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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

My cat is terrified of everyone but myself and my boyfriend, with whom she lives. If anyone else comes into our apartment, she runs and hides. She growls at delivery men and the neighbors. I am not afraid of her being violent, but I just don’t want her to live a life of fear. I’ve had her since she was 8 weeks old. I got her spayed and after she came back from the place, she was like this. I can’t say that they did anything wrong: they seemed very nice and the surgery went well. But my cat is now a different cat. She loves her Daddy and me very much, and she’s always happy when it’s just us. I always give her treats when new people enter the home, so she thinks new people = treats = positive experience. I give her space and tell her everything is okay. I tell guests not to bother her and let them come to her. Is there anything else I can do to help her?

~ NotNicky

Cat facing away from camera

Photo via Morguefile

Siouxsie: It’s not all that unusual for a cat to come back from a spay surgery with some amount of trauma. Our beloved Dahlia was never quite the same with the vet after her experience.

Thomas: But it sounds like your kitty took it really hard, and now whatever trauma she experienced at the vet’s office has turned into a generalized fear of all people besides you and your boyfriend.

Bella: You’ve definitely got the right idea — helping her to associate visitors with good things like treats.

Siouxsie: We’ve got some more ideas that might be helpful, too. You’re going to have to undertake a multi-part plan to help your baby get her confidence back and reduce her fear of strangers.

Thomas: The first thing we’d recommend is that you call your vet and see if they remember anything that particularly freaked her out while she was there for her spay. If you can identify the trigger for her fear, you’ll have more tools to help her overcome it.

Bella: If you haven’t done so already, get some Feliway plug-ins and install them in the public areas of your home. Feliway is a synthetic “happy cat” pheromone that is very helpful in reducing stress.

Ikea hack: Stolmen cat tree

IKEA Stolmen cat tree. Image via IKEA Hackers

Siouxsie: Then look around your home, especially in those public areas. Does your cat have a way to get up to an elevated area? For example, do you have a tall cat tree or wall shelves? If not, we’d recommend that you give her some observation areas and “escape routes.”

Thomas: You don’t have to buy ordinary cat furniture or spring huge amounts of money for cool-looking designer items. If you or your boyfriend has any handy-person skills, you can do some awesome IKEA hacks like the one pictured at the left, or go to your local home supply store and buy shelves, screws and brackets and build your own.

Bella: Watch some episodes of Jackson Galaxy’s show My Cat From Hell to see some simple ways you can “catify” your home and give your baby lots of room to go where she wants to go.

Siouxsie: If you live in the US, you can watch episodes on Animal Planet’s website.

Thomas: You might have to teach her that those high places are for her — by leading her step by step up the cat tree with her favorite treats, for example.

Bella: Playing with your kitty is a huge confidence booster. Use interactive toys like feather danglers or other “things on a string” and get her hunting, catching and killing the toy in the center of the room.

Siouxsie: For some tips about best play practices, check out this article Mama wrote for Catster.

Thomas: Once you get your kitty used to playing, your guests can join the fun and give your baby even more positive reinforcement about strangers.

Bella: We’ve seen really good results with using certain holistic remedies to help ease feline fear. For example, one woman has transformed almost-feral cats into adoptable kitties using a flower essence called Bach Rescue Remedy.

Siouxsie: Other flower essence companies such as Spirit Essences produce remedies that are specifically for fearful cats (Kissy got Safe Space for Cats essence to help her with her fearfulness and trauma-based aggression).

Thomas: We should point out that flower essences are not the same thing as essential oils! Essential oils are created from the elements that give plants their distinctive smells, whereas flower essences are created by steeping flowers and plants in high-grade alcohol.

Bella: You have to be very careful using essential oils on cats because some contain ingredients that are toxic to kitties. Although you might be concerned about using alcohol on cats, the amount of the remedy you administer is so small and so highly diluted, when used properly, that there is very little danger of toxicity.

Siouxsie: Also, make sure not to accidentally reinforce her fearful behavior by giving her treats after she’s had her fear reaction. It’s natural for people to want to say, “It’s okay, it’s all right” and give a treat when the cat is scared — but if you do that, you’re telling her that she gets goodies if she gets scared.

Thomas: It’s going to take a while for your cat to get her confidence back, so don’t despair if it doesn’t happen right away.

Bella: Good luck, NotNicky! Please let us know how things turned out.