Fraidy-cat and scaredy-cat are frequently used terms defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary as “someone who is very afraid of something” and “an unduly fearful person,” respectively. As a cat parent, I feel this is unjust — there’s no fraidy-dog or scaredy-hound in our lexicon. The irony is, my greatest household fears, like finding a spider or mouse, are calling cards for a rousing round of feline fun. But, when I touch the vacuum, my cats scatter like I would if I was ankle-deep in arachnids. So, what are cats scared of? And, more importantly, how can we help them overcome their fears? Let’s find out!
Before answering “What are cats scared of?” let’s look at why cats get scared in the first place.
From an evolutionary standpoint, a healthy amount of fear keeps the lineage going. Nathan L. Letts, PH.D., in a blog on Psychology Today, states that there is a basic fearful reflex ingrained in many animals at birth. And cats come with a lifesaving lion’s share of fearful triggers.
Some seem rational and many seem less so. So, why are cats so scared a lot of the time? Aren’t they considered predators? Perhaps, but they’re not at the apex. “Cats can be afraid of almost anything that is unfamiliar or has threatening qualities — it’s important to remember that although cats are predators, they are ‘mesopredators,’ meaning they are not at the top of the food chain,” says Dr. Mikel Delgado, Ph.D., and Certified Cat Behavior Consultant at Feline Minds. “They can also be prey, so it just makes good sense for cats to be cautious when it comes to unfamiliar experiences.”
I recently had a conversation with an adopter of a shyer cat who had an “a-ha” moment. The new pet parent was getting the kitty acclimated to his home and keeping her in one room (as per expert advice). She was slowly becoming friendlier, but he removed the bed frame so she couldn’t hide. This minor difference was a major change for the kitty and set the cat back to day one.
So, it’s imperative to know what triggers fear in our kitties. To us, the following items may seem like ridiculous things to be afraid of. But Dr. Delgado warns, “To the cat, the fear is very real — it may feel like life or death. A lot of aggressive behaviors stem from fear.”
What are cats scared of? The top 6 things that frighten cats.
- New people. Aka the vanishing cat of game night.
- New family members. Introducing your cat to a new cat, dog or baby, needs to take place slowly because the new dynamic is scary to them.
- Loud appliances. Household objects like vacuums, blenders, washers/dryers and blow-dryers can send cats scampering.
- Going to the veterinarian. Moving outside their familiar territory scares many cats.
- Moving to a new home. A mind-blowing experience that scares cats and many people.
- Cucumbers … well sort of! “Cats are particularly vulnerable and easily startled by having something change in their environment while they are distracted, like when they’re eating. So sneaking up and putting an unfamiliar object nearby is not recommended while they’re having a meal,” stresses Dr. Delgado. (As a general rule, don’t sneak up on any of your pets!)
What you can do to alleviate what cats are scared of.
It’s extremely important to be mindful of what you shouldn’t do! “One thing that many well-intentioned people do is try to ‘show’ the scared cat that the scary thing is okay,” says Dr. Delgado. “For example, if the cat is afraid of visitors, the guardian might drag the cat out of hiding when strangers come over to convince the cat that visitors are safe. This is called ‘flooding’ because the cat has no control over the exposure, and is considered very stressful!” Dr. Delgado emphasizes that this backfires and makes the situation much worse.
However, for phobia-stricken cats, she recommends management and desensitization. Managing a cat who is scared of the vacuum or visitors is accommodated by setting the cat up in a safe room before the scary thing happens. Desensitization often goes hand-in-hand with counter conditioning (changing a negative response to a positive one). Basically, it’s exposing the cat to the “scary thing” at a level that doesn’t trigger a fearful response and rewarding the behavior. If your cat is scared of men, get a man to sit quietly with the cat and feed her tuna. Over time, he can move closer to her. Clicker training is a teaching technique that works well for scared cats.
The best cure is always prevention: socialize, socialize, socialize your felines. Experts agree that helping your cat overcome things she is afraid of works best with patience and letting the cat set the pace.
Tell us: What are your cats scared of? How do you help them overcome their fears?
Thumbnail: Photography ©lopurice | iStock / Getty Images Plus.
Read more about cat behavior on Catster.com:
34 thoughts on “What Are Cats Scared Of? 6 Things Cats Are Scared Of and How to Help Them Overcome Those Fears”
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I have 2 cats, since a week ago they refuse to come upstairs. I have tried to entice them with snacks, they do eventually come up but as soon as they have had the snacks they belt down the stairs again. They keep on looking at the staircase. I do have a stairlift which has never bothered them in the past. What can be the cause of this, and then both cats…
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Four years ago, we adopted a rescue cat who was about a year old at the time. She is afraid of everything! She still will not let us pick her up, although she will jump up onto my lap when she wants to ( but not my husband’s). Any time the doorbell rings, she runs and hides. Our daughter has never even seen her! Taking her to the vet is a nightmare, which includes her panting and drooling, and usually pooping and/or puking on herself. We own an RV, and would love to be able to take her on trips with us, but that just doesn’t seem possible. Any help you can give would be most appreciated.
I have a “scaredy cat” also. I knew the person from whom I got him from as a kitten so I know he was not abused. He is afraid of everything. Like your doorbell, guests, my son, (but not one of the neighbors). The car ,the vet but not to the point of puking or pooping. I know they make calming treats or pheromone collars , but I have not tried either on my cat. I think it is just their personality. I have another cat (pound kitten) that thinks he can greet anyone and wants to be their friend. He is not afraid of loud noises like the vacuum. I am guessing there is not much we can do. It is who they are and we just got to give them love for their own uniqueness.
