—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸
As cat lovers, we hate to think about anything bad happening to an animal we love so much. Unfortunately, bad things do happen, and cats end up in shelters and rescues, often traumatized from their past or simply stressed in their new environment.
These organizations often rely on fosters, who serve as temporary pet parents to help cats get out of the shelter or rescue and into a home setting, where they can decompress. While cases can be extremely complicated and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, there are some tips I want to share for people who work or volunteer in animal welfare that can help cats in these situations.
First, we’ll take a look at shelter and rescues that have physical locations, and then we’ll discuss some things foster parents can do once the cat is out of a group setting.
Shelters and Rescues
Thank you for devoting your time to loving cats and working or volunteering in such a hard field. Your talents and kind heart are exactly what these cats need! Now, I know you’ve got some stressed and scared kitties. There are a number of things you can do to help.
Make sure all physical exams involve checking the teeth, heart, and feeling for lumps. You want to make sure a traumatized cat isn’t reacting because they’re in pain from bad teeth, have a heart condition, or possibly cancer. You likely already do this at your organization, but I wanted to specifically mention it because I’ve seen bad teeth get missed during busy times (like kitten season).
Please stress to your vet and staff how important it is to properly assess cats during intake and look for basic things that can be apparent without diagnostics. A super stressed cat may need to receive a mild sedative to be examined.
I’m not an expert on logistics and the setup of kennels, but I will make one suggestion. If you have dogs and cats, do your best to keep cats as far away from the dogs as possible.
Studies have shown that dog barking is extremely stressful for cats in the shelter setting. If that isn’t an option, I suggest consulting with a company that does soundproofing because they will have suggestions on things you can do to minimize traveling sounds.
All that being said, a calm quiet space is always best, so make your #1 goal is to make the space as relaxing as possible. Sometimes, using Bluetooth speakers and playing meditation music can help.
There are even artists who compose music that’s in the same frequency range as cats when they vocalize, and studies show cats respond to it. Just the vibration of the music can be soothing for them.
No Talking … Sometimes
While some cats enjoy when you talk to them, others will not, and silence will be your best tool. You’ll need to rely on your body language to build a connection with these guys.
You can try slow blinking at them. Although it wouldn’t be feasible in all shelter and rescue settings, you could also sit right outside of their kennel while you’re reading or on your phone. This takes the pressure off of them because they know you’re not moving, and there is no attention coming at them (attention can be intimidating for some cats).
Do not allow people who are uncomfortable with cats to interact with traumatized, shy, fearful, or aggressive cats. A person who is stressed themselves, makes jerky movements, or doesn’t approach a cat confidently is at high risk of injury or making a cat that already lacks confidence even worse.
Assign employees and volunteers who are experienced and confident to work with the tough cats, and consider adding a training program that focuses on this population. Confidence, patience, and awareness are key traits when working with traumatized cats.
Treats come in many different forms, and you might need to go through a lot of them before you find one that works for each cat. Pate in a tube seems to work the best when it comes to gaining trust from shy and scared cats.
If you can get the cat to come up to the bars and lick the tube, that’s a huge win, but even squirting some into the kennel and letting the cat lick it up can work. Another way to deliver this type of treat is by putting it on the end of a wand toy and allowing the cat to lick it off.
Don’t be startled if they swat at first. The nice thing about this technique is you can keep a lot of distance between you and the cat, which should make you both feel safe, but you’re still directly interacting with the cat. Plus, let’s not forget that sometimes baiting a cat with treats is how some amazing cat/human bonds are born!
There are a number of ways you can use toys to try and connect with a cat in a kennel. One of the ways I recommend starting with is using a wand toy (like above) but using the end to pet the cat on the nose and head. You’ll have to go very slow, and if the cat seems scared of it, take a break. If it works, you’ll be able to almost pet the cat with the wand.
You can also try slipping the stringy part through the bars to see if the cat will go after it. Although traumatized cats might be too scared, if they were big hunters in the past, some have a hard time resisting a moving object like that.
It’s possible to unlock a shy or scared cat with play, so I always say this is worth a try because it’s not overly complicated, and if the cat doesn’t go for it, no harm is done.
Obviously, you need to talk to your vet, but gabapentin is a drug with few side effects that has a calming effect on cats. Even if you can’t pill a cat, you can open a 100 mg capsule and mix it in wet food or the gravy that comes with wet food.
If you need to get really creative, you can always try wrapping it up in a piece of lunch meat. Gabapentin usually kicks in about 2-2.5 hours after being administered. You can try to see if the cat will allow petting, take treats, or even play a little while on it.
Do your best to stick to the nose and head area until you’ve earned trust. If possible, touch above the eyes where there are scent markers, as well as near the nostrils (again, if the cat is more docile).
That way, the cat will continuously smell your scent after you finish petting them. The goal is to get them used to and comfortable with your scent.
Only place these cats with fosters or adopters who can be patient, confident, aware, and understanding. Quieter houses are better, and make sure a foster can commit to at least a few months. Serious abuse cases can take time to unravel, and the worst thing you can do is stick one with an eager foster who is looking to place the cat with someone else after a month.
Be sure to outline with an adopter that the cat needs an adjustment period in a small room, ideally without hiding places. A little kitty bed and hut is okay, but you don’t want a cat hiding under furniture with no way to interact with them.
Thank you for being a foster parent! It’s a tough job, but your kindness and compassion are exactly what these traumatized cats need. Many of the steps above apply in your home as well, but let’s discuss a few other points.
