Soothe a Stray

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Our feline friends get stressed just like anyone who among us hasn’t wanted to hide under our desks when things are tough? But when trying to find a home for a community cat, the way they handle stressful situations such as being in a trap or shelter can be misleading. Know that when a cat shows signs of anxiety, which can come off as aggression, she’s just trying to protect herself.

Don’t worry! With help from cat expert Joan Miller, we have tips on how to calm the kitty’s little heart and help her personality come through.

Relaxation is Key

The kitty may just need to take a quick breather to calm down. Here’s how you can create a calming situation for her to relax:

  • Give the cat as much time as possible to calm down.
  • Take her to quiet place where she can be alone if you’re in your home, a bathroom works well. At a shelter, we’d recommend using a “˜cat den‘ for her to settle down, which gives her somewhere to hide inside the cage. Cages or crates should also be kept off of the floor she’ll feel better when she can see all of her surroundings.
  • Follow a routine for all daily activities like feeding and cage cleaning. Predictability will help her adapt.
  • Cats mark their territory by smell. Miller recommends spot-cleaning cages to leave the cats’ scent inside. Additionally, spot cleaning will be helpful since she won’t have the added stress of being removed from her cage during cleaning time, then placed back in to her cage (which now smells different) or a new cage (which may smell like another cat). Also wash the smell of other cats off your hands before trying to handle her.
  • The cat may hold a grudge against the trapper or veterinarian. Let someone else handle the cat for feeding or play time.

Empower the Cat

Feeling in control of her environment can make a cat feel much more confident. Here’s how to hand over some of the power:

  • If possible, let the cat approach you first. If she’s reluctant to approach but seems interested, try offering a small spoonful of canned cat food or tuna as you talk to her, and this could help entice her to come to you.
  • Cats like choices. Give her climbing options in her cage or a play area for her to use as she pleases.
  • Don’t keep the cat hidden in a quiet room after she’s had time to calm down. Instead, give her a chance to get used to where she’s going to be handled.
  • Handle her on a table or high surface so she won’t feel threatened from above.
  • Don’t take cats out of the carrier headfirst. The cat doesn’t know what is happening and could become defensive. Try using a top-loading carrier or bring the cat out bottom first so she can keep her eyes on what’s familiar.
  • Try not to handle her by her scruff.
  • Let her play outside of her cage with toys that let her exhibit her inner mountain lion (like toy mice).

Challenge the Cat

Although cats need plenty of R&R, they also can benefit from what Miller calls “non-threatening adversity.” Initiate some interaction to help you determine if the cat has been socialized in the past, and help her realize that you’re not so bad after all.

  • Don’t let her play a one-sided game of hide and seek all the time. Interact with the cat at least one to two times per day.
  • Carefully groom the cat with your hand. She may be too shy or frightened to clean herself.
  • Speak in a low, calming voice.
  • Don’t mistake fear for aggression. “Hissing is the language that cats use just as a warning. It really doesn’t mean they’re aggressive. And I feel the same with growling. The low growl…is just sort of an anxiety expression,” Miller says.

Signs to Tell if a Cat is Frightened or Aggressive


  • Hissing, growling, or spitting
  • Eyes are not dilated
  • Fur relaxed, head straight


  • Howling
  • Eyes dilated
  • Fur on end, head cocked, ears back

If a cat eventually relaxes and warms up to you, you will know that you can find her an adoptive home. If the cat does not improve after a few days, then it’s time to return her to her colony.

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