How to Help Nervous Cats

nervous_cat

While most cats are initially wary of unfamiliar noises, people or events, they eventually adapt as they get used to the stimulus. Nervous cats remain anxious. A nervous cat is in a constant state of anxiety. This level of stress can lead to physical illness, especially lower urinary tract disease. Helping your cat overcome her nervousness will not only make her more confident and comfortable, it will also improve her health. Unfortunately, working with nervous cats can be challenging, as cats may express anxiety through aggression.

What makes a cat nervous?

A cat’s personality is shaped by genetics, environment and early life experience. Some cats are naturally more fearful than others. The cat’s genetic make up predisposes her to be cautious. This can be seen especially in feral cats.

Lack of early socialization also contributes to fearfulness in cats. Kittens who have been frequently handled by humans tend to be more confident as they grow up. Kittens who haven’t been socialized before the age of 8 weeks may take longer to acclimate to living with humans, and they may remain fearful.

If the cat had a frightening experience in the past, it will try to avoid it from happening again.

How to help nervous cats

Helping a nervous cat gain confidence requires patience and persistence on the guardian’s part. While it is tempting to reassure the cat when she’s nervous, this merely reinforces the timid behavior. Use positive rewards for calm behavior instead.

Remain calm, and don’t make the cat the focus of the household. Cats are sensitive to the energy in a home, and the tension created by cat guardians tip toeing around the house and speaking in hushed voices so as not to scare the cat will only increase the cat’s anxiety levels. Extracting the cat out of hiding places only serves to increase the cat’s anxiety.

Interactive play can be a great way to bring timid cats out of their shell. Structured play time, 10-15 minutes twice a day, using fishing pole type toys, are a great way to build confidence for the cat and to enhance the bond between cat and human.

Use food treats to create positive associations for the nervous cat. Treats can encourage your cat to explore new areas of the home, or to spend time in the same space with you. Offering treats directly from your hand may increase the bond between you and your cat. Be careful when using treats so you don’t inadvertently reward timid behavior.

Natural remedies to help nervous cats

Synthetic pheromone plug ins such as the Feliway Comfort Zone can help create a sense of safety and familiarity in the home. Natural remedies such as Rescue Remedy or Spirit Essences Stress Stopper can also help.

Enlist the help of a feline behaviorist

In extreme cases, you may want to enlist the help of a feline behaviorist. A behaviorist can evaluate your unique situation and provide strategies to help your cat become less nervous.

This article was previously published on Answers.com and is republished with permission.

22 Comments on How to Help Nervous Cats

  1. anastasia
    March 3, 2014 at 2:17 pm (5 years ago)

    my cat is not nervous as described in the article, he does not hide, and is not aggressive. Instead, he jumps when i pet him, will not eat while i am not home, and doesn’t like being held, unless he lays on my chest, at his discretion. He also hates the cat carrier, and the car. He literally broke the carrier on his way to the vet, to get fixed. he does slightly better, and doesn’t cry or moan, on the lap of another passenger. ( in this case, he welcomes the lap). I also admit to bringing him to my in-laws, for extended or over night visits, since he will not eat while i am gone. But when it is time to leave, he hides, I think a combination of his “mate” now lives there, and the car ride. (I rescued “Mia” a female that I had spayed, and kept, until I found a good home. even though both cats are fixed, they still had “mating activities” if you know what I mean) I couldn’t keep her because in addition to the financial part, they also played very rough, and loud, leading me to be unsure if this was play or aggression). When Mia was at home he , well, neither one would pay any attention, or allow petting, but since the separation, he approaches me for petting, like he did before I brought Mia home. he loves to be brushed, very playful, and likes to chew and dig,( which i find sort of weird, the chewing and digging of and under the couch and rug) but thats my baby! He also hides his toys under the area rug, and digs them out later. I don’t know much about his parents, but that i think mom was indoor/outdoor cat. I’m fairly sure dad was feral. I also think he was adopted out too early. He was very small and eyes were still blue. We weren’t even yet able to tell he was male, so he ended up with a female name”Zoe”. During his first few weeks home, he used to climb to the highest spot, and cry, I think for his mom. As he got older, I would not be able to find him, and then discover he was lounging on the curtain rod! He still likes the high points, but not much more curtain climbing, as he is around 6 years old now. Is there anything I can do to help him feel less anxious and jumpy and more comfortable? Mia seems to be an independant cat who doesn’t really like being held, petted, brushed, but I pulled her from an abusive situation, ans she is still pretty young. She is in a loving home, and loves play time and my In-laws arent real concerned to change her non affectionate nature, so I feel like she is right where she needs to be. My concern is Zoe. He approaches me, and rubs nis face on my foot, knee, hand etc, he even puts his paws on my leg to get my attention, but as soon as I accept and reach out and touch him, he jumps. He dosen’t run away, but he definately gets startled. Every time. Any advice?

