How To Help Young Cats Overcome Their Fear

Find out why adolescent cats become afraid and what you can do to help them cope.

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A young cat's fears usually stem from poor socialization or a bad experience from when they were kittens. sabitcankose/iStock/Thinkstock
A young cat's fears usually stem from poor socialization or a bad experience from when they were kittens. sabitcankose/iStock/Thinkstock
Amy Martin

Does your cat have a fear of something that seems silly? Our adolescent cat was terrified of the ironing board, aluminum foil, and a certain pair of boots. Being afraid of those harmless things seemed pretty silly to us, but it was very real to my cat. A cat’s fear of something or someone doesn’t have to make sense to us; the fear is real enough to them.

Young cats can develop fears of people or objects for many reasons. With patience, insight and fun, effective tools, you can help them over come their fears.

The Many Faces Of Fear

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

Fear Factors

Fear in adolescent cats can be caused by a variety of factors, many of which occur when the cats are kittens and develop into fear-based behaviors later in life. Those factors include:

1. Lack of socialization to new and novel things.

For example:

  • A kitten who didn’t spend enough time with people.
  • A kitten who didn’t get to meet specific kinds of people or things, such as kids, dogs, the vacuum, boots.

2. Genetics and early environment.

For example:

  • Poor nutrition during fetal development (which can affect emotional development).
  • Poor maternal care.

3. Negative experiences.

For example:

  • A bad encounter with a person or object that was traumatic, intense or uncomfortable. (Fears can remain specific to the thing or person involved in the “bad” experience or become generalized.)

4. Pairing events.

For example:

  • If your cat is punished, or a disruptive, stressful event occurs at the same time that a particular person, object or other pet is present, your cat may later begin to pair or associate the person, object or animal with the unpleasant event.

“Typically it’s from not enough socialization or positive experiences as a young kitten less than 7 weeks of age,” says Dr. Elizabeth Arguelles, DVM, of Just Cats Clinic in Reston, Virginia.

Our young cat’s fears of the ironing board, aluminum foil and a pair boots are examples of something specific that he didn’t encounter as a kitten.

Helping Your Young Scaredy Cat Cope

Cats need coping tools when they are afraid. The key to helping them overcome their fears is to make them feel secure and gain confidence. Here are several coping tools.

1. Be the provider of all things good.

This builds trust, confidence and bonds that last a lifetime. Specifically, you can:

  • Schedule Meals. Instead of allowing your cat to free feed out of his bowl all day, set up a mealtime schedule. Be the one who brings deliciousness to your cat! Cats thrive on routines, so set up a yummy one.
  • Throw Out The Food Bowl. Invest in an interactive puzzle feeder. They’re mentally and physically stimulating, and provide a healthy outlet for anxiety.
  • Offer Activity Toys. Leave fun food and treat dispensing toys out when your cat is home alone. She will spend her day hunting and playing, which increases her confidence and helps her to feel good about her surroundings. You can even make your own by using recycled materials!
  • Schedule Play Time. Two or three sessions a day of interactive play will transform your scaredy cat into a confident cat! Play reduces anxiety, builds confidence, and creates positive associations with people and environment.
  • Keep Calm And Toss Them A Treat. Did your cat come out of her hidey hole without being prompted? Toss a tasty treat in her direction! Did she calmly walk past that open window? Toss her a treat! Did she climb onto her cat tower? Toss a treat! Did she catch the feather at the end of the interactive toy? Toss a treat! Tiny steps need huge rewards.

2. Provide areas of rest and refuge.

These areas are imperative to helping your frightened feline feel secure. Specifically, you can:

  • Build A Fortress Of Feline Solitude. Shy cats need a safe place where they can retreat to whenever they want to have some alone time. Make sure it’s quiet, cozy, and commotion-free.
  • Increase Vertical Real Estate. Provide plenty of spaces for your cat to climb! Wall and window perches, cat shelves and cat tree condos, allow cats to view their world from above peacefully and safely.
  • Create Cozy And Clever Spaces. Provide plenty of cat beds, cardboard boxes, and cat tunnels. All of these help cats to navigate and survey their territory safely and securely.
  • Offer Escape Routes. Survey the layout of your home. Are there areas where she can become cornered and trapped by other people or pets when using the litter box, eating, or exploring? Ensure easily accessible escape routes in all areas of the home.

3. Give them space.

  • Let Them Choose. Rather than pleading with your cat to come out, let her choose to come to you. If she wants to retreat, she probably has a good reason, so let her be. When she does decide to come out, stay calm, talk casually, and maybe toss a few treats her way.
  • Cover Them In A Cloak of Invisibility. Avoid exploding with joy when your cat comes out, (or doing the opposite – walking on egg shells) give your cat the feeling of being invisible. Fearful felines feel more secure if they know they can’t be seen. This allows her to navigate her world without being the focus of everyone’s attention.

4. Try a little tenderness.

  • Provide Homeopathic Remedies. Relaxation supplements and cat-appeasing pheromones can be very helpful. Ask your feline veterinarian!
  • Blink Slowly. Direct eye contact can make a fearful feline feel more frightened. Instead of staring at your cat, gently and slowly blink while looking in her general direction. Slow blinks calm cats.
  • Be Patient, Please. Gaining the trust of a timid cat can take a while, so we need to let the cat move at his own pace. Cats are very patient with everything they choose to do, so we must be too. You’ll make more progress on Feline Time.

Don’t Force Cats To Face Their Fears

If you’ve ever been afraid of something, then you can appreciate that the fear didn’t just go away the more you were exposed to it, or if someone said, “There’s nothing to be afraid of!” Forcing our cats to face their can exacerbate their fear, damage our relationship, and it doesn’t solve the underlying problem; the fear itself.

You Can’t Reinforce Fear

There are some that say comforting a fearful cat will only work to “reinforce” the fear, arguing that the pet will think she is being rewarded for her fearful behavior, but I disagree. Comforting your fearful cat will not make her more afraid, and it will not reinforce fear. In the very worst case, comforting your cat may not do anything, but it will not reinforce fear.

But fear can be contagious. When providing comfort to our frightened feline, we have to remember that cats can feel our emotions, anxiety and fear. If you’re afraid or nervous when you try to reassure your cat she could easily become more upset. It’s important to take a deep breath and remain calm.

Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Cats

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