59: How to Calm a Skittish Cat

59: How to Calm a Skittish Cat

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cat Did What?

How to Calm a Skittish Cat

A cat can be trusted to purr when she is pleased, which is more than can be said for human beings.

~William Ralph Inge

First you breathe. Not a casual inhale-exhale, there I’m done. Rather, a long, slow, conscious, deep-from-the-belly breath, even counts on the in and out. You don’t need to be in bed, but it helps. Begin sitting up, breath now even, and sigh audibly, vocalizing softly from the top of your range to the bottom. Repeat as needed. Wait for cat to approach.

Note: This technique is not aimed at the extroverted cat. The extroverted cat will eagerly choreograph a Twyla Tharp ballet of twists and poses, circles and dips. She will tell you what she wants. You need only listen.

But a skittish cat won’t tell you. A skittish cat will arrive tentatively, squat just out of arm’s reach, and stare. Your job is to stare back, gently, not wide-eyed, and smile a Buddha half-smile. For now, do not move your body, just your facial muscles. This is essential in creating a safe, nonthreatening atmosphere. Remember, your cat wants love but she is afraid, untrusting.

Once she meets your gaze, which may take a moment, slowly lower and raise your eyelids as if you’re nodding off. She will mirror you. You are now eye-kissing. Continue for as long as you like. To deepen the mood, you may add a delicate, sympathetic furrow of the brow. Keep breathing.

When you feel ready, add the following: extend one hand, palm and fingers curled downward, soft and close to the covers. Repeat the audible sigh. Add smooching sounds if you wish, no louder than pianissimo and only if you feel comfortable. She’ll know if you’re not. She will continue to stare, curious but wary.

Next, scratch the covers lightly with your fingernails. At this point, unless your cat was irreversibly traumatized as a kitten, in which case she might flee, she will move toward you. Thank her. Not verbally, because calming her is not a verbal thing. Breathe.

Now unfurl your fingers and invite your cat to push her head into your hand. Begin to stroke her head, first along one jawline, sweeping behind one ear in circles, then switch sides. Then with one continuous motion press your fingers against her nose and massage up to the brow, traversing the skull, and trace a line down each furry vertebra, gently swooping the tail, and release. Let her control the pace and the pressure. She will tell you, if you listen. She wants you to listen.

Over time, as you repeat the encounter, she will lie down beside you. This is your cue to progress. Slide a palm firmly along her chest, up and down, scratching the belly, kneading the underarms, even skittling the tip of the nose. If she responds, try alternating rhythms and pressure, perhaps graduating to a two-handed back rub. Expect purring.

When you have mastered these techniques, you may proceed to the final phase. Position yourself beside your cat, stretching out fully, your front facing her back. Inch closer, then curl into her, spooning tightly. Move your head and hands as desired, nuzzling, petting, smooching, sighing, humming, breathing long and deep.

And if your cat stays still, and if she purrs, and if you yourself were not irreversibly traumatized as a child, you will experience your heart open, pulsing with boundless gratitude.

And if you can love in this way, you can love in every other way too.

~Deborah Sosin

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