Understanding Fear in Cats and How You Can Help

How can I tell if my cat is fearful?

A cat’s behavior can tell you a lot about their emotions.  A cat that is feeling fearful may exhibit any of the following behaviors:

  • Cowering or walking with their body low to the ground
  • Fleeing in response to noises or when approached
  • Hissing, swatting, or trying to bite if handled
  • Decreased appetite*
  • Urinating or defecating outside of the litterbox*
  • Appearing “shut down” or pretending to be asleep*

*Lack of appetite, inappropriate elimination, lethargy or any sudden change in a cat’s behavior could also be an indication of an underlying medical condition. If you notice any of these, reach out to your veterinarian right away.

Why is my cat fearful?

Fear is very helpful for avoiding danger. For cats, fear is often caused by new environments, traveling in a carrier, loud or unfamiliar noises, or unfamiliar sights, smells, or animals. Some cats have more sensitive or fearful personalities, either due to negative experiences in the past, genetic traits, lack of exposure to new experiences as a kitten, or a combination of these factors. They tend to take a little longer (weeks vs days) to settle into a new home. These cats may always be a bit timid in certain situations, but, given time, they often blossom in a stable home environment with familiar people.

How can I help my cat feel less fearful?
  • Help them feel cozy and secure. When first getting to your home, keep your cat confined in a quiet, low-traffic area such as a bathroom or small bedroom. This will reduce their exposure to things that might frighten them. Make sure to cat-proof the area by blocking off any small spaces where the cat might try to hide but do provide several appropriate hiding spots such as cardboard boxes, a cat carrier with the door propped open or a cat tree.  Be sure your cat has access to comfy bedding, toys, food, water, a scratcher and a litter box. Once your cat is moving around this space confidently, you can begin to slowly introduce them to the rest of your home. 
  • Practice “considerate approach.” Approach the cat in a way that considers the cat’s point of view. Avoid picking up, leaning over, or reaching for the cat as these can be perceived as threatening. Instead, sit or kneel about one to two feet away from them, facing to the side. Avoid staring directly at the cat, instead, look at them for a second or two then blink slowly and look away for a moment. Offer some tasty treats by either rolling them toward the cat or placing them gently near them. Try engaging them by waving a wand toy low to the ground. Keep your movements slow, your voice low and your hand below the cat’s eye level.
  • Let them choose. Allowing your cat to interact with you on their own terms will help them learn to trust you. Pay attention to the cat’s body language and stop interacting with them if they appear stressed. In fact, sometimes just acting like you are not paying them any mind at all can go a long way in letting a fearful cat know you mean no harm. Because visitors can be frightening, ask them to ignore your cat. If your cat comes out of hiding, visitors should gently toss treats or try engaging them in play with a favorite toy

Still have questions?

Contact our Behavior Specialists at [email protected] or (212) 876-7700 x4191

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