Maybe you are struggling through the front door with a basket from which a howling ball of fur is trying to dig his way out.  Or perhaps the basket contains a completely silent feline statue paralysed rigid with fear, which you’re hoping is still actually alive.  

Gently Does It

Either way, you may well be questioning your wisdom in offering to adopt a cat whose pen door at the rescue home declared: “Extremely nervous.  Needs very quiet home.”


You put the basket down, open the lid and one of two things happens – the cat dematerialises out of the basket faster than your eye can follow him and bolts behind the nearest piece of furniture. Or the catatonic statue appears to have developed feline superglue on all four paws and no amount of tugging can get him out.

Your home is “very quiet” – there are no noisy children or rampaging canines.  All the new cat had to do was get out of his basket, have a look round to see just how quiet and peaceful it is, and settle down in his new basket for a convivial life of tranquillity.  You know that, only he doesn’t.

If a cat is very nervous there’s always a reason, or maybe several reasons.  He may be a semi-feral or a stray unused to human contact.  He may be timid by nature, and be struggling to cope with being taken away from a familiar home and put into a rescue home, in close proximity to many other cats and dogs and their intimidating sights and sounds and smells.  Perhaps he’s been run over, and in addition to any other stresses he may be suffering, has had to cope with all the trauma of an accident and treatment at the vets.

Whatever his background, what happens – and just as importantly doesn’t happen – in the first few hours and days after your cat comes home will dictate the duration and even the ultimate outcome of the settling-in period. 

So what can you do to make sure your new cat feels as safe and happy as possible, as quickly as possible?  The answer is – quite a lot!

Preparation Is Everything

Before you even set out to bring your cat home, you must have designated and prepared one room as a “holding bay.”  This room must have a closable door and a large piece of furniture such as a bed or a sofa where there is space behind or underneath for a cat to hide.  It must also be a room which you can manage without using for several weeks. Protect any bed linen or furniture covers – very stressed cats are liable to have accidents or deliberately urinate to mark their territory.

Immediately before you go to collect the cat, put down food and water on the side of the room furthest from the door, and a litter tray as far away from the food as you can.  (Tinned food is better than dry food because it smells more strongly and is more likely to tempt him to eat).  By all means have a sleeping basket with some bedding in, preferably off the floor, but also put something comfy like old towels underneath the bed or behind the sofa. A nervous cat can be guaranteed to want to hide when he arrives, and if you have provided him with a ready made “den” then so much the better.  If there are other people or animals in the house try to arrange for them to be out on your return.  The ideal scenario is that that you and the cat should return to a quiet and empty house.

Home Sweet Home

When you collect him, don’t make a big fuss and in particular don’t try to stroke him.  Your aim must be to get him back into the peace and security of his “holding bay” as quickly and steadily as possible.  But do talk to him.  Talk to him as you put him into the car; talk to him all the way back, talk to him as you take him out when you arrive home.  It can be any kind of complete nonsense you want – the important thing is that your voice is continuous, steady and gentle.  Use his name as much as possible so he gets used to the sound of the word.

Once home, get the basket out of the car as soon as possible.  Every second seems an age to a traumatised and terrified cat, so don’t bother getting your shopping or coat out, leave them until later. Get him into his room, put the cat basket down next to the food and go back to shut the room door.  The whole time you are doing this you are still talking to him. By putting the food, and therefore the basket, as far away from the door as possible, you minimize the chance of him beating you to the door and bolting out of it when you go.  Now open the lid of the cat basket and quietly walk out of the room, shutting the door behind you.  This is the point at which what you don’t do is of paramount importance. Do not make any attempt to get him out of the basket, and don’t try to pat him.  You may think a little cuddle might make him feel happier and more secure, but you are a complete stranger in a strange place and he currently views you as threatening and frightening.  After what he has probably been through how can he think anything else?  An attempt by this intimidating creature to make physical contact with him will be terrifying to him.

Now do nothing until the next day – and that really is nothing.  Don’t even open the door to look, and make sure everyone else in the house has the same instructions. 

The next day, open the door slowly, talking to him with his name again and see what has happened.  The cat will almost certainly be hiding in his den, but hopefully the food will be gone and the litter tray used.  Bring a bottle of water in to top up his bowl and a tin of food and let him hear the noise of you scraping out some food into his bowl.  Wrap up the waste from the litter and quietly leave again.

A healthy cat will not willingly starve himself to death, and if left in peace and quiet, with a supply of food, even the most frightened cat should be eating within two days.  However, if there is no food gone after this period of time, then ring your vet for advice. 

Letting Time Pass

This will be your pattern; so long as the food and water are disappearing, and the litter tray being used then everything is going well.  Do not be tempted to try to get him out of his den, patience is the key and any attempt to force him will put you back.  What should happen after a while is that when he hears the door opening he may well poke his head out of hiding – resist that temptation to rush over and pat it!  The next stage is that he will creep out while you are putting the food into the bowl, and may not mind you sitting quietly nearby while he eats.  This is a huge milestone, and once he has been used to you being near him during mealtimes, put a hand out and gently scratch behind his ears while he is eating.  This is the place to touch him which is least likely to annoy or frighten him.  But remember – just to get to this stage may well take far longer than you imagined, even several weeks is not unusual.

Carry on letting your cat dictate the pace.  Eventually you will find he comes out of his den and is moving freely about the room.  There are several signs that he is ready to move out into the rest of the house.  He may be sitting on the windowsill and looking out, taking an interest in the outside world.  Or he is continuously looking past you through the doorway when you come in.  Again, let him decide what he feels comfortable about doing.  Leave the door to his room open and let him explore.  He is likely to do this very fearfully at first, so the rest of the household must be told not to rush up to him if a timid head appears round a door frame.  Get everyone else used to talking to him and using his name. 

Home and Dry

If you follow the above advice you will find that patience and perseverance will achieve miracles with even the most nervous of cats.  An unlooked for bonus is that, although such a cat become may well become affectionate and friendly with other humans, he will often be completely devoted to the one person who gave him the unconditional and patient love which he needed to recover – you!

© Kath Ashley

A Cats Purr

"Cats make one of the most satisfying sounds in the world: they purr ...

A purring cat is a form of high praise, like a gold star on a test paper. It is reinforcement of something we would all like to believe about ourselves - that we are nice."

Roger A Caras

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