By Maura McAndrew
Cats are something of an enigma—intelligent, sometimes inscrutable animals whose sensitivity and perceptiveness make them fascinating and lovable pets. But as most cat owners can tell you, cats are also creatures of habit and comfort. They can become stressed or scared by a range of things, from a trip to the vet to a new person in the house.
To tell if your cat is experiencing stress, closely observe his body language, advises Dilara Goksel Parry, a certified cat behavior consultant with the San Francisco-based company Feline Minds. “As prey animals, cats are masters of disguise,” she says. “People need to be able to take in all the information the cat is giving them with their expressions and body language—the tension in the body, the size of the pupils, the movement and direction of the ears, vocalizations, and so on.”
But once you notice your cat is stressed or afraid, where do you go from there? Calming down a cat is a delicate process, so we’ve provided some tips for getting kitty back to his happy, mischievous self.
“People tend to think of what humans may like when they are stressed, instead of thinking like a cat,” Parry says, explaining that while a human might seek comfort from a hug, many cats do not like to be handled when they’re upset. “This is probably the most common mistake we see,” she says, “that guardians rush up and try to pet or pick up a highly aroused or stressed cat.” The main problem with petting or snuggling is that it doesn’t allow the cat to decompress, according to Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavioral consultant with the Georgia-based Fundamentally Feline. “It can take cats hours to come down from a heightened, aroused state,” she says, so it’s important to give them space.
While you should avoid smothering your kitty with love, just being there physically is a good idea, especially if you have an affectionate cat. “Cats may respond positively to the presence of someone they know and trust,” Parry says. “Just talking to them or even singing to them can be helpful.” And remember: all cats are different. If your cat seeks out your lap while you’re sitting nearby, it’s safe to assume he wants to be there. So pay attention to your kitty’s personal preferences to best support him in his hour of need.
Slow and steady are keywords when calming a stressed cat, especially if she’s being exposed to something new. “If it is a short-term stressor—such as your friend coming over for the afternoon and bringing her dog, or a day-long home project—don’t even bother with trying to get the cat used to it,” Parry says, as adjustment will take much longer. In such situations, she suggests putting the cat in a safe room with her essentials for the time period in question. When introducing the cat to a new pet, person, space, or other stressor that’s more long-term, Johnson advises to “take it slowly and introduce them one sense at a time,” since cats rely on their noses first and foremost. Going too fast with anything novel is a common cat-parenting mistake, Parry says. “People think they can get the cat used to the scary thing by exposure,” she explains, “but desensitization by definition has to be done very gradually, and over days, weeks, or months to be effective.”
Cats can be fearful of large, open spaces, Johnson says, so make sure kitty has a cozy spot where he can retreat in times of stress. “Some cats are more bush-dwellers, so they like to stay hidden and under things,” she says, noting that “[other] cats gain a lot of comfort and solace in being up high.” She recommends providing both types of spaces—a cat tree or elevated bed for a cat to get vertical and survey the area, and tucked-away spaces in which to hide. But make sure you’re never cornering the cat. “Always give cats a way out of a situation—an escape route—vertical or otherwise,” Parry advises.
Even when transporting your cat in a carrier, it’s best to employ the “cozy” rule to keep her calm. “For most cats, covering up the carrier and blocking any extra stimuli is helpful,” Parry says—a towel or blanket will work fine. But when dealing with a carrier—a common source of anxiety—training and acclimating your cat is the only surefire way to ease her fear. “I liken it to training a dog to walk on leash,” Parry says. “We wouldn’t want a dog guardian to skip this step, and acclimating a cat to the carrier should be an early focus for the cat guardian.” For help in this area, train your cat to view the cat carrier in a positive light and consult with a cat behaviorist if that doesn’t work.
One anxiety-easing practice that cat owners sometimes neglect is “taking care of their basic needs in a cat-centric manner,” Parry says. Sounds easy enough, but cat-centric means doing what’s best for your cat, not for you or your home, which can be a tough adjustment. “Give cats things that they need in the places where they feel most comfortable,” Johnson says. “So that means that if your cat pretty much lives in your master bedroom, and they love to be in there but they’re too scared to come out, don’t put their cat litter box in the basement and their cat food in the kitchen.” Placing cat essentials in far apart or potentially scary rooms can cause chronic stress, so observe your cat’s preferences closely. While we may not love having a litter box in the bedroom, sometimes sacrifices must be made for our feline roommates.
“Cats do a lot of things to comfort themselves, like leaving their scent around with their facial rubbing, and their scent marking on their paws,” Johnson explains. She emphasizes allowing cats to leave their scent in places they care about, and allowing them to access those places in times of stress. Scratching posts are a good option, ideally placed in the cat’s favorite rooms. “It brings them comfort to be able to send messages around,” she says. Likewise, if transporting your cat in a carrier or taking them to an unfamiliar place, Parry recommends taking along an item that bears the cat’s own scent from a “happy place and time,” which provides familiarity in a stressful situation.
In addition to your cat’s own personal musk, there are other natural scents, particularly essential oils, that can create an aura of kitty-calm—and they work on humans as well. Johnson recommends scents such as honeysuckle and lavender, which can have a calming effect on cats. “At the vet practice, when we have an aggressive cat in the exam room, we’ll put a couple of drops of lavender oil on a paper towel, so it’s just airing in the exam room,” she says. Just a little in the air is all you need—use a small amount at a time and store essential oils safely out of reach, as they can be dangerous to cats if they come in direct contact with them.
Much like scent, cats are very sensitive to noise. Especially if your cat’s fear or stress is being caused by loud noises (construction, a baby crying, traffic), providing alternative sound is a great solution. “There has not been much research on music or sounds with regards to calming a cat, but one can try soft classical music or pleasant ‘white noise’ and observe for how the cat responds,” Parry says. “At the least, it may reduce the impact of the ‘scary’ noises by creating a buffer.” Johnson adds that pairing this music or sound with a cozy room or “kitty haven” will increase the sense of calm. You may even try some “cat-specific music,” created by scientists from the University of Wisconsin as part of an extensive study.
If the way to your particular cat’s heart is through his or her stomach, you may want to try cat treats that are specifically designed to have calming effects. These products have L-theanine in them, Johnson says, an ingredient found in green tea that naturally relieves anxiety. Herbal supplements are also an option, but Parry recommends seeing a veterinarian before taking that step. “If you have an anxious cat and the usual methods are not helping, then it is wise to consult a professional about this,” she says, noting that veterinarians will sometimes recommend supplements or even cat anxiety medication. “In some cases, short- or long-term anxiety medications can be very helpful,” she says.
While play is not a good option for cats in a highly aroused state, it can be a valuable tool for dealing with chronic, or long-term, stress in cats. “Play decreases stress in cats and can increase their confidence in places previously associated with fear,” Johnson says. She notes that cats afraid of large rooms or unfamiliar environments can better acclimate to these areas through play. She recommends “interactive play with a lure toy” in these spaces. Additionally, Parry underlines the importance of providing daily, not just occasional, opportunities for play in order to reap its calming benefits.
While all of the aforementioned strategies are helpful for dealing with cat fear, anxiety, and stress, it’s essential to look deeper, especially if your cat is experiencing severe stress. “It’s not enough to treat the symptom, as it were,” Parry says. “Knowing what triggers the fear allows you to build a plan to help the cat feel safe.” She advises observing interactions between pets in your home to address any problems, and to be alert to potentially stress-causing environmental factors. Regular visits to the veterinarian are crucial, and you may even want to check in with a certified cat behavior consultant. “If any of their essential needs and resources are out of whack, you could have a chronically stressed cat,” Parry says.