Cats are naturally curious creatures. That being said, not every cat trusts people. This is especially true when cats grow up without contact with humans or have had negative experiences with people. Gentle handling of a scared cat is key.
How can I tell if my cat is scared?
Those who are familiar with the body language of cats can easily identify their anxiety. The body is crouched when they walk and they often have puffed up hair. They approach other cats and unfamiliar situations with animosity. While other cats are interested in new situations, other cats or people, an anxious cat will retreat. Cats tuck their tail under or next to their bodies when they are frightened and expand in circumference. Its fur is unkempt not only during the moulting season and the cat’s owner might notice some patches that have been licked until they are bald. The cat’s behaviour is far from relaxed. Aggressiveness and lethargy can both be a sign of anxiousness.
Why is my cat anxious?
Whether a cat is shy and sensitive or a brave go-getter will depend on its breed, rearing, social interactions, surroundings and social rank. Just like us, every cat has an individual character. House cats often learn to trust humans when they are kittens. Others aren't fixated on human contact at all.
Cats are primarily driven by their instincts. Seemingly irrelevant experiences like a loud ring of the doorbell, an unpleasant visit to the vet or its owner being away on holiday can be deeply unsettling for cats and can bring on a state of anxiety. It isn’t always easy to tell why a particular cat is guarded around humans, reacts fearfully in certain situations or has a phobia of certain creatures or things. The better you know your cat and the conditions of its upbringing and its life, the easier it is to discover the cause of the cat’s fear.
The character of a cat and its behaviour towards people is particularly shaped by the mother cat. During the important formative period of their first twelve weeks of life, cats learn everything they need to know from its mother and siblings and this includes its attitude towards animals and people.
Usually, mother cats that are cautious around people tend to raise anxious kittens. Ultimately, the mother cat is the most important role model for her kittens; shy cats bring their kittens up away from people. Kittens that grow up away from humans find it harder to learn to trust compared to kittens that had close contact.
Nonetheless, it isn’t impossible to make friends with a feral feline like that. Approach with caution and show the cat that you deserve a second look. Don’t trap the cat but give them the opportunity to retreat into a den or a tunnel and allow them to come to you on their own.
Cat Anxiety through bad experiences in the past
Growing up around humans and being close to them does not mean your cat won't develop an anxiety disorder. A common reason for this are bad experiences and trauma. Animals that are physically or psychologically mistreated find it difficult to recover. However, with lots of work and effort it is possible to help an anxious cat get used to the company of humans again. Whether your attempts are successful or not depends on the cat’s individual character and its exact experiences.
In any case, you should always allow an anxious cat the possibility to retreat from direct contact. If the cat feels hemmed in, its stress levels will increase and it will have further reason to be scared of you. Always approach an anxious cat carefully and gently. Don’t allow yourself to get demotivated if you go one step forwards and two steps back.
Being fearful in certain situations
Sometimes your cat's anxiety will be triggered by certain objects, situations or people. Often, the reason here is also physical or psychological trauma, shock or bad experiences.
For example, it is no surprise that cats dislike their transportation carriers. They associate the carrier with going to the vet or long car journeys on holiday. Specific training can work wonders in this case. Make sure that your cat can associate this feared object with something positive. As always, treats can be very helpful. Perhaps you have already done some clicker training with your cat and so you can reward it with a click when it gets closer to the cat transport box.
Your cat suddenly becomes scared
Sometimes, trusting cats will also become scared all of a sudden. Here you need to tell the difference between a fear of specific objects or dogs and a state of anxiety where the cat is continuously stressed. What caused this? Did your cat suddenly lose interest in people, in being stroked and in playing? Does it always have its tail hanging low or tucked between its legs?
Has your cat even stopped eating perhaps? Or is it unusually aggressive? In this case, you should consider whether it is due to haunting traumas or chronic stress. Physical problems can also be the reason for sudden fear. In this case, please pay a visit to your vet to rule out chronic pain or other health problems in your cat. If your anxious cat is physically healthy, you should consider psychological stress or a trauma. Was the stress triggered by environmental changes? Did your cat experience something extreme? Did it move to a new house or have an accident? Is there perhaps a new member of the family? Maybe the cat hasn’t been socialised enough and perhaps living with new cats leads to insecurity? Are the living conditions suited to having more than one cat, are there enough litter trays and places to eat? Is the scared cat perhaps threatened by other cats and could the social stress lead to constant uneasiness?
What else can I do to identify and prevent my cat's anxiety?
As you can see, there are many causes of anxiety in our feline friends. As the owner, you know your cat better than any expert and maybe, when reading our article, one or more reasons have become clear. Perhaps you recognise your cat’s behaviour in one of the scenarios described. Don’t get disheartened if your cat’s behaviour is still a mystery. Perhaps you could consult an expert. Pet behaviour counsellors can look at a cat’s behaviour with a trained eye. You know your cat best and you can pick up on behavioural changes which someone else would never recognise. That said, a second opinion can often work wonders!
It is not at all easy to make the cat’s fear disappear even once you have found the cause. However, it is not impossible! Approach every situation gently; heavy-handedness will help neither you nor your cat. Give your moggy some time, don’t hassle them and celebrate every small step as a success.
Tips on how to handle a scared cat
If you managed to identify a clear trigger for your cat’s anxiousness, it is important to remove this from your cat’s life. However, that isn’t always possible. Of course you could find a nice new home for the other cats, put your baby up for adoption or leave your partner but no one would want to do that! It means finding ways around the triggers and making sure your cat’s needs are met as much as possible. Make sure that the environment is as suitable as possible for your four-legged friend. A home that is right for a cat should offer many places to relax and sleep as well as one or more places to scratch. A quiet place for the cat’s litter tray is especially important as your cat mustn’t be disturbed. The same goes for the food bowls. For extremely nervous animals, pheromone sprays or diffusers like Feliway or Felifriend can help. These products are based on the ‘happiness hormone’ that cats give off when they rub themselves against something. Usually, anxious cats will become more relaxed over a few weeks after a change in their environment. For some cats the single use of this spray over a short period of time will help, while others need the pheromone for the rest of their life to improve their well-being. Yet, a happy life for your cat doesn’t just depend on external factors. Give your kitty lots of attention, especially when the cause of its anxiety are feelings of jealousy, for example when a new partner moves in or a child is born. Reassure your cat by stroking it, by playing together or by giving it the occasional treat.