Does your kitty spend most of her time hiding in closets, under or behind couches, or in the most quiet, unused parts of the house? If so, you have a scaredy-cat!
As a cat behaviorist with a focus on adopted and rescued cats, many of the cats I work with have issues related to fear, shyness, anxiety and stress. As a cat guardian and friend, when you have a scaredy-cat that is wrestling with these issues, you may feel powerless to help.
But there’s no need to worry. I have found that no matter if the cats are in a shelter or at someone’s home, we can help the cats in our care feel calmer, safer and more confident.
I want to share with you three simple techniques you can use right away to alleviate your cat’s stress and help her relax. Any one of these techniques may help your cat enjoy a higher quality of life, a closer relationship with you, and possibly even better health. Using them in combination will amplify the positive effects.
These techniques are Slow Blinks, Feather Work, and the use of Rescue Remedy.
Cats are often thought of as solitary animals. Nothing could be further from the truth! Cats are highly social. The confusion usually stems from comparing cats with dogs. Dogs have a “pack mentality,” which is one of their evolutionary survival skills. In contrast, cats tend to take care of their basic needs on their own. However, this doesn’t mean they’re not social.
Cats have evolved a complex system of communication through body language. One important aspect of this, which is available for use by pet owners and guardians, is the slow eye blink. Blinking is a very powerful reassurance signal and is commonly used between cats.
Slow blinking toward a cat shows that you personally are not a threat, and more generally, that everything is okay. Take about three seconds to slowly close and then slowly open your eyes. You may see the cat you are blinking at slightly change their posture. Often enough, if you slow blink at a cat, the cat will return the slow blink, telling you that they feel comfortable with you and that they like you. This can happen right away, or it may take a few tries.
For very scared cats, I have blinked as many as 10 times, and then the scared kitty will finally give me a slow blink back. Slow blinks are an excellent way to make contact with a scared cat. It is also a great way to say “I love you” to your favorite feline companion, who just might return the favor.
If you watch frightened cats, you’ll notice they often have very compact, tight postures, where they wrap their tails around their back ends in a protective and defensive position. They hold their bellies tight, and breathe very shallowly. This is what I call the “turkey in the oven” posture.
The combination of holding their breath and squeezing their tail against their bodies reinforces their feelings of fear, and makes it even harder for them to feel safe, even if nothing in their environment is threatening. Many scared cats spend hours a day in this posture.
With the simple use of a feather (I suggest a peacock feather), you can help change habitual physical patterns of fear in the cats you love. You can help them start to relax in their bodies, which can make them feel less threatened. You can help them open up their posture, become less defensive, and perhaps enjoy a sense of calm relaxation.
While human touch is wonderful for many cats, some can find it a bit overwhelming. The feather is much lighter, less direct, and therefore less threatening. Also, the feather serves as a new stimulus. New stimuli are important components of body awareness techniques like the Feldenkrais Method and Tellington Touch, both of which are designed to break habitual mental and physical patterns.
So, how do we use the feather? Take the peacock feather and put it on the ground. Let the kitty look at it, smell it, and become accustomed to it. After a few moments, lift the feather and ever so gently stroke the kitty from the head to the tail. Just stroke the kitty where he feels safe and comfortable. Most kitties love this, and you will perhaps see the scared cat take a breath, open a paw just a bit, and give a big sigh.
If the cat tenses up when you touch a certain area, back away from that area and stick to the areas where the cat feels safe. In time, try to make your way to all parts of the body, such as the paws, the belly, and the tail.
Touching unusual places, such as the paws, can be especially powerful for helping to break habitual feelings of fear. These areas are rarely touched, so touching them makes this a new, mind-opening experience for the cat.
Whatever you do, remember that you want this feather work to be completely positive. So go slow. At first, less is always more. As time passes, and you do many of these sessions, you may reach a point where you can touch all parts of your kitty’s body with ease. You may even find that your kitty begins to sprawl out and enjoy this relaxing time with you.
In the 1920s, a British medical doctor named Edward Bach developed a system of what he called “flower essences.” Bach Flower Essences are simple, powerful remedies available to pet guardians. They are not drugs. Widely used and accepted in Europe, they are a system of 38 liquid preparations, each designed to alleviate specific emotional problems.
Dr. Bach created Rescue Remedy to be used in emergencies and emotional crises. Unlike the other Bach Flower Essences, which contain the “essence” from one single plant, shrub, or water source, Rescue Remedy is a combination of five separate Flower Essences. Rescue Remedy is a powerful mixture that can help alleviate feelings of anxiety, terror and panic.
In my work, I often combine several different Flower Essences to make a remedy specific to the individual needs of each cat. However, I have found that simply using Rescue Remedy can be an easy answer that anyone can implement, and which does a lot of good for a wide variety of cats. You can buy Rescue Remedy in natural food stores like Whole Foods, or online.
The easiest, most direct way of administering Rescue Remedy to a scaredy-cat is to first dilute the Rescue Remedy in water, then put a few drops of the diluted solution on a cat treat. Any treat will do.
What happens when you give a cat a treat that has Rescue Remedy on it? Basically, the cat gets something that he loves – a tasty treat. Also, he gets the feelings of calm that come from taking the Rescue Remedy. If you approach him in a quiet, gentle way that respects his boundaries, in time he will come to look forward to these little treat sessions with you. It can create a virtuous cycle of yummy treats, followed by feelings of relaxation. Also, he may become used to the feeling of calm, and he may begin to feel that way as a normal part of his life, even when you don’t give him Rescue Remedy.
To learn more about how to give Rescue Remedy to cats, please check out my ebook, No More Scaredy Cat: the easy, step-by-step program that puts an end to stress, fear and anxiety for the cats you love.
I hope that the three simple methods I’ve outlined help you relieve any stress or fear that your scaredy-cat may experience.
Sara Goldenthal is a cat behaviorist, a certified practitioner of the Tellington Touch Technique for companion animals, and a certified Bach Flower Essences practitioner for animals (saragoldenthal.com). She is the author of No More Scaredy Cat: The easy, step-by-step program that puts an end to stress, fear and anxiety for the cats you love.