    Reply
    • Anne Springer
      March 3, 2014 at 3:54 pm (5 years ago)

      I would also recommend taking him to a vet for a check up. Make sure there are no issues with his health, and eyesight especially.

      Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 3, 2014 at 3:22 pm (5 years ago)

      You’re describing a pretty complex situation there, Anastasia. If you’ve already used all the suggestions offered in the article, and nothing seems to work for you, I would recommend working with a feline behaviorist.

      Reply
  2. Anne Springer
    March 3, 2014 at 2:33 pm (5 years ago)

    I adopted a special needs cat from the streets in ’08. She was abused & abandoned. She’s a very smart and gentle sweetheart, but emotionally fragile. She always hides if we have someone over. We make sure she has access to a “safe” space (such as basement or rafters), because otherwise she gets very anxious and panics. Things escalated in ’12 when she mysteriously hurt her leg one night. I found her the next morning on the floor, and she was freaking out, like there were a million ants crawling all over it! She became scared of everything, including her beloved toys and especially visiting the front end of the apartment (where the injury occurred). The choice was to drug her with psych meds (which I don’t believe in), or try something new with my Reiki/Crystal Healing knowledge. I make gem trees for a business, and wanted to see if their energies could help her. I made her 3 trees with 3 different crystals, for each aspect of the problem. I placed 2 of them where the most problems occurred, and the 3rd where she rested. I could not believe the change in her within a couple of days! She returned to not only playing with her toys, but playing with them in the front half of the apartment! I made her an Andean Opal pet collar soon after, before our brief move in with my fiance’s parents. She had never met them, but was immediately at ease! She would allow them to pet her tummy even! Crystals are so much more effective than any of the pheremone and supplement products on the market. I swear by crystal healing for cats! It is my dream, and goal, in the future to make a business out this concept, so I can help other cats in need that don’t respond to traditional remedies.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 3, 2014 at 3:21 pm (5 years ago)

      As a Reiki practitioner, I have seen success with Reiki for cats with behavior problems, and I don’t doubt that crystal healing can also make a difference. The pheromone products seem to work for some but not others. I’ve found that flower essences, especially the Spirit Essences line developed by Jackson Galaxy, can be very effective as well. I’d love to learn more about crystal healing for cats.

      Reply
      • Anne Springer
        March 3, 2014 at 3:49 pm (5 years ago)

        Do you have any experience with crystal healing? There are a couple of books specifially on healing for animals, but I don’t recommend them, the information isn’t really that correct. I choose mine first by referring to crystal books, then using intuition/Reiki to find the right fit. The animal will let you know if they like it, or they really don’t like it. Some will want to rub up on them, or sit on them. If the animal has a positive reaction to it, it can be worn around the neck on a collar, or applied to a specific area on the body. Otherwise I don’t recommend trying it, for some will get aggressive! I haven’t tried Spirit Essences yet, but definitely believe in it, since I’ve studied aromatherapy.

        Reply
        • Ingrid
          March 3, 2014 at 4:02 pm (5 years ago)

          Thanks, Anne. I have some books (on crystal healing in general, not specifically for animals) and I’ve experimented with using my intuition. I’ll definitely do more research.

          Spirit Essences are actually flower essences, not aromatherapy.

          Reply
          • Anne Springer
            March 3, 2014 at 4:18 pm (5 years ago)

            Good luck! Let me know if you want to learn more!

            Flower Essences have scent, like aromatherapy, that was my comparison. I’m not sure how related it is, but my cat really enjoyed helping me with the little herb garden I had a few years ago. She was very reactive to the different plants, namely Rosemary. She didn’t chew on them, but would brush up against them and mark them.

            I wanted to throw out to everyone too, who wants to try or is using either Spirit Essences or another form of remedy. You have to work with the animal and re-train them as you use it, and not just give it to them and assume the problem behaviour goes away. Its a tool for a long term solution, if that makes sense. No solution is a miracle worker on its own.

          • Ingrid
            March 3, 2014 at 4:33 pm (5 years ago)

            Actually, flower essences don’t have a scent (aside from the preservative, usually alcohol). They’re simply highly diluted essences of the flower. I love that your cat “helped” you with your herb garden!

            And I completely agree that most of these holistic modalities, when used for behavior problems, work best when used in conjunction with behavioral modification. While miracles do happen, they’re not the norm. 🙂

          • Anne Springer
            March 4, 2014 at 3:56 pm (5 years ago)

            Ingrid, I forgot to ask you. Do they use Gem Essence in along with Flower Essence? I was thinking of working with Gem Essences, and was wondering how animals would react to it.

          • Ingrid
            March 4, 2014 at 4:15 pm (5 years ago)

            They’re strictly flower essences, Anne. If you’ve found that animals respond to crystal healing, I don’t see why they wouldn’t respond to gem essences.