My cat is deathly scared of shadows, when I go to stroke her she jumps away because she sees the shadow behind it near her! Help?
We are so sorry to hear this! THese articles might help provide further insight:
We inherited our outdoor cat and her brother from our daughter. For years she has loved the outdoors but now won’t go out-even with her big brother to protect her or one of us outside with her. Clearly a trauma has changed her behavior. Though she approaches the door and sometimes meows to get out, when the door is opened she won’t go. Is there a way to help her overcome her fear and enjoy being outside again?
We suggest working with a behaviorist on this specific matter. We also suggest considering keeping your cat indoors —
Well my cat is the opposite..too frightened to come inside???
In your absence your cat might be scared by male tom cat who would have tried for mating
My cat is a newly adopted stray. She is not shy at all but as it turns out, she has a bad tooth infection, and administering the antibiotics has been traumatic. I am able to do it twice a day, but she’s scared of me now. She has been so affectionate, so the change and the fact that she’s sick has me feeling gloomy. Can our relationship return to normal once we’re done with the medical treatment?
Hi there Anna,
Thanks for commenting! You might find this article helpful on how to deal with a scaredy cat:
I got Kate when she was a kitten. Every night she would jump on my bed to say goodnight then go to the end of the bed or find another place in my room to sleep. If my door was closed, she would claw and meow until I let her in. She would always want to be near me. When she would sneak outside, she would come in at dark especially for a treat. For the last three days she will not come into the house and when I go to get her she runs away. She sits on the deck railing but won’t come in. Tonight she didn’t come at all. How can I get her so I can help her?
Sorry to hear you’re experiencing this. You might want to try enticing her with some food:
In your absence your cat might be scared by male tom cat who would have tried for mating
I found a stray cat near to my home. I’m worried to see it going on the streets and it might get hurt. So I managed to catch it and brought him back to my home yesterday. Maybe its two to three months old but its very scared of everything. It sits under my sofa and it never allows to touch him or it never comes out. He didn’t eat any food from last night. Can you please advise me what steps I need to take to make him feel comfortable.
Hi Marie —
Thank you for caring for this cat! We suggest reaching out to your local vet / rescue for the most specific advice. These pieces might help provide some insight, too:
It is scared now, but he will surely eat eventually. Make sure it has plenty of water. Give space and let it roam and eventually it will start to trust and warm up to you.
My cat hit my vacumm upstairs and it came on and scared him. now he will not come upstairs even though I moved it…How can I get him to come back upstairs?
There’s some good advice within this article, but these articles might help as well:
Put the vacuum downstairs and turn it on and he will probably go upstairs
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When we replaced our living room ceiling fan, my one kitty was terrified of it and took weeks to enter the room. After researching it, aparrently it’s a common fear. They feel like it could be a hawk. Who knew?
I adopted two six month old kittens. The shelter said they were found inside a dumpster. With lots of patience they have come a long way already. Their safe room is my bedroom. I lost my seventeen year old cat in February. He was everything to me. I live in a big beautiful house with my husband. They have every cat toy, seven foot tree house, three story penthouse, all kinds of cat beds. They love their new home. The whole house is set up for kitty. They sleep with me, let me pat them. Everything is on their terms. My concerns are they still run away at times. Will I ever be able to pick them up? They need their regular trips to my vet. She is the medical director and went through everything with my cat Jason. He had kidney disease, thyroid disease, inflammatory bowel disease. I gave him his medicine and fluids. I took of from work to keep him well. I did everything known to man for him. Now you know my dedication, I need to give my new kittens their flee and tick prevention. They will never let me get close enough to handle them. I do not want to ruin all the progress we have made. I cannot get them into a carrier to bring to the vet. Any advice on what else I can do to get them to really trust me? I am desperate please help me.
Sorry to hear you’re experiencing this. These pieces might help:
Try confining them to a small room like a bathroom. The large space of an open home might be too overwhelming for them. In a smaller room you can sit and spend time with them and let them come to you. I have taken in over 8 cats, all feral. Putting them in a smaller room has always helped me. It’s as if they felt safer and more comfortable, giving them time to acclimate to my home. I usually give it at least a week or two, going in and just sitting on the floor, letting them come to me. Just takes lots of patience and time. It’s also helpful if you can get other people to go and spend time with them as well. That helps them to be less fearful of visitors. Believe me, this method works!
I have a 16 year old male Pixiebob that we purchased from a breeder as a 3 month old kitten. He has been terrified of everything and everyone since the day we got him. He is particularly afraid of people other than me. I am the only person that has ever been able to do anything with him. He even was terrified of my husband who never did anything to scare him. Nothing I have tried ever made any difference and I run a beauty salon in my home so it’s not like he never saw new people. He just hates them all!! He also has sprayed in the house his whole life and nothing I have tried fixed that either. That is just how he is and will always be.
Sorry to hear you’re having issues. These articles might help:
We have a semi stray cat who visits every day.We thought he (def a Tom!) was feral but we think he may have a home somewhere as he doesn’t always want food. He has been coming for 4+ yrs but will not let us get within 6 ft of him. We have an outside kennel on the porch with hot pads & blankets in so he can be safe & warm…he often uses this when the weather is at it’s worst…rather than going to his other home…which we think must be pretty rubbish. We have 3 other cats…the large male (neutered) will chase Scaredy cat off if he sees him too. Any idea how we can get closer to Scaredy in case he ever needs medical help?
I helped with four feral kittens left here by sitting on the ground near them and dragging a broken branch across my lap. Soon they were running across my lap chasing the branch. They began to lose their fear and shyness. Not long after, they were following me in the yard. Soon they learned to live in the basement with a cat door. The joy boys of my life.