Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.
Hiding, growling, swatting, and hissing: Cats who are naturally shy and high-strung might show these behaviors when they’re feeling afraid and insecure. Often mistaken for being aloof and/or aggressive, the “scaredy cat” is merely a timid cat who feels most comfortable in a stable, predictable environment.
When these cats feel extreme fear and anxiety, most of them tend to hide, but they might also become aggressive if they feel cornered. Often they end up being mislabeled as mean when they growl or swat out of fear, but this behavior is merely their natural fight-or-flight response to new people, places, or things.
Why some cats become fearful
What makes some cats bold, some calm, and others afraid is a complex question. I believe some of their behaviors are genetically influenced, while others are learned and shaped by environment.
For example, I have four feline siblings who were brought to me at seven weeks old as feral kittens, and I raised all of them in the same loving way. Three of them are loving cats who enjoy being petted; the fourth, Brownie, is still reclusive and runs away if I stand up while she’s in the room.
A common thread among scaredy cats is poor or no socialization early in their lives. Kittens separated from their mothers and siblings too early in life are prone to behavioral issues and lack of social skills, often causing them to become more fearful of people and other cats. This is also part of Brownie’s issue, because she and her siblings were found abandoned when they were four weeks old.
Abuse is another factor that can alter a cat’s behavior. A cat who has been abused can become fearful, reacting to new situations by hiding or being aggressive.
What triggers fear in cats
Fear triggers depend on the individual cat, but some common things tend to cause fearful reactions.
- A new environment. Changes in environment aren’t always a bad thing, but they will upset the scaredy cat. Merely being adopted and brought into a new home is stressful, and you might hear some growling and hissing and even experience some swatting. This is especially true of cats who’ve been shuttled around from home to home. When I adopted Hope, it took months before she stopped being constantly scared because of previous abuse she experienced.
- Strangers. Some cats will bond with only one or two people, shunning all others. My Peanut is such a cat. He’s very sweet and loving with me and the other cats, showing no fear at all. But if someone comes over to visit, he hides and isn’t seen again until the person leaves. I had a houseguest recently, and Peanut hid until my guest went to bed.
- Loud noises. Most cats get scared by loud noises, but the scaredy cat will often burrow under the bed or inside a closet and not come out for hours. Vacuum cleaners, thunder, fireworks, and even someone knocking at the door will cause them to seek a favorite hiding spot.
- New pets. The scaredy cat might react to new pets either by hiding or by exhibiting uncharacteristically aggressive behavior toward the newcomer. It’s not really that
he wants to hurt the other pet; he’s simply reacting to his fear of being hurt by the new pet. Once fear subsides, the aggression stops as well.
- Household changes. When a new person joins the household or someone leaves, or even just rearranging the furniture, can send the scaredy cat into fear reactions. Once when I moved into a new apartment, I also bought a new living room set at the same time. Big mistake! My Mischief was so scared that she wedged herself under the new sofa and wouldn’t come out.
Helping your scaredy cat adjust
You can do certain things to lessen your scaredy cat’s fear and help him become less shy:
- Expose him to other people. Ask people to give your scaredy cat treats and toys when they come over to visit.
- Avoid looking your shy cat in the eyes. Although my Lovey enjoys snuggling, if I look him directly in the eyes he gets scared and runs off.
- Stay near, be patient. Sit by your scaredy cat when he’s hiding, and talk to him in soothing tones. Leave him a toy or treat and let him come out on his own.
- Never force him. Give your cat safe places such as tall cat trees and cubbyholes where he can watch the world but still feel secure and hidden.
If your cat’s fear seems to be getting worse, take him to the veterinarian to rule out health issues. Medication might also help calm him.
Accepting your cat the way he is and his behavior for what it is will do much toward helping your scaredy cat feel more secure. He probably won’t become fearless, but he will feel less afraid whenever he is by your side.
About the author: Rita Reimers’ cat behavior counseling sessions have helped many kitties remain happy in their forever homes. Visit her website, the Cat Analyst, to learn more about her services and to read her cat behavior blog. Rita is also owner/ CEO of Just For Cats Pet Sitting . Connect with Rita on Facebook and Twitter.