Help Your Scaredy Cat Overcome Fear

Get the tools to transform your timid adult cat into a confident feline.

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Lack of socialization, genetics and traumatic experiences can all cause a cat to be fearful. dejanaq/iStock/Thinkstock
Lack of socialization, genetics and traumatic experiences can all cause a cat to be fearful. dejanaq/iStock/Thinkstock
Amy Martin

“Oh, she hides all the time. She’s just shy.”

I have to be honest with you — an adult cat who hides all the time is probably not a happy cat. She’s most likely stressed out and afraid. But here’s the good news: You can help your frightened feline to shed her scaredy cat skin so she can feel safe, secure and live a happy life.

What Fear Looks Like

In addition to hiding, cats display fear in a variety of ways from spraying and marking to destructive scratching to threatening behavior displays to overt aggression to avoidance and even purring. A cat’s fear response will vary based on individual life experiences, age and genetics.

How Fear Sets In

There are many reasons cats develop fear and anxiety.

“Learned experiences, like a bad vet experience, hospitalization or fights with other animals” can cause some adult cats to be shy and fearful, says Dr. Elizabeth Arguelles, DVM, of Just Cats Clinic in Reston, Virginia.

Other causes include:

  • Genetics
  • Lack of ample early socialization and exposure
  • Fear-evoking experiences
  • Unfamiliar people, cats, dogs or environments
  • Wild animals
  • Kids
  • Loud or startling noises OR excessive, ongoing noise
  • Changes in the cat’s home environment
  • Car rides
  • Too many cats in the home
  • Cluttered, dirty, stressful home environment
  • Target of bullying by other animals
  • Stressful or traumatic experiences (abuse, neglect, abandonment)
  • Major life changes (rehomed, surrendered to shelter)
  • Change in family (new owner, death, divorce, new baby)
  • Pain and illness
  • Irregular and unpredictable feeding
  • Irregular and unpredictable cleaning of litter box
  • Lack of affection
  • Unpredictable or unfamiliar handling
  • Lack of mental stimulation
  • Lack of choices or lack of control over a situation

If we know what is causing the cat to be stressed, we can help prevent it and stop fear from setting in.

“It’s important to understand where the fear is coming from, and what in particular is causing it,” Arguelles says.

She also suggests cat owners talk to their veterinarian about stress reducing options.

Fear Can Cause Serious Problems

Many unwanted behaviors stem from a feeling of fear, or lack of safety or security. Stress is a significant trigger for most common cat behavior problems.

Cats in a constant state of fear or stress are more susceptible to diseases, and their immune systems are not as effective. Chronic stress and fear can turn into health issues if left untreated.

Tools You Can Use

Fear is sticky like gum; it’s easy to attach, but can be hard to remove unless you have the right tools. Try the following techniques to help your cat feel more safe and secure.

1. Allow your cat to choose to participate.

Cats feel more secure and relaxed when they are given choices. A cat who feels secure feels less afraid or stressed. Here is a technique you can use to help you cat feel more comfortable by allowing her to make a choice about whether or not she wants to participate.

In a cat’s world, scent communication plays a big role in how cats recognize one another. When cats greet one another, they will sniff nose-to-nose, then either walk away or do more sniffing. An extended index finger can act as a faux cat nose.

Here’s how you can do it (and teach your house guests):

  1. Sit few feet away from your cat.
  2. Calmly extend your index finger, at the same height as her nose.
  3. Wait for your cat to investigate.

If your cat wants to investigate you, she will walk toward your finger and rub her nose and cheeks along your finger. If she rubs her nose or cheeks along your finger and walks away, she’s done for now, but don’t be discouraged; you’ve made progress! If she moves closer or sits and her body language is relaxed, she is comfortable in your presence.

This technique works well with shy and fearful cats because we are not advancing toward the scared cat.

2. Distract your cat with something she enjoys doing.

When your cat is doing a behavior that’s fun, or one she feels good about, the fear is going to take a back seat. If you can encourage your cat to do any of these behaviors when she is experiencing fear, you are going to help your cat tremendously:

  • Eat
  • Perform a command (jump, target, sit, come, etc.)
  • Groom (calmly)
  • Play
  • Hunt
  • Explore

Play is a powerful tool. Play encourages cats to have fun and engage in their natural predatory behavior. When you encourage your cat to play, you are creating an environment in which your cat feels safe and in control. When playing together, your cat is interacting with someone they feel good about. This helps your cat to reduce her fears about people as well.

