Kittens come in all sizes, colors and personalities. Some are outgoing, and some are more timid. A little bit of shyness or fear is perfectly normal, but if kittens are not properly socialized, they can become too fearful.
Why Is My Kitten So Scared?
Proper socialization is key to raising a confident cat. Kitten social development mainly occurs between 2 and 7 weeks of age. This is the prime socialization period, which we’ll call the socialization window. Knowing what your kitten was exposed to during the socialization window (and how positive or negative her life experiences were at the time) will give you valuable clues to help you understand her fears and how to help her overcome them.
“Negative experiences and/or lack of socialization during this period can create shy and fearful behavior,” says Dr. Elizabeth Arguelles, DVM, of Just Cats Clinic in Reston, Virginia. “Positive experiences during this time can prevent this [shy and fearful] behavior. Socialization is critical at this age of development. Kittens that are not handled until after 7 weeks of age are more fearful and shy and will require additional care and socialization.”
Think back to when you brought your kitten home. What were the circumstances? Was she found on the streets or at a shelter? Was your kitten alone or with her mother and/or siblings? How long was she with her mother and siblings? How healthy was her mother? How healthy was your kitten when you found her? Was your kitten exposed to any fearful or traumatic events? How much positive interaction did your kitten receive from humans, other cats or dogs, or other animals? Do know old your kitten was when she was rescued?
If kittens are separated from their mother too early, they can become abnormally fearful, and even aggressive toward other cats and people. Furthermore, kittens taken away from their littermates too early can have a harder time integrating into a multi-cat household later in life, and can have difficulty bonding with other pets.
Having a cat who’s comfortable with a variety of people and things comes from providing her with frequent opportunities to meet a variety of new people and play around new objects. These meetings need to be under low-key, enjoyable circumstances, and it’s important for all of this to happen while your kitten is still in the socialization window.
I was fortunate to know one of our kittens since his birth. I knew his mother, Mama Cat. She was a shy, feral cat that lived on my back porch. After her litter of kittens was born, I brought them and Mama Cat to the vet to be spayed and neutered, and given their vaccinations. As simple as that process sounds, that kind of experience can be traumatic to a kitten — especially if it’s their first and only experience with humans. To prevent that trauma, my roommates and I spent a lot of our free time with the kittens (before and after the surgery) when Mama Cat was both present and off hunting. The goal was to get them used to a gentle human touch, the sound of humans’ soft voices, and to help them associate different people with Good Things, such as food, affection and play time. The positive experiences that we created during that critical socialization period prevented shy and fearful behavior in our kitten and his siblings.
Overcoming The Fear
When I transitioned our kitten from an outdoor porch kitten to an indoor house kitten, he was displaying shy and fearful behaviors. New people, pots and dishes clanging, doorbell ringing, and the vacuum roaring all had him running for the Kitten Hidey Hills. The worst thing I could have done for him when these things frightened him was to ignore his behavior and assume he would grow out of it. I also knew better than to force him to face his fears.
Try the following techniques to help your kitten overcome her fear:
1. Create structure and stability for your kitten.
Creating a stable, safe environment will go a long way in helping your kitten overcome her fears. Then you can slowly introduce the Scary Thing to your kitten to help desensitize her to it and see that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
To help my scaredy cat, I began by setting up a feeding, grooming and play schedule; cats thrive on routine. This helped him to feel secure. Then I very carefully and gradually introduced our kitten to the thing or person that frightened him, very gradually, to not overwhelm him. I began to pair the (low level) Scary Thing with delicious treats, affection, or playtime. By slowly desensitizing and counter-conditioning him to the Scary Things, he learned that they weren’t so scary after all.
2. Remove your kitten from the scary situation.
One of the easiest things that you can do when your kitten is afraid is to remove her from the situation. This is what most frightened kittens would choose to do if they could. It’s also the best option if you and your kitten do not yet have the skills to effectively cope in the presence of a Scary Thing. If you cannot remove your kitten, you can help him by providing comfort.
3. Comfort your kitten.
You have probably heard, “Don’t comfort your kitten when she is afraid! You’re just reinforcing her fear!” Can you imagine a mother tiger walking away from her offspring when her baby is afraid? When a wild animal’s offspring is unsure of something, their mother will comfort them — and that’s what we should be doing when our kitten is afraid.
Kittens need affection and reassurance. Both of these emotional needs help kittens to feel secure. A sense of security reduces fear and prevents anxiety. You have permission to calmly comfort your kitten when she is afraid. You are not reinforcing her fear.
4. Redirect your kitten’s attention.
Another tactic you can try when your kitten is showing fear is to redirect her focus onto something positive that will change the way she’s feeling. Ask yourself, What will make my kitten feel happy, relaxed or playful? I like to first offer tasty treats or food. If your kitten is too afraid to eat, you can try to engage your kitten in a gentle, casual game of chase-the-prey with an interactive toy. You can also talk gently to her.
Too Late In Life?
If you have a shy or fearful kitten who’s missed the prime socialization window, it’s not too late! Dr. Arguelles explains how you can help your kitten overcome her fears in her early years.
“If the kitten is under seven weeks of age, continued positive experiences and socialization will gradually help any shy kittens,” Arguelles says. “If it’s past the seven week mark, owners will have to work with the kitten slowly to build trust and develop a relationship. Keeping a routine, talking to the kitten, gentle petting and treat or food rewards can help strengthen the bond.”
If you embrace your kitten guardian role with love and devotion, you’ll raise a kitten with confidence, reduce her fears and create a strong bond between you and her — for life!