Help A Cat Become Comfortable in a New Environment

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Our feline friends get stressed just like anyone, and who among us hasn’t wanted to hide under our desks when life starts getting tough? Cats can become extremely anxious and stressed from a stay in the shelter or being thrust into a brand new environment, and they often won’t show their true colors until they become comfortable. Even the most socialized cat can have her fur ruffled when moving from a shelter to a foster home or between rescue groups!

Many people are unaware that a cat’s anxiety can come across as aggression, when in truth she is just fearful and trying to protect herself. They are also unaware that there are ways they can help. We’re here to share that knowledge, and we hope you join us!

We have tips on how to calm kitty’s heart and help her personality come through:

NOTE: Community cats, who are generally not socialized to people, will become extremely frightened or stressed if brought into an indoor home. They are very attached to their outdoor homes and their feline families and should not be removed from the environment in which they thrive. Please keep that in mind and only bring cats indoors if you are certain they are lost pets, will adjust to an indoor home, and have the time and resources to devote to fostering, cat care, and adoption.

Relaxation is Key

A cat who is brand new to an environment may just need to take a breather and get her bearings 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.
  • If you’re in a home, bring her to an enclosed, quiet place where she can be alone but also slowly get used to her new environment’s sounds, sights, and scents. A bathroom or small bedroom works well–any area that does not have furniture or vents she can squeeze under/into and become stuck. 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.
  • Keep the carrier she was transferred in within her environment so she can hide in it if necessary. If possible, always transfer cats to a new home with items that smell familiar to them.
  • Follow a routine for all daily activities like feeding and, if in a shelter, cage cleaning. Predictability is a cat’s best friend and will help her adapt.
  • Cats mark their territory by smell. If the cat is in a cage, we recommend only spot-cleaning 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). In a home environment, avoid doing the laundry with that towel or blanket the cat came with unless it is filthy.
  • Wash the smell of other cats off your hands before trying to handle a fearful cat.
  • Do not let other cats or animals in the household interact with the cat. Slowly introduce them over the course of time, starting with letting them see each other through a baby gate or a crack in the door. A great first step is letting the other animal approach the closed door of the room the cat is in. They will smell each other under the door!

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. If she seems ready to explore, open the door and let her take those first steps.
  • When you do handle her, try doing so when she is 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 the cat 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 have to become used to their new environment. Once a cat has time to settle, it’s time to introduce a little “non-threatening adversity.”Initiate some contact and interactions to see where those boundaries lie. Then, slowly start to push those boundaries, offering food, treats, toys, or whatever the cat enjoys most as positive reinforcement. In the end, we have to help the cat realize we’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 or a wet wipe. 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 of a Fearful Cat

  • Hissing, growling, or spitting
  • Eyes dilated
  • Fur relaxed, head straight
  • Howling
  • Eyes dilated
  • Fur on end, head cocked, ears back


Learn more about the signs of socialization in a cat with our Socialization Continuum Guide.

If a cat eventually relaxes and warms up to you, you will know that you can find her an adoptive home.

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