Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I recently rescued a 2-month-old kitten from the streets; her forearm was dislocated and she had radial nerve paralysis in her front paw, and Horner’s syndrome (all these are most likely due to her being attacked by a bigger cat). Add to this she was severely malnourished, dehydrated and flea-ridden. Fast forward to a month later (today)–she’s healthy and has shown great improvements in her arm, so much so that she doesn’t need amputation! That’s the good bit. The not-so-good bit is that my baby is easily frightened and always hiding. I try to play with her, and she plays only under the bed or under the dining table. I want her to be more confident of herself and of her environment. She’s constantly afraid and skittish, and I’m worried she’ll grow up to be a nervous cat. How can I make her feel that she’s in a good place and that she can trust her environment?
Thomas: First of all, thank you so much for rescuing this tiny kitten and saving her life by doing so. That’s wonderful of you!
Bella: Because of the way you found her, it’s hard to know whether your kitten was the offspring of a feral cat or a house cat. But she was still young enough when you found her that even if she was the kitten of a feral cat, you can still do some good socialization.
Tara: It’s hard being anxious all the time. I know because that’s where I’ve been for the last six months. But I’m starting to get better now, and we’ll tell you how Mama helped me.
Thomas: First of all, Mama started to introduce Tara by putting her in one room and letting her get comfortable exploring that room. That took quite a while …
Bella: … but when Mama first brought Tara out here, she wasn’t ready to socialize with us so she just hid under the couch, and she was peeing where she shouldn’t. Poor thing!
Tara: So the first thing Mama did was to take me to the vet to rule out medical causes for my peeing, and the vet gave Mama some medicine that was supposed to help me be less anxious.
Thomas: It worked for a while, but unfortunately, Mama did let Tara out too soon and she never did quite get back to a non-anxious state.
Tara: So Mama put me back in my room, and I’ve been feeling quite a bit better since then. Sometimes I even sit on the window sill and watch Bird TV.
Bella: Mama says she’s going to introduce us very slowly, but sometimes Thomas and I run between Mama’s legs when she opens the door to Tara’s room.
Thomas: Tara’s been letting me touch noses with her, too. Yay!
Tara: In any case, we tell you this story because we want you to know it can take quite a while for a cat to feel comfortable in a new environment.
Thomas: If you have one room where you can keep your kitten until she starts getting more confident, that could help. Sometimes a whole house can be overwhelming, especially for a kitten who may not be used to being indoors.
Bella: You can put everything she needs in that room–food, water, cat tree, kitty bed, a litter box, toys, and so on. Then go into the room and just sit quietly with her. Read a book or watch a movie, and just let her get used to your regular life.
Tara: Once your kitten starts showing signs of relaxation–for example, she climbs up on the bed or in your chair with you–then you can start some gentle, confidence-building play.
Thomas: Kittens that are particularly skittish may not react well to noisy toys, so we’d recommend that you use toys like a feather on a string or something that doesn’t have a bell or other noisemaker on it.
Bella: We’d also recommend that you ask your vet about your kitten’s behavior. Your veterinarian may have some more good advice for you.
Tara: And it’s possible that a short course of anti-anxiety medication could help. Between having one room to myself and being on that anti-anxiety medication, I know I’m feeling a lot better. Your vet may be reluctant to prescribe it for a kitten, though.
Thomas: That cat tree we mentioned above could also be a great confidence builder for your kitten. Once she starts to climb the cat tree and look at the room from a high place, she may start feeling safer.
Tara: In any case, Niviya, what we’d advise is patience, quiet time with your kitten, and a talk with your vet about your concerns about your kitten’s behavior.
Thomas: We’d also recommend that if possible, you get a copy of renowned feline behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett’s book Starting from Scratch. Although it’s billed as a book about solving behavior problems in adult cats, she does go on at length about how to help fearful cats be less afraid.
Tara: What about you other readers? Have you had a fearful cat? What did you do to help your kitty come out of his or her shell? Please share your own tips in the comments!