, and actually went into her cage but she did not like it.

    We’ve gotten her to the point where she tolerates us, which is a big step forward. You will likely have to do the same with the feline you are trying to help. She is scared, shy, and she will likely initially be very unhappy with you. But as time goes on, she will become more accepting of you. And you will have to be like me and push things, but back down if she gets upset.

  • gaabi

    Time, just take it easy with her, let her hide when she get to know more about her surroundings
    she come out and she wont be scared. Just leave her be.

    • Sue Case

      All perfect ideas for a frightened cat-I’ve had a cat since she was a baby and she’s never let anyone hold her or SEE her besides me–ever! She loves the treats I’ve bought lately and although a new person couldn’t lure her out I thought maybe this foster cat might act friendlier after some great treats. Didn’t see that one mentioned here yet.

  • Dorothy

    I’m sure her family gave her up because it was the best they could do for her in their awful situation. I hope they are recovering and getting their lives back. I wonder, would it help for the kitty to have some contact with them? If possible? I realize that I may be giving kitty human emotions but it seems to me see may be mourning their loss. I’m sure the fire was very scary and then the shelter. I would feel like the entire world was untrustworthy. My other idea was that perhaps, if you can, sleep in the same room with her. Just reclining would make you less imposing and she might feel more comfortable. Good luck to you both. There is so much good advice and good will here that I’m sure you will see some progress.