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How Do I Help My Fearful Cat Feel Safe and Secure?

Follow these tips to create a calm environment and do things that encourage your cat to be a confident, visible member of the household.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Oct 23rd 2015


Do you live with an insecure and fearful cat?

You probably are familiar with the behaviors. Kitties show they’re feeling insecure and fearful in a number of ways. She may be a ghost cat — your only hints that you share a home with a kitty are the empty food bowls in the morning and the obvious signs she’s used the litter box. She may also regularly retreat under the sofa or bed. These are perfect locations for checking out what’s going on in the household without being detected. Or, she may exhibit her fear by picking and choosing: warming up only to family members while running from visitors. An insecure kitty might also urinate on your or other family members’ clothes and pillows. Others use their teeth and claws when cornered or picked up against their will. They feel they have no other options. On the other hand, depending on the individual cat, she may become clingy, constantly seeking attention from her favorite person.

Some cats react more fearfully to specific circumstances than others do. It depends on each cat’s personal history, personality, and triggering events. It is easy to identify some of these kitties when they are scared and insecure — others are subtler, making it difficult to detect their angst.

Why cats feel insecure

Behaviors driven by fear and insecurities help felines survive in hostile and unsettling environments. Although most household kitties do not live in inhospitable and threatening situations, they have legitimate reasons for the behaviors. Here are some of the common ones:

  • As a general rule, cats do not do well with change. New homes, owners, remodeling and even changes in schedule can unsettle them. It’s not surprising that newly adopted cats often disappear for awhile under furniture.
  • Some kitties come with a past. These fragile ones may have been abused or neglected at some point or they may have had little or no contact with people. Felines who were formally feral understandably are afraid and anxious when adopted into new homes.
Feral-cat-shutterstock_307646447

Feral cat by Shutterstock

  • Adopting new animals is stressful for resident cats and newly adopted ones, and it causes them to feel insecure.
  • Startling events, such as loud noises, unexpected movements, and being chased can be frightening and cause short-term anxieties. Even people walking with heavy steps or talking in loud voices can be alarming.
  • Chronic household chaos, such as tension between household members and constant change can trigger the behaviors.
  • Some cats hate being cornered, picked up, or petted against their will. Feeling they have no other recourse, they sometimes lash out.
Scared-cat-shutterstock_194991290

Scared cat by Shutterstock

Help your cat feel secure

Although it won’t happen overnight, many insecure kitties can be encouraged to feel safe and secure.

Set up the environment

The majority of fearful cats need their own rooms where they can start feeling safe. Ideal safe rooms are quiet, without sudden noises and activity. Bedrooms can be ideal sanctuaries. Many cats check out their people while they sleep.

No other resident animals are allowed in the room, unless the little one has a buddy. Bonded friends should always be together — separating them can cause both of them to become stressed. Kitties who habitually hide under furniture shouldn’t be allowed outside the room until they are feeling brave enough to venture out of their sanctuaries.

Here are tips on optimizing the safe environment:

  • Place vertical territory, such as cat trees and shelves, in the safe room as well as in other areas the resident kitties hang out. Cats feel safe observing the goings on in the home from high vantage points. Vertical territory should be at least five feet high. Taller is better.
Put cat trees in the sanctuary room

Put cat trees in the sanctuary room. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

  • The room needs boxes and tunnels. Angle them slightly toward walls, so the cat doesn’t feel exposed.
  • Scratching posts and horizontal scratchers are mandatory. Cats scratch for a number of reasons, including marking their territories and scratching when they feel conflicted and stressed.
  • Don’t forget the other essentials — comfortable places to sleep, food, water, toys, and, of course, uncovered litter boxes.
paw-shutterstock_175100210

Sanctuary rooms help cats feel safe. A cat’s paw by Shutterstock

Encourage your cat to feel safe

After her room is set up, the work begins. Depending on the cat’s level of insecurity, one person may have to be designated as her buddy and earn her trust. Other family members can start interacting with her after she starts feeling secure.

The key to help her overcome her fears is ensuring she has positive experiences around people. Whenever anyone enters her room, something needs to happen that she likes. If she is a foodie, then every visit needs to include treats or meals. If she is a player, then entice her with novel toys.

  • An effective method for working with traumatized and highly insecure kitties is sitting on the floor a distance away and reading out loud. Children’s books are perfect, because people’s voices become melodic and softer when reading them.
Reading to cats can help them feel secure. A woman reads by Shutterstock

Reading to cats can help them feel secure. A woman reads by Shutterstock

  • Consistency will help these little ones feel secure. Keep a schedule — feed her every day at the same time. If she likes to play, then dedicate specific times every day to playing. Entice her by rubbing treats on the toys. Clean litter boxes and visit her on a schedule. The more visits the better. The environment also needs to be consistent. Don’t move cat furniture or change the locations of the litter boxes or feeding stations.
  • Never corner or pet a cat against her will. Instead, encourage her to feel safe with treats and toys. She should always have the choice of coming forward or retreating.
Don’t corner insecure cats. A frightened cat by Shutterstock

Don’t corner insecure cats. A frightened cat by Shutterstock

  • Always reinforce your kitty when she does behaviors that show she’s starting to feel safe. Because there are different degrees of insecurity, her behavior may be as subtle as peeking out from under a bed or as blatant as asking for strokes and pets. Reinforcers are things and activities the cat loves.
  • Clicker training is an effective tool for helping kitties overcome fears. It’s fun, stimulating, and gives them the choice of participating. It’s also a great way to reinforce any behavior that is a step toward the goal of her feeling secure. It also works well for desensitizing cats to scary sounds as well as other frightening events.
Gradually the cat will feel secure enough to become part of the family. A cat stretches on a couch by Shutterstock

Gradually the cat will feel secure enough to become part of the family. A cat stretches on a couch by Shutterstock

Keep in mind, you are on the cat’s schedule. It may take days, weeks, or longer until she feels safe enough to join the rest of the household.

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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site and Skype consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods. Marilyn is big on education — she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.