Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.
The vacuum strikes terror into the hearts of my cats, Jack and Phillip. As soon as I pull it out of the hall closet, both cats retreat to their super-secret hiding spots, and not even my mom can coax them out. (Both of my cats are head over heels in love with my mom, so this is a pretty big deal.)
I’m guessing that the vacuum prompts similar reactions from your cats — or perhaps they run in panic from the blow dryer or another sudden, loud noise. Or maybe such things don’t frighten your cats — and that’s normal, too. For example, Jack will hide under my bed when I bring out the cat carrier, but Phillip will climb right in and make himself comfortable.
Though both cats visit the vet regularly, Jack has had some unpleasant experiences at the vet’s office, including a serious bout with feline lower urinary tract disease in 2011. The sight of the cat carrier triggers his fear responses because of the painful memories associated with it.
“The histories of individual cats influence what they are afraid of,” confirmed Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant and author of Catster’s Ask a Behaviorist column. She notes that fears can be learned through a cat’s specific experiences, such as Jack’s unfortunate health issues when he was about four years old.
“Cats who have had traumatic events often become fearful in specific circumstances,” Krieger said.
After the last vacuum-induced fright fest at my house, I began to notice other random items that scare my cats. I also noticed that the things that frighten them at their current ages — Phillip is three, and Jack is seven —seem to be different than those that scared them when they were younger.
Which made me wonder — do certain things scare cats at certain ages?
When both my cats were kittens, not much seemed to faze them. Jack seemed more likely to startle at sudden noises, but Phillip walked confidently up to anything and anyone. As Krieger said, most cats’ fears are tied to individual experiences, so it could be that kittens just haven’t lived long enough to be afraid of many things.
Don’t worry: Though your kitten’s curiosity may override her fear in certain situations, her instincts should keep her out of most troubling situations.
Be concerned: If your kitten’s bravado causes her to ignore a natural fear of certain danger, you may need to watch her more closely or be extra vigilant in your cat-proofing efforts.
As a cat matures, he might begin to show fear toward things that did not frighten him before — or he might grow out of the fear in a manner similar to what I observe with my own feline crew. This may prove especially true in social situations, Krieger said.
“Some cats, as they age, become more trusting of people; others become more wary and fearful,” she explained. “It depends on the individual cats as well as how they are treated by their people.”
When Phillip turned two, he had become less social — not exactly afraid of people, but not eager to greet them. The dynamic of our household has changed quite a bit in the past year or so, with my oldest child moving away to college, so Krieger’s insight applied. Phillip isn’t being treated differently, per se, but he is not interacting with all of his “people” with the regularity he has come to expect, and this is affecting his attitude toward other people.
Don’t Worry: As a cat adjusts to the “new normal” of a changing household, his fears may subside, and he will probably return to his old self.
Be concerned: If your cat becomes more and more fearful of visitors, it might be a symptom of illness or anxiety. Schedule a visit with your vet.
Adults and seniors
On the other hand, as Jack settles into the middle of his adult years, he is becoming more social. We let Jack interact with people on his own terms, and Krieger said that approach can help cats overcome their social fears.
“If the shy cat’s owners set up situations that encourage the cat to feel safe, most likely she will start feeling secure enough to start socializing,” she said.
Such an approach applies to cats of all ages, including senior cats.
Don’t worry: Letting a cat overcome his fears on his own terms might help him beat the fears. Don’t force the issue — it could make the fear more intense.
Be concerned: Forced interaction with an item or situation that your cat fears might make him lash out or become withdrawn — or even associate a formerly trusted family member with a fearful situation.
How to help your cat overcome fear
Help your cat feel safe in potentially threatening situations, Krieger said. Among the ways I do this is by leaving the cat carrier out where both cats can investigate it on their own terms.
While I doubt I’ll ever encourage Jack to take a nap in the carrier, I hope that he will become familiar enough with it that he doesn’t run and hide when it’s time to visit the vet.
Still, that fight-or-flight instinct helps keep our cats safe. As Krieger pointed out, “Healthy fears help ensure the individual’s survival.”
About the author: A lifelong cat owner and award-winning writer, Stacy N. Hackett writes frequently about cats, cat breeds, and a range of pet-related topics. A big source of inspiration for her writing comes from her two cats: Jack, a 7-year-old red tabby Domestic Shorthair, and Phillip, a 3-year-old gray-and-white domestic shorthair. Both cats were adopted from local pet store adoption events and bring a lot of personality and love to a household that also contains a teenager and an occasionally visiting college student. Stacy also is “stepmom” to a wonderful Cocker Spaniel/Labrador Retriever mix named Maggie, as well as two brown tabby domestic shorthairs named Katie and Leroy.