Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I have a small kitten I got from my friend. I really don’t know her age, but I’d been asking my friend if I could take her for about two months. A month after she got here, I was sleeping beside her when she suddenly jumped and scratched me. I found her standing on the floor and acting weird. I thought that she is going to throw up, so I put her outside my room and she jumped. Now she’s terrified of everyone and she can’t eat or even drink! Help!
Siouxsie: Well, first things first. Keliessa, you need to take your kitten to the vet and get her checked out. If she’s not eating or drinking, that’s very dangerous–especially for a kitten.
Thomas: She might have started acting weird because she’s in pain, and if she is in enough pain to scratch and hide, she definitely needs veterinary attention.
Dahlia: Your vet will also be able to give you a good estimate of her age. Cats, like people, have two sets of teeth. Their baby teeth start falling out around 4 months of age, so depending on how many baby teeth and how many adult teeth your vet sees, she or he can tell you about how old your kitten is.
Siouxsie: You might find that the behavior issues clear up once your kitten starts feeling better.
Thomas: If your baby does get a clean bill of health, there are some things you can do to help alleviate her fear.
Dahlia: The first thing is that you’ll have to be patient with her. Sit calmly and quietly in the room with her and try to lure her toward you with some delicious food or a special treat. When she does decide to approach you, don’t reach out quickly to pet her; you’ll scare her and you’ll have to start all over again.
Siouxsie: When she gets near you, put your hand out very slowly, with your palm facing down. Let her sniff you and investigate. Move one finger just enough to give her a gentle stroke. If she responds positively to that, slowly reposition your hand so that the pinkie edge of your palm is on the floor. She may choose to rub the palm of your hand; if so, that’s a very good sign.
Thomas: Let her get comfortable with you and give her very gentle strokes just with the tips of your fingers.
Dahlia: If she’s really scared, this process could take days or even weeks. But your patience will be rewarded by a cat that enjoys your company once again.
Siouxsie: You might consider buying a Feliway Comfort Zone diffuser. This product works like a plug-in air freshener, but it sends out pheromones that help your cat to relax and de-stress.
Thomas: The next steps in rehabilitating a fearful cat are called desensitization and counterconditioning.
Dahlia: Desensitization just means that you gradually expose your cat to the thing she’s afraid of. For example, if she’s scared of people, you’d begin her desensitization by brining in a person she already knows–a person who’s quiet and patient–for a short visit. Let the visits get gradually longer so your cat gets used to that person, but be sure the person doesn’t try to pick your kitten up or force her to experience that fear.
Siouxsie: Counterconditioning means helping your cat to associate the object of her fear with pleasant experiences like getting tasty treats or playing with toys. This helps “rewire your cat’s brain,” so to speak, by changing the object’s association from one of fear to one of happiness and safety.
Thomas: Although you may have to do some frightening things to get your kitten to the vet — for example, taking her out of her safe space and putting her in her carrier — once the vet trip is over, be sure never to drag your kitten out of her hiding space or force her to accept being held or petted.
Dahlia: With love, patience and gentleness, you’ll be able to relieve some, if not all, of your cat’s fears.
Siouxsie: We recommend that you read Starting From Scratch by Pam Johnson-Bennett. It’s a great book on retraining cats that have behavioral issues, and it’s a wonderful resource for any cat caretaker.
Thomas: Catster’s Kittens section has lots of resources to help you learn about your kitten and how to take care of her as she grows into her glorious adulthood.
Dahlia: Good luck, Keliessa! Please let us know how things turn out.