To work with a traumatized cat, you’ll want to keep them in one room, ideally by themselves. This will allow you to work with them on a daily basis and build a bond. Set up the room with a minimum of a bed, blanket, stainless steel food bowl, water fountain, horizontal and vertical scratchers, and at least one litter box.
I also recommend adding a plug-in night light, so if the room doesn’t have a window or if it’s a really dark night with no moon, your cat can still easily see.
Sometimes extra items and supplements work, but it really depends on the cat. Some calming aids you can look into include pheromone sprays and diffusers, calming collars, and calming supplements. Be very careful with essential oils as many are toxic to cats. Always run anything you decide to try by your vet.
Most scared cats prefer if you’re on the ground and not moving around a lot. Do your best to just sit and relax with them the first few days, so they get used to your presence.
You don’t even need to try to touch them. Just being with them is a great first step. The same applies just like it would at a shelter: Stay confident. Jerky movements could result in injury.
Abused and neglected cats may need a longer period of decompression than other cats. If you have the knowledge that your foster cat was abused or neglected, be extra patient and give them more space than you normally would.
They need time to heal and trust again, and that rarely happens overnight. Remember that even if they take one step forward, they may take a few steps back. Progression is rarely a straight line.
Signs to look for with aggression include the tip of the tail (not the whole tail) twitching, even when the cat is at rest. This is nervousness and anxiousness, almost like a person who paces a lot or tosses and turns in their sleep. The cat has anxiety that could turn into aggression.
Be very gentle with any interaction. It’s not uncommon for traumatized cats to sit and stare and growl, seemingly at nothing. Their pupils will often be dilated and fixed on you.
Time can heal traumatized cats, but if you’re able to hide some sort of calming meds in their food, that can be a big help. It’s very hard to make progress with these cats when they are super anxious or fearful. Think of it in human terms: If a person is so depressed they can’t think straight, talk therapy will not help.
But if that same person is given something to calm them, even if only temporarily, the therapy will be more effective. So taking the temperature down a notch will definitely help you work with the cat.
Also, always look for triggers. For cats, usually, something happens that brings on aggression. If you can pinpoint that, you’ll be many steps closer to putting together a long-term plan for them, as well as finding the right adopter down the road (ex. If they’re triggered by noises, a house without young children or other pets might be best).
Just like I mentioned earlier, try to play some calming meditation music for the cat, whether you’re in the room or not. Even if the cat doesn’t necessarily respond to the music, it will help cover up other noises in the house or outside that would normally draw the cat’s attention.
Sometimes, traumatized cats are very scared of toys and will even hiss at them. You can try using a wand toy at a distance to see if they track it. If you have a dresser in the room, dangling it over the handles helps the cat take their attention off you and just look at the toy. The same applies if they’re hanging out in a bathtub – simply dangle the stringy part of the wand toy over the water knob or faucet.
If the cat lets you get close, I like to use drawstrings on my hoodie, ties on my pants or even hair ties. I find they will sometimes start batting at them before going to traditional toys.
Obviously, do not leave these items with them alone because there is a small risk they could swallow them (especially the hair ties). Another thing you can try is to line up toys under the door to see if they’ll bat them out into the hallway or the next room.
If I have baby gates stacked (sometimes before introductions), I’ll put little toy mice in the holes of the gate. Cats love batting at those and knocking them down.
Litter Box Maintenance
Resist the urge to constantly scoop the litter box, especially for the first few days. Allow the cat to feel confident that their smell is staying there.
In the beginning, if the cat is very traumatized, you may want to leave food out overnight to make sure it’s eating. Then, I would switch to specific meal times, so the cat gets used to associating food with you. In between meal times, offer treats every time you enter the room, again, so the cat associates good things with your presence. If the cat is very timid, you’ll need to put the treats on the floor one at a time.
Cats that have trust issues will likely not eat out of your hand. You can also try the pate tubes in this situation.
Similar to in the shelter or rescue, you'll want to start with the head. Often, once a cat is comfortable with head pets, it will then present the sides of the face for you to scratch. Look for these cues, and if it shows the side of the face and neck, scratch it.
Try to avoid going directly under the chin to the front of the neck. That is an area of trust, and a cat will normally not like you going there in the beginning. Stick with slow, gentle strokes and scratches until the cat is used to you.
If the cat is walking around you and rubbing, you may be able to rub-down the back and scratch the lower back. Look out for cats that lack confidence because they can turn around and swat while you're petting them, and they're still figuring things out.
Just as I mentioned earlier, if you're able to, be sure to pet the cat near their nostrils, so your scent is very prevalent, even after you leave the room.
Veterinary acupuncture is a fabulous way to help out an anxious or even aggressive cat. This medicine has a calming effect that so many cats benefit from. If you’re interested, reach out to the organization you’re fostering with or your own vet to see if it’s at least an option to try. Even doing it just once can help an anxiety-ridden kitty.
Thank You for All You Do
Again, thank you to anyone who works, volunteers, fosters, or donates to shelters and rescues. The cat community is so much better with you in it! We only scratched the surface on how to work with traumatized cats.
My hope is this gave you an overview, as well as some things you can to see if they work for you.
There isn't a formula that will work with every cat, but patience, confidence, compassion, and love are components of every cat's success story. If you have those traits, then you're already off to a great start.
Article by Elizabeth Italia 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist