cat meowing a lot

How to Help a Nervous Cat

It’s no fun having a stressed cat. Every door closing, every time you turn on the vacuum cleaner, and every time somebody comes to visit your cat turns into a nervous wreck. So how can you make a cat feel more at home, less nervous, and happier all around?

How do you calm a nervous cat? Don’t make its nervousness worse by shouting, forcing the cat to do anything it doesn’t want to do, and talking to it in a low voice. Give it some time alone and let it come back to you in its own time. To help anxious cats long term, try clicker training to encourage them to perform curious behaviors like sniffing strangers or not running away from loud noises. Give your cat it’s own space with its own bed, as these come to smell like your cat, which it finds familiar and comforting. Feliway can help individual nervous cats, and Feliway Multicat can help groups of nervous cats in the same house.

The guide below first explores why cats get scared and anxious, and then what to do about it. We’ll also look specifically at how you can calm an anxious kitten, which is especially important, given that kittens go through a period of crucial development that will affect the rest of their lives!

Why Is My Cat So Scared of Everything?

cat meowing a lot

To understand how to help a nervous cat, you first have to understand why cats become nervous in the first place. There are a few reasons why.

Difficult Experiences Growing Up

Cats are like people in that they have a short window during ‘childhood’ when they have most of their development. For cats, this lasts for the first seven weeks or so of life. It’s during this time that cats learn what to expect from the world, and their place in it: how to hunt and play, whether people are to be feared or to be trusted, whether this loud noise or that loud noise represents danger, and so on.

If a cat has a difficult experience at this point in its life, it may struggle to ever fully trust humans. It may learn that it simply can’t get along with other cats, so it has to be defensive. It may learn that noises like that of a vacuum cleaner represent clear and present dangers!

When these things have been learned, it’s next to impossible for anxious cats to ‘unlearn’ them. It’s possible to work around them, but your cat may be nervous for the rest of its life.

Traumatized Cat Symptoms

It’s also possible for a cat to have traumatic experiences later in life. It takes a lot to significantly affect an older cat to the point where it’s traumatized, but it is possible. Living in a very stressful home with lots of other cats or cruel owners can traumatize a cat; abandonment and long term neglect can also harm a cat’s mental health.

The key symptom of trauma in cats is defensiveness. Your cat will react badly to anything that triggers its trauma. That could be a loud noise, the presence of a stranger, the sight of a travel cage, or anything that was involved in its initial traumatic experience.

Your Cat Doesn’t Feel ‘At Home’

Even if your cat was happy as a kitten, and hasn’t been through any traumatic experiences, it may still be nervous. That can happen when your cat is introduced to a new or unfamiliar place. It feels on edge because it doesn’t know what to expect from its environment: will there be predators that could attack it? Will there be other cats that might fight it? Even though your cat isn’t living in the wild, it still has an innate reaction like this to new places.

Cats come to feel at home by using pheromones. Pheromones are special chemicals that each cat produces—they’re like fingerprints, unique to each cat. When the cat smells its own pheromones, it knows that it’s somewhere familiar; when it smells the pheromone of another cat, it knows it’s in that other cat’s territory, or that the other cat is trying to take over its territory. When it can’t smell any pheromones, it will still be wary, because it’s somewhere unfamiliar.

This is obviously an issue when you’re introducing a nervous cat to a new home. But it can also be an issue in the long-term if:

  • You clean the house very frequently
  • There’s nothing in the house that belongs to your cat, like a cat bed or a cat toy
  • You clean your cat’s litter tray quickly and thoroughly every time it uses it
  • You groom your cat frequently and thoroughly, and dispose of all the hair/dander you brush away

Over time, your cat’s pheromones will build up in your home despite all this. But being so hygienic means a) that it only builds up slowly, and b) to a lesser extent. This will make your cat feel slightly more insecure in your home (albeit not as much as past trauma would).

How To Help a Nervous Cat

The first thing you should know is that it’s very difficult to turn a nervous cat into a happy one. You shouldn’t expect that the process will go smoothly, nor that it will result in your cat never being nervous again.

But there are things you can do that will help.

1) Start With The Person In The Mirror…

You likely aren’t responsible for your cat’s cat stress. But even if that’s true, it’s possible that you’re making your cat’s anxiety worse by reacting badly.

If they could talk, they probably wouldn’t admit it, but cats feed off of their owners’ feelings. If you’re happy and relaxed, then your cat will have an easier time being happy and relaxed. If you’re experiencing severe anxiety, then your cat might pick up on that and feel anxious as well. If you get angry with your cat, then it might get angry back. And it’s easy to react badly when your cat is nervous or defensive. You might:

  • Raise your voice without thinking
  • Approach your cat to comfort it (which your cat might interpret as aggression)
  • Try to punish your cat for certain behaviors like spraying, which are often rooted in nervousness
  • Force your cat to experience certain things that make it nervous, i.e. trying to make your cat ‘confront its fears’

Each of these things can make your cat’s nervousness worse. What works best is to always remain calm, don’t force your cat to do anything it doesn’t want to do, and to use a low, slow and soothing voice. Don’t approach your cat if it’s clearly feeling defensive.

2) Don’t Keep More Than One Cat

cats get along

Some cats take to living with other cats quite well. But they’re the exception rather than the norm. Most cats range from stressed to anxious or even aggressive when they encounter other cats in their territory.

The key misunderstanding most people make is that housecats aren’t sociable by choice. They aren’t like little lions that live in prides; the species that house cats were bred from live on their own in the wild. In select circumstances, feral cats will work together, but that’s the exception rather than the norm with our furry friends.

As such, if you have a nervous cat, it’s a bad idea to get another one. Your cat will almost certainly be happier if it only lives with you. If you have more than one cat, you could consider giving one to a shelter; that’s a big step, of course, but it’s no use keeping two cats that fight all the time as that won’t make either of them happier. The problem is that each cat can smell the pheromones of the other, which is the equivalent of a wild cat smelling the pheromones of another cat in its territory. This puts both of them on edge.

3) Give Your Cat Time & Space

Your cat doesn’t just need space away from other cats in your house. It also needs its own space period.

Again, this relates to pheromones. Cats emit pheromones all the time from lots of different parts of their bodies. That means that when a cat is sleeping, its coat is spreading pheromones on its bed; when it’s sitting on the floor, its bottom is spreading pheromones on the carpet. Over time, these pheromones build up in your cat’s bed and toys and make it feel at home. As such, you should pick a corner of a quiet room where your cat has its bed, its scratching post, and a few other soft furnishings that will pick up its scent.

Your cat may start retreating to this space when it feels threatened; that’s good, because it will find the smell of its territory comforting. When your cat retreats from something it finds frightening, don’t follow it. Just leave it be until it’s ready to come out.

4) No Surprises

You should do what you can to limit the surprises and shocks that your cat experiences. The fewer shocks your cat has, the more secure it will feel in its home, and the less cat anxiety it will experience. You should therefore limit:

  • The number of people, especially strangers, who come to visit. Cats can react badly to strangers, and having strangers come around frequently can put your cat in a state of unease, not knowing when the next person will appear. If you have to, meet at their house, or shut the cat in its own room before they arrive.
  • The number of loud and startling noises your cat has to hear. Cats can get frightened by loud noises from the TV or radio, from kitchen equipment, or from exercise equipment. Try to limit the number of loud noises you make where possible.
  • The sudden and unexpected movements you make. All pets prefer when you move slowly and in ways that they expect, and cats are no exception.

And needless to say, it can be funny to startle a cat, but if your cat is nervous all the time then it’s a bad idea. Doing so will leave your cat insecure and afraid of you.

5) Can You Train a Cat to Be Less Nervous?

This is an approach that people don’t often take with nervous cats, but there’s a possibility that it might work.

You may not think you can train cats—but you can. The trouble is that people try to train their cats the wrong way. Cats aren’t like dogs, so won’t do things just because they want to please you. There always has to be something in the exchange for the cat! That’s why clicker training is the best way to train cats.

Clicker training requires a special handheld device that has a button you can click. When your cat displays a behavior you want it to display, whether that’s peeing in the litter box or rolling over, you click the clicker and immediately give it a treat. The idea is that this helps the cat put two and two together: cats struggle to grasp cause and effect, but through clicker training, they quickly come to understand the link between behavior, click and treat.

Clicker training is often used to train basic tricks, but may also be used to encourage less nervous behaviors in your cats. You could use the clicker-and-treat combo each time your cat displays a curious behavior rather than a nervous one: when it sniffs a stranger’s hand rather than runs away, when it sits in your lap for the first time, and so on. Your cat may initially think that the ‘click’ sound is scary, and if it runs away every time you make it, you may have to try another method; but the treats should get your cat’s attention!

6) Can Music Calm Cats Down?

Music can calm cats down, but not in the way you might think. Music that might calm you down won’t necessarily work for your cat. According to PBS:

Cats, in fact, do enjoy music, but they don’t enjoy human music — at least according to new research. A study recently published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science believes that in order for our feline friends to enjoy music, it has to be species-specific music.

The trick for getting pets to listen is composing music that fits into how the animal communicates, writes University of Wisconsin psychologists and study authors Megan Savage and Charles Snowdon. “We have developed a theoretical framework that hypothesizes that in order for music to be effective with other species, it must be in the frequency range and with similar tempos to those used in natural communication by each species.”

More details of the music plus clippings are available from the press report linked above. Some of the music sounds relaxing, while some of it seems more upbeat. It’s possible that the more low-tempo and relaxing music that was created could help calm your cat down; but classical music or new age music wouldn’t be of much interest to your cat. Silence would be calmer than that for your cat.

7) Does Feliway Work?

skinny cat

Feliway is a product that’s like an air freshener, but instead of smelling nice, it makes cats calmer. It works because it contains a synthetic analog of a cat pheromone which the cat thinks is its own. As Feliway spreads the smell throughout your home, your cat is reassured that it’s in its own territory. And no, Feliway doesn’t stink like cat pee.

One problem with Feliway is if you have more than one cat. Both cats recognize the pheromones as their own. So, both cats feel like they’re in their own territories and that the other cat is ‘invading’ their space. Feliway made another product for people who have more than one cat called Feliway Multicat, which contains a different kind of pheromone: rather than a facial pheromone, Feliway Multicat contains a pheromone that cat mothers produce when they feed their young. This pheromone has a calming effect and helps the litter get along.

Some people report that Feliway doens’t work for them, while others say it does. It’s at least worth a go as it’s the most recognizable brand that sells things which calm cats.

8) How Can I Calm My Anxious Cat Naturally?

The first thing you should know is that Feliway is perfectly natural. It calms down cats by using a synthetic analog of a cat pheromone. That synthetic pheromone is the exact same thing as the real pheromone, only made in a lab; it’s not bad for your cat in any way. It doesn’t confuse your cat, make it anxious, or have any negative health effect on it. So if that’s something you’re concerned about with regard to Feliway, don’t be.

If you still want to try other options, there are some available. Jackson Galaxy has a range of cat products available, some of which—the Spirit Essences—are designed for all sorts of scenarios. Some are supposed to help the cat train; others are for assisting in recovery after spaying or neutering. One of the range is the Scaredy Cat solution, which is supposed to help nervous cats feel less nervous. The range is ‘holistic’, and each product is made from plant flower and root extracts. The scientific basis of how they work is unclear, but you may find that they work for your cat.

You could also consider giving your anxious cat catnip. Catnip is famous for helping cats relax and play. That’s because it’s an hallucinogen which has euphoric effects. It may help alleviate your cat’s anxiety briefly, or even long term, although no studies have yet shown that to be a potential effect. Still, it’s worth a try, as it has no side effects.

9) How to Help Cats With Separation Anxiety

Truth be told, this isn’t an easy thing to do. In fact, helping cats with separation anxiety is something worthy of its own entire post. But if this is a particular problem for your cat, the following tips might help:

  • Leave the TV and/or radio on
  • Give your cat a vantage point from which it can see outside
  • Ensure that your cat has lots of food and water available
  • Play with your cat and show it affection when you do get the chance
  • Consider letting your cat outside when you’re not around
  • Give your cat toys it can play with on its own

All of these tips make sense when you think from your cat’s perspective. If your cat is an indoor cat that only has you for company, then whenever you leave, your cat probably gets bored. Nothing happens when you’re not there, and if your cat can’t make its own fun or at least look outside, it must be counting down the hours until you get back. Or, perhaps your cat feels insecure about its food; after all, all of its food comes from you, and it may not feel that you’re coming back.

10) How Do You Calm an Anxious Kitten?

Calming an anxious kitten is a little different to calming an older cat. The best way is to allow the kitten to be with its mother. You shouldn’t separate a kitten from its mother until it can eat solid food and live independently anyway. Besides that, do everything in the list above to keep your kitten calm, because if you teach it to trust people now then it will forever.

Aside from these tips, respect your cat—there really is no better way to build a bond with your pet than to respect its wants and needs. If your cat doesn’t want to be pet, don’t pet it; if it doesn’t want to be picked up, don’t pick it up; if it doesn’t want to be tickled on the belly, don’t do that either. By respecting your cat’s boundaries, it will come to understand what to expect from you, so will always be comfortable around you!