When Cats Are Distressed: How to Help Them Recover

Cats are sensitive, and that is never more apparent than when something happens to upset them. Your kitty could be innocently window-watching when a stray tomcat tries to attack him through the glass, scaring him into the far reaches of your bedroom. Or an attempt at nail trimming turns your sweet fluffy girl into a screaming wildcat, and from then on, she runs away when you so much as go near the drawer where the clippers are stored. Or maybe grandma comes home from the hospital, smelling strange and scary, and becomes someone to avoid. Or you could be out hiking with your adventure cat when a dog suddenly bounds toward him in an aggressive manner. You quickly grab your cat, so no physical harm is done, but was your cat frightened enough to destroy his enjoyment of any future hikes?

One aspect of cat training and behavior modification that does not get enough attention is coping with a cat who has been through a stressful experience. A cat’s reaction to these events, if left unaddressed, can have a negative effect on his quality of life, perhaps permanently. Instances of extreme emotional trauma always need to be addressed by a veterinarian or behaviorist, but what can you do for lesser circumstances or in the moments immediately following an incident?

“When cats are overly stressed and in a state of fight or flight, it’s a challenging mental state for them to be in,” says Mikkel Becker, Fear Free’s lead animal trainer. “Not only does long-term stress compromise the animal’s emotional wellbeing, but it can lead to behavior problems, such as increased likelihood of peeing outside of the litter box, as well as potential physical problems that can be detrimental to the cat’s health.”

Avoid Drama

It’s important to take measures right from the start. Animal behaviorist Eva Bertilsson says staying calm is crucial. If you are away from home, outside, or in a room when the trouble happens, leave.

“Sometimes people try to ‘fix’ the problem by staying in the situation, but in my opinion, that is pretty risky. It’s much better to repair the damage in a controlled setting later,” Bertilsson says.

When something unsettling happens to your cat, she needs to recover from the stress and adrenaline jolt. Place her in a familiar, quiet area and keep things calm. Avoid other irritants, such as vacuums, strangers, or other pets who have a history of friction with the cat. And absolutely no visual cues that remind her of the incident that just happened.

Your cat needs time and space to forget, says Bertilsson, before taking measures to help her overcome any behavior that may result from the incident. “Focus on enhancing relaxed and happy behavior,” she says.

How to Help

Once your cat has returned to a more normal state, eating and behaving close to her usual self, you can start to desensitize her to the object or situation that upset her. The key to counterconditioning is to go slowly, probably even more slowly than you think.

“It’s most valuable and likely to be more speedy when paired with positives the cat enjoys,” Becker says. That includes valued food they don’t get at other times, such as licks of soft cheese, low fat meats, or tiny tasty treats. Patience is essential. “Keep expectations realistic,” she adds.

Becker says to reintroduce the distressing object (such as nail clippers or carrier) or person gradually and from a distance. If a person, they should be lower to the ground, not towering over the cat, and silent at first. A room or space at home where an upsetting incident occurred also needs to be reintroduced slowly and gradually. Reward-based encouragement–treats, play, or affection–will help the cat during this process.

If the incident happened outdoors, gradually reintroduce your cat to being with you outside. Start with the leashed cat in a carrier, instead of walking on leash, and gradually move to an open carrier. Allow her to explore outside the carrier as she feels safer and more confident. Depending on how upset she was initially, this may take several trips outside. Again, use reward-based encouragement and don’t rush it. “When reintroducing situations that resemble the context where the cat got scared, do it in small steps, short moments, and with plenty of recovery time in between,” says Bertilsson.

Expert Advice

If your cat is having a difficult time readjusting or the incident was truly traumatic, look to a behaviorist or your veterinarian for help. “Veterinary prescribed nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals can be an important part of a treatment plan in combination with other behavior modification techniques,” says Becker. So can pheromone products.

Lastly, says Bertilsson, “Be kind to yourself, too! We are affected when our animals get spooked. We want to do the right thing by our animals, so we can get quite stressed even from minor incidents. Treat yourself with ‘happy, relaxed human’-inducing environments and activities.”

While you can’t foresee every negative experience your cat might encounter, you can take preventive measures to avoid or minimize them. Look around the outside of your house to see if you can make your cat’s favorite window less attractive for strays to visit. If you take your cat on walks, use a backpack carrier, and teach your kitty it’s her safe space so that she knows it’s her escape if she feels uncomfortable or threatened. Introduce your cat gradually to potentially triggering items such as cat carriers or nail clippers before they become an issue. Keep your cat in a safe, calm area away from gatherings, or when you are doing chores like using the vacuum.

Showing your cat you care about her safety and wellbeing and letting her feel in control helps build resilience. Susan Friedman, Ph.D., who helped pioneer cross-species application of behavior analysis, says, “With a full ‘bank account’ of empowerment, the occasional withdrawal that results from aversive stimulation can occur without bankrupting cats’ resilience.” So the more you develop your cat’s self-confidence throughout her life, the better she will be able to handle whatever life throws her way.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Janiss Garza is an award-winning writer, editor and small publisher. She has written two humorous books of cat advice and publishes the Rescued series of books featuring rescue cat stories from around the world. She also blogs through the point of view of her Instagram-famous therapy cat, Summer at www.sparklecat.com.