  3. Marlene
    March 1, 2014 at 12:45 pm (5 years ago)

    Hello: I fully support Ingrid and her ideas about using flower essences.
    I have used flower essences for my cat when he was adjusting to two new
    kittens that I brought home to him. He was unfortuntely trying to claim
    territory by peeing around the house and growling and hissing at them.
    Now after using the flower essences, He is a new changed kitty. He loves
    these cats. It took him along time to adjust to them before I used the
    flower essences. He now licks them and kisses them as they are his new
    sons. My husband and I use them I have used flower essences since the 80’s.
    Many blessings to your Ingrid and your wonderful cats sons Marlene

    Reply
  4. Marg
    February 27, 2014 at 5:00 pm (5 years ago)

    Miss Gracie is a very nervous girl. I’m sure that both of her urinary tract infections have been a direct result of this. She is scared of the wind, scared of noise, scared of change, scared of strangers … she is even frightened when my cousin (who she knows really well) comes to our front door in his “office” clothes instead of his “weekend” clothes and growls at him! I hope that over time she will get better, but given that she is 4 years old now, I think she will be a “scaredy cat” for life.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      February 27, 2014 at 7:08 pm (5 years ago)

      Have you tried flower essences with her, Marg?

      Reply
      • Marg
        March 2, 2014 at 5:29 pm (5 years ago)

        Hi Ingrid … I haven’t tried flower essences with her yet Ingrid, but that’s a great suggestion. I’ll let you know how she goes!

        Reply
  5. Sue Brandes
    February 27, 2014 at 10:24 am (5 years ago)

    Very good article Ingrid. We are pretty good here except when Garfield hear’s noises or people outside he gets very nervous. And he had to go to the vet so much for awhile he’s get very nervous/anxious.

    Reply
  6. Eastside Cats
    February 27, 2014 at 9:17 am (5 years ago)

    “Offering treats directly from your hand may increase the bond between you and your cat. Be careful when using treats so you don’t inadvertently reward timid behavior.” I would like more information on this, because the two statements seem contradictory; need examples of how to properly treat a nervous cat. Also, Feliway Comfort Zone doesn’t work for my cats, and I do not want to keep shelling out $$ for anything else since I don’t believe they will work either…just my experience.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      February 27, 2014 at 10:02 am (5 years ago)

      You’re going to want to be careful with timing of giving treats. Only give treats when your cat is relaxed. If she’s sitting comfortably nearby, and you want to reward that, that’s the time to give her treats. The wrong time would be when she’s still agitated about something, or has just come out of a hiding place.

      I agree that the Feliway plug ins don’t seem to work for everyone.

      Reply
    • Chris A
      February 27, 2014 at 11:11 am (5 years ago)

      I have both scardy cat and stress stopper and I can say because my rescue is so timid of anyone coming into the house he doesn’t know or when he freaks over noises or sudden movements that both of these truly help him. I don’t need to use quite as often since we haven’t had alot of company of late but when we do I use it for him and he gets relaxed. We co babysit a little cairn terrier that was never exposed to a cat and is always hunting him down. We made some simple adjustments to the house (see thru baby gate so he can see where that dog is and knows the gate is protection). I spray his scratching pads, my bed where he naps and his food. I also give him a little catnip and he is far calmer and less skiddish. Its worth the $$ in my humble opinion.

      Reply
      • Ingrid
        February 27, 2014 at 7:07 pm (5 years ago)

        I’ve had good success with Stress Stopper and Scaredy Cat, too, Chris. All of the Spirit Essences remedies work really well.

        Reply
        • Nate
          February 27, 2014 at 11:27 pm (5 years ago)

          Ingrid, first i want to say I love your website and you provide great info for cat care. However, it really disturbes me when people recommend flower essence when there isn’t a shred of scientific evidence they do anything. Feliway as I understand it has been clinically proven to be effective for something like 86% of cats. Feliway works excellent for my two cats. Despite being skeptical about Rescue Remedy, I let a breeder convince me to try it. It did nothing for my cats. I used it everyday until the bottle ran out. The ingredients list 80% glycerin and 20% water. How much flower essence is in there? Less than 1%? Can you name one pharmaceutical that has a therapeutic dose at such a small percentage? I doubt it. Bauch was a nut case that thought he had a psychic connection to plants! Just look at the reviews for Spirt Essence on Amazon. I can’t stand people being scammed out of their hard earned money.

          Reply
          • Ingrid
            February 28, 2014 at 6:55 am (5 years ago)

            Flower essences have been used successfully since the 12th century, Nate. They are obtained by extracting the vibrational healing properties of the blossoms after leaving them in sunlight and pure water for several hours. The resulting essence is then diluted out even more, and preserved with alcohol. The high dilution approach is very similar to how homeopathic remedies are obtained.

            While there may be no scientific studies, they’ve worked for thousands of years for many people, long before Dr. Bach developed his line. As for Feliway, my understanding is that all clinical studies of Feliway have been conducted by the company who makes the product.

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