Even the most confident cats can experience anxiety if you change their environment. A new house or new owners can really shake their self assurance. Imagine if both these things happen at once!
The best way to calm a new nervous cat is to restrict its environment to a couple of rooms for the first few days to give it time to become familiar with the surroundings. Stay calm yourself so your cat can learn to trust you. Allow it some space, and soon your cat’s timidness should subside.
Recently, we’ve introduced a new Maine Coon cat into our home. Our previous two, Harry and Charlie, sadly, passed away during the last six months. It was devastating. There’s nothing that can replace them but over time, our home just felt empty without a feline presence.
We decided to acquire another Maine Coon after we heard that she recently underwent a C-Section and spay because of a problematic pregnancy.
The breeder was after a forever-home for her and we just knew we were the right people. She was just over one-year-old and was obviously familiar (and comfortable) with her current home.
She was also used to living with many, many other cats. Can you imagine what it must be like to be removed from an environment you’re so familiar with into one that you’re not?
With that in mind, we knew it was going to be difficult and potentially a lengthy process to make her comfortable in her new home.
When we let Mona out of her cat carrier in our house, even with toys strategically placed around to try and distract and make her feel as comfortable as possible, she immediately crawled behind the sofa.
We’ve spoken about different things you can do in various other articles to calm a nervous cat. But, here they all are in one place. These are the things that we die with Mona to help her feel more comfortable in a very strange environment.
Why is the cat nervous?
Cats like familiarity. They like the familiarity of their surroundings and they like to know who’s in those surroundings with them. It takes time for them to make any place feel comfortable. They will need to rub their scent against many things (including us) to build that familiarity up over time.
They will have their favorite locations where they know they are safe. Even in a home that they are comfortable with, they will have certain areas where they know they can go if they feel anxious. It might be under a bed or somewhere up high, it varies.
The cat is nervous and anxious as it has none of the above in a new home. If you are re-homing a cat that isn’t a kitten, it makes it even harder as their bonds with their current home and the people within it are stronger.
Your job, when introducing this cat into the new home – is to make the transition as easy as possible for them.
How do you calm a nervous cat?
Fortunately, there are some things that you can do as an owner to help. Take a look at the below and do as many of these things as you can. Having just been through this process, I can tell you that there isn’t a quick-fix but there are things that will make a difference immediately – and you will see the results of these things straight away also. Let’s take a look…
1) Give them time
It’s easy to be impatient. You’re excited and want them to be happy but it’s really difficult to speed things up. Here’s a video of our Mona, a Maine Coon who lived for over a year with a family before we adopted her quite recently:
You can clearly see how nervous she is. You can also hear the stupid voice I, for some reason, put on as I was saying ‘hello’ to her as she first appeared. I often make myself look stupid in front of cats.
Despite the fact that I feel I understand cats well, I still made some mistakes here.
What would have been better, I think with hindsight, is to open up her traveling carrier in an area that wasn’t so open. It was just too daunting for her to come out, not recognize anything, and have so much space around her.
It would have been better to open up the carrier in a smaller location, with walls closer to her so she would have known that at least from those directions, there was nothing to fear. She literally didn’t know where to turn when she came out of that carrier and moments later (not in the video) she skulked under the sofa. She had no reason to come out after that and it took some time.
2) Don’t follow your cat around your home
It’s tempting, I know. You’ve most likely been excited about this day for some time and you really want to spend some time with them when they are free in your home to explore.
However, following them around is not the best thing to do, at least initially. Think of things from her perspective. Now, not only does she not know where she is but she has some strangers following after her wherever she goes. As far as she’s concerned, they may be trying to ‘get’ her!
Your main goal in those first few days is to make her feel as comfortable as possible. Unfortunately, for you – this will mean you may not be able to interact with her as much as you’d wish. It’s especially difficult for children. They don’t always understand the word ‘slow’ and it’s practically impossible to get them to not want to interact with their new furry brother or sister in those first few hours.
So, of course, watch where they are going – but do it from a distance that won’t feel to them like you’re on top of them.
3) Try and make the home smell as neutral as possible
The unfamiliarity of the visual surroundings will cause a degree of stress and anxiety and it’s tempting for the homeowners to make their home as nice as possible in preparation for their arrival. The intentions are sound but don’t be tempted to use fragrances around your home.
Although this will smell nice to you, to your new cat(s) it’s just another thing that’s different that they have to get used to. Also, unless you’re going to keep your home smelling this way forever, it’s only going to make your job harder. Why? Well, in a couple of days when the un-natural scent has worn off, she will then have to get used to another smell – the natural smell of your home.
