How to Destress Traumatized Cats in Shelters, Rescues, and Foster Care

As cat lovers, we hate to think about anything bad happening to an animal we love so much. Unfortunately, bad things do happen, and cats end up in shelters and rescues, often traumatized from their past or simply stressed in their new environment.

These organizations often rely on fosters, who serve as temporary pet parents to help cats get out of the shelter or rescue and into a home setting, where they can decompress. While cases can be extremely complicated and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, there are some tips I want to share for people who work or volunteer in animal welfare that can help cats in these situations.

First, we’ll take a look at shelter and rescues that have physical locations, and then we’ll discuss some things foster parents can do once the cat is out of a group setting.

Shelters and Rescues

Thank you for devoting your time to loving cats and working or volunteering in such a hard field. Your talents and kind heart are exactly what these cats need! Now, I know you’ve got some stressed and scared kitties. There are a number of things you can do to help.

Physical Exam

Make sure all physical exams involve checking the teeth, heart, and feeling for lumps. You want to make sure a traumatized cat isn’t reacting because they’re in pain from bad teeth, have a heart condition, or possibly cancer. You likely already do this at your organization, but I wanted to specifically mention it because I’ve seen bad teeth get missed during busy times (like kitten season).

Please stress to your vet and staff how important it is to properly assess cats during intake and look for basic things that can be apparent without diagnostics. A super stressed cat may need to receive a mild sedative to be examined.

Barking Dogs

I’m not an expert on logistics and the setup of kennels, but I will make one suggestion. If you have dogs and cats, do your best to keep cats as far away from the dogs as possible.

Studies have shown that dog barking is extremely stressful for cats in the shelter setting. If that isn’t an option, I suggest consulting with a company that does soundproofing because they will have suggestions on things you can do to minimize traveling sounds.


All that being said, a calm quiet space is always best, so make your #1 goal is to make the space as relaxing as possible. Sometimes, using Bluetooth speakers and playing meditation music can help.

There are even artists who compose music that’s in the same frequency range as cats when they vocalize, and studies show cats respond to it. Just the vibration of the music can be soothing for them.

No Talking … Sometimes

While some cats enjoy when you talk to them, others will not, and silence will be your best tool. You’ll need to rely on your body language to build a connection with these guys.

You can try slow blinking at them. Although it wouldn’t be feasible in all shelter and rescue settings, you could also sit right outside of their kennel while you’re reading or on your phone. This takes the pressure off of them because they know you’re not moving, and there is no attention coming at them (attention can be intimidating for some cats).

Body Language

Do not allow people who are uncomfortable with cats to interact with traumatized, shy, fearful, or aggressive cats. A person who is stressed themselves, makes jerky movements, or doesn’t approach a cat confidently is at high risk of injury or making a cat that already lacks confidence even worse.

Assign employees and volunteers who are experienced and confident to work with the tough cats, and consider adding a training program that focuses on this population. Confidence, patience, and awareness are key traits when working with traumatized cats.


Treats come in many different forms, and you might need to go through a lot of them before you find one that works for each cat. Pate in a tube seems to work the best when it comes to gaining trust from shy and scared cats.

If you can get the cat to come up to the bars and lick the tube, that’s a huge win, but even squirting some into the kennel and letting the cat lick it up can work. Another way to deliver this type of treat is by putting it on the end of a wand toy and allowing the cat to lick it off.

Don’t be startled if they swat at first. The nice thing about this technique is you can keep a lot of distance between you and the cat, which should make you both feel safe, but you’re still directly interacting with the cat. Plus, let’s not forget that sometimes baiting a cat with treats is how some amazing cat/human bonds are born!


There are a number of ways you can use toys to try and connect with a cat in a kennel. One of the ways I recommend starting with is using a wand toy (like above) but using the end to pet the cat on the nose and head. You’ll have to go very slow, and if the cat seems scared of it, take a break. If it works, you’ll be able to almost pet the cat with the wand.

You can also try slipping the stringy part through the bars to see if the cat will go after it. Although traumatized cats might be too scared, if they were big hunters in the past, some have a hard time resisting a moving object like that.

It’s possible to unlock a shy or scared cat with play, so I always say this is worth a try because it’s not overly complicated, and if the cat doesn’t go for it, no harm is done.



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