Food is another powerful tool. It is a primary motivating force for all animals. Does your cat like food or treats? Congrats! You have another tool to use! When food is presented to a fearful cat in the presence of a stimulus (Scary Thing) that causes fear or anxiety, the smell and taste of the food bypasses all other parts of the cat’s brain and goes directly to the brain’s emotional center, the amygdala. Instead of experiencing a fear response, the cat’s brain begins to be overcome with feel-good feelings from food. It also allows a cat to focus on the feel-good sensation and less on the negative feeling.

3. Help change her feelings about the Scary Thing.

Many behavior problems are rooted in how the cat feels about something, so the most effective treatment addresses the feeling that’s causing unwanted behaviors. Fear is an emotion that can be changed, so you help your cat overcome her fear of something when you change the way she feels about that something that frightens her.

What does your cat consider a Scary Thing? Now think of something delicious that she cannot resist. You want to very gradually pair them together. Once your cat begins to associate Good Things with the Scary Thing that previously evoked fear you will change your cat’s underlying emotional response (fear). Unwanted behaviors are replaced by better behaviors when your cat is in the presence of the Scary Thing.

Be Sure To Listen

We actively listen to our cats when we learn to read their complex and subtle body language, recognize their moods, and understand their individual needs. If you understand what your cat is trying to tell you, you can appreciate what they are feeling about a particular situation.

We can’t begin to really understand our adult cats until we can see their life from their perspective. This is the key to helping them cope and overcome their fears. Learn to listen to your cat. Give her choices. Reduce the environmental factors that trigger her stress response. Increase environmental enrichment. This is how we help our scaredy cats.

Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Cats

Comments

  • I rescued an abused scaredy cat. Took 2 years before he trusted me. He allowed my older cat to groom and socialize him. They bonded immediately. With coaching from his mentor, he eventually approached me.
    Now he is all over me , purring & head butting. But he still hides under the bed when anyone else is around. I think it is a habit, even a game. We laugh as he scurries from one room to another, hiding under various beds and in closets. Even though he is now happy and secure, he refuses to give up the run and hide habit. I suspect it is reinforced by the older cat, his mentor and alpha cat. They like it that way. So who am I to complain?

    Mimi October 25, 2016 12:31 pm Reply
  • For my cat, it worked in reverse. The topical flea treatment is the scary thing. I tried pairing it with her favorite food-tuna. Now, whenever she smells tuna she hides!

    Lorraine October 25, 2016 12:44 pm Reply
  • husband rescued kitty from out in the bitter cold winter a few years ago, she is friendly with him but runs from me for some rreason, if i am feeding her tuna or her food if shes hungry she will come by me. she is afraid of a lot of things, a/c coming on, sweeper etc.,

    Joyce October 25, 2016 5:02 pm Reply
    • Keep it coming, wrtsrei, this is good stuff.

      Alex November 30, 2016 8:42 pm Reply
  • XLNT article! We adopted TWO scaredy kittens (litter mates) about 4 years ago. They’re getting better, little-by-little. We also have two “normal” cats — one the “queen” and the other a 2-year old “junior princess!” The two scaredy sisters never emerge when a stranger is in the house. They’ll come around for food and rarely a little socializing. One will sit on my lap for about 30 seconds, purr like crazy, take off, come back, etc. ! One will touch her nose to my finger, let me groom her a little, then lay on her back and let me rub her tummy for about 6 seconds, then she’s gone, too!

    Mike October 26, 2016 7:03 pm Reply
  • We had to give up several of our cats because they were terrorizing one female cat, she’s full grown, but not much larger than a 6 month old kitten, she’s a miniature long haired calico, but she was so scared she would defecate anywhere and everywhere whenever these cats would enter or get near her. They also constantly attacked her, now these cats had all grown up together and no matter what we tried, we just couldn’t get her to come back out and resocialize with the “cat bullies” in the house. Our last alternative was to surrender those that constantly bullied her to a no kill pet rescue organization and allow them to locate them new homes. We were saddened to lose some of our feline friends, but the ones that remained she has no issue with and is now out from hiding, socializing with her “lost cat buddies” and playing again. So sometimes it’s in the best interest of a scared cat that is so terrified as our little mini calico was to just surrender the bullies and allow a pet rescue to rehome them. All our cats are indoor only and all are spayed and neutered, we hoped that would have stopped the aggression from the resident bullies, but it just didn’t cease and after 3 months of this, we placed the bully cats into the hands of a pet rescue. Not an easy thing to do since these cats had been with us for 2 – 3 years {since they were young kittens}, but sometimes this is the only recourse of action to be done.

    CatLoverPerson October 31, 2016 1:44 pm Reply

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