Actually, the best bet is to not really tidy up at all. Your home should appear as normal as possible to the new arrival and if it always looks a bit untidy – then that’s fine, just keep it that way. Of course, make sure there’s nothing left out that could potentially hurt her but apart from that – just leave it as it is!
4) Don’t use aftershave/fragrances initially
Still on the subject of fragrance, part of many people’s morning ritual is to have a shower and then use a deodorant and aftershave/perfume or some kind of fragrance. I would suggest you just click pause on this behavior for a few weeks.
You want your cat to become as familiar as possible with you as quickly as possible. If you smell like a perfume shop (and cats can be quite sensitive to strong smells) – it’s not going to help. The best smell for you (and your cat) is as natural as possible. So, have your shower and just keep it at that for a bit. It may feel a bit odd but your vanity has to come second for just a short period of time.
Another thing I’d recommend is a fragrance-free soap. After not using an aftershave, I used the soap we had and it made my hands smell differently. It may be nice to us but to Mona, it was another unusual smell that she wasn’t expecting.
5) Keep all exits locked
One of the most traumatic things that could happen once you acquire a new pet is that they somehow escape. If you live in a house that doesn’t have air conditioning (like us, for example) this is even more likely as it’s common (especially during spring/summer) to have lots of windows open. You really have to re-train yourself.
If your cat escapes to the outside world, she will be lost and there will be nothing familiar with her surroundings. The best case is that she’ll stay exactly where she is so when you notice she’s gone, you can find her easily. The worst case, well – you can imagine.
When we were talking about this prior to adopting our one-year-old Maine Coon we spoke about changing routines and being sure that before an outside door is opened, an extra check is performed to ensure she isn’t lurking just behind. The problem is educating the kids. They don’t do it on purpose, it’s just that they sometimes forget and dash outside because they want to play with something.
Learn how much you can open the windows without them getting out. Remember, cats can squeeze themselves out of tiny gaps so best not make it any more than a couple of inches, max!
6) Show them where the litter tray and water is
Obviously depending on how long they were in the cat carrier being transported to you, they may really need to go to the toilet by the time they get to your home. Try and make sure you have this all ready for them prior to going and picking them up!
The litter tray should ideally be placed where they can have some privacy whilst they are doing their ‘business’. Of course, this means that they will probably not know where this is so one of the first things you should do when you get them home is to show them where this is.
They may be so stressed and anxious initially, that they will not take this in and may need reminding a little later. It should be noted though and you need to be accepting of the fact that it is quite unnatural for a cat to go to the toilet inside and in a specific place. Don’t be surprised and certainly, please, don’t be cross if they have the occasional accident. It’ll just take a bit of time.
At the same time as showing them where the litter tray is, show them where the water is. The stress will have increased their heart rate and potentially will make them quite thirsty. Show them the bowl and wiggle your finger around in it to make a bit of a splashy sound, to give them a bit of an extra hint.
What we did is have a bowl of water and a water fountain as our Maine Coons have always enjoyed drinking from a tap or fountain. If you’re interested in a water fountain, I’d really recommend this one – it’s the one we use and is in the photo below. It’s great, especially if you want something that’s quiet. This one you can barely hear – if you’d like to take a look at it on Amazon, please click on the link.
7) Get them the food you know they like
This is more important if you’re taking a cat that has already spent some time with another family. As much continuity as possible is preferred here so establish what they like to eat and ensure you have something ready to give them when they get to yours.
This is no guarantee that they will eat though and just because they ate a particular food at their last house, doesn’t mean they will at yours, at least initially. We became a bit desperate initially. Mona wouldn’t eat her usual food, so we tried something else, then something else…and so on. Eventually, it looked like the below – not great, right?
However, what worked, in the end, was by just having one down. The simple raw food that she ate perfectly well for months previous. It’s easy to get concerned about your new arrival but actually, as long as they are drinking and you have fresh food out – they will eat when they are hungry enough and ready.
The two most important things are that they are drinking and are comfortable (hence showing them where the litter tray is).
8) Start playing with them
It’s important to interact with her as soon as you can. It’s something that you’ll want to do but may not be something that she is keen on initially. With Mona, we were able to have a little play with her initially but she did keep retreating to her safe zone behind the sofa.
A day later and things had improved. The below video is her playing 24 hours after first setting foot into our home:
So, you can see things had improved and she seems much happier than she did when she was first released into our home only a day previous!
This is the time where you can really bond with her and it’s important for all the family to get involved. You should play with her as much as she wants to be played with. It’ll help her become more familiar with you, become more familiar with the surroundings but also, and most importantly, will help with any anxiety that she has.
Playing with your new cat, therefore, serves many purposes and is integral to bonding early. You don’t need me to tell you that though!
9) Respond to their cries
Your cat will be confused and scared. They may have lived with other cats and will not understand where they have gone. If your cat is older and was from a breeder, they will miss the attention and the comfort they received from them.
They may well start to cry. Mona was quiet for the 1.5 hours in the car back to our house. However, as soon as we let her out, she cried (as you saw in the first video above). Why exactly they cry is open for discussion but it is most likely a call for the other cats or people they associate with that familiarity.
This crying will be more prominent in the first couple of days but it’s important that you (or someone in your family) responds to them when they do. They will, over time, stop crying but until then it’s up to you to provide them with comfort (and perhaps a little treat) until they get used to things. Don’t let them cry.
10) Restrict them to only part of the house at first
Again, you learn these things as you go along but one thing I would change about how we did things is the amount of space I would let the new arrival have during those first couple of days.
We opened up the cat carrier and basically said, ‘here you are, your new home – off you go’. It was too much for her. Too much unfamiliarity. A much better idea would have been to restrict her to just one room for these first couple of days. Bring her food in there and put the litter tray in a corner, as out of the way as you possibly can.
It might smell a bit but it’s only temporary. I think by doing this, it will really help them settle initially and if you don’t, you make that initial anxiety last just a little bit longer. By doing this, they will become familiar with you and this room. They will eventually relax, just a bit.
After a couple of days, decide whether you open up the whole house to her or just extend their new world one room at a time.
11) Don’t leave them alone
Please, please, please – if you can help it, don’t leave them alone in your home for at least the first couple of weeks. It takes time for them to get used to their new surroundings and your presence will eventually provide comfort to them as they will soon be aware that you mean them no harm.
By leaving them alone in your house as you are out you will only increase their anxiety levels. This may set them back significantly and if this anxiety continues, it can lead to more serious problems.
It’s these things that you need to think about before getting her back to your home. Make sure that at least one of you will be around at all times.
12) Be more like a cat
Hear me out here. Over time and with experience you learn to develop little tricks that really help when you’re trying to bond with a cat. There is something I’ve developed over the last quarter of a century that consistently works. I like to call this the SLOBLY technique.
What do I mean by this? Well, it’s all about SLOw BLinking and Yawning, believe it or not! The reason we’re going to do this is based on how cats interact with each other. Let me step you through the process.
- It’s important that you never stare at your cat. If you look at cats standing off against each other, prior to a fight you will notice that they stare at each other intently. Which is exactly the opposite of what you want to do here. When your cat looks at you, I want you to perform a very slow blink. This immediately tells them that you consider them to not be a threat (as you’re okay with taking your eyes off them).
- Once you have blinked, perform a very slow yawn. This is another tell-tale to your newly acquired, anxious kitty that you are quite relaxed in their presence. It’s as simple as that.
You will probably see a reaction when you do this. They will find what you’re doing fascinating and you may well get a slow-blink back in return. Continue to do this, whenever your cat looks at you. By the way, if you’re wondering why cats stare at you then please check out the article (opens in a new tab).
Now, if you want to go to the next level I have something else for you – which also really works. When you’re near your cat (and perhaps having just performed the SLOBLY), very slowly roll onto your back.
You’re going to look stupid here so expect some strange looks from family members and friends! So, roll onto your back and put your arms and legs a little bit in the air. You will notice that cats sometimes do this to you when you walk into a room where they are. It’s not because they want a tummy tickle – it’s a sign that they trust you – and they want to tell you this. All you’re doing is reciprocating.
Once you get past the whole ‘looking stupid thing’ it’s really effective!
13) Build an outside cat safe-area
This is an area that’s open to debate and being absolutely honest with you, I don’t know where I stand myself. For every single cat we’ve had, up to now – we’ve allowed to free-roam. Have we just been lucky up to now though?
One thing that’s absolutely certain is that a lot depends on where you live – for some people, it’s black and white. Maybe you live too close to a busy road or in the wild where maybe there are coyotes. Too risky.
I live in a semi-rule location and feel it’s pretty safe. You never know though and so we decided to build a fence surrounding part of our garden (photo above). We definitely weren’t going to let her outside for the first six months anyway, so at least this will give her some space to play outside.
What this will do is potentially help with her anxiety levels. Cats love being outside and it’s lovely to watch them laying out in the sun – if it’s safe for them to do so!
Summary – how to calm a nervous cat
I’ve really enjoyed writing this article – primarily because I’ve just gone through the process myself and have learned quite a bit from it! This is a difficult time for your cat and I can’t really imagine how it must feel for her.
Just try not to rush anything, which is difficult for us adults – let alone our kids. Make her feel as comfortable as possible and be there when she wants you to be there and don’t be there when she doesn’t 🙂