Categories: fear

How do I make my cat less scared?

I think we have to look at the problem of scared cats with reference to two different circumstances. Cats can be fearful or freaked out on somebody or something temporarily or they can be in a constant state of anxiety and fear. The circumstances are different and therefore the solutions are different. We also have to refer to the cat’s personality.

Playing with a cat helps make them less fearful in a poor environment but they should be reasonable calm before starting. Photo published here with the express permission of Warren Photographic.

Temporarily frightened

This section is written on the basis that the cat is not overly timid and is socialised. Having removed the cause of the temporary fear, a cat owner may have a natural instinct to cuddle their fearful cat in an attempt to calm them down. Normally this would be a mistake and it may lead to a scratch or even a bite as it may make their cat even more anxious. Cats need to have freedom to deal with their fearfulness under these temporary circumstances. They need to make their own choices and to be confined by a cuddle can make matters worse. It is better to let a cat find a safe hiding place and to leave them alone as long as they need to calm down.

This leads me to the other viewpoint concerning calming a cat down if they are freaked out over something. They need to decompress themselves. Jackson Galaxy calls it a “decompression zone” and it should be a small, confined environment with lights down low with no sounds or stimulation. In essence it’s a hiding place. In typical Jackson style, he says that such a place will allow a cat, “to fuse the etheric body and the physical body and bring them back together in harmony”. It can last five or ten minutes. It’s a way of getting your cat out of a flight or fight situation and back into the real world.

Permanent anxiety or fear

This may be due, in round terms, to one of two reasons, (1) a cat is particularly timid or fearful naturally for various reasons one of which is their character (inherited) or perhaps they lack complete socialisation or they’ve been through bad experiences and (2) the cat is well-balanced but the environment in which they live frightens them.

Timid cat

With respect to a timid cat, and assuming the cat is socialised, the treatment involves introducing to the cat in a staged gradual way to the stimuli which causes the fearfulness.. It is called “systematic desensitisation”. You got to find the cause of the fear and then either eliminated or de-sensitised the cat to it in gradual steps. I have to say that if a cat is scared perhaps the most likely reason is because they are not fully socialised. You can socialise a cat by interacting with them in a very gentle way and building up. It is possible to socialise in adult cat. It’s possible to socialise an adult feral cat but it may take months and in one instance an Australian lady who I interviewed took about 18 months to fully socialised feral cat. Patience is required.

Mini hand, a puppet, used to pet a shy cat. Photo: Screenshot.

In some instances cats who are extremely shy and timid may be resistant to treatment and then you have to make the environment particularly suited to such the cat’s mentality. This prevents exposure to the fearful stimuli. Sometimes, rarely, Jackson Galaxy recommends tranquilizing drugs as if you were treating a human. I’m not so sure about that but you should take the advice of your veterinarian.

Anti-anxiety food supplment Anxitane S.

Frightening environment

This occurs when the environment under which a cat lives is unsatisfactory making them fearful. You have to look at the whole environment and asked yourself what is it that is having this effect upon your cat? It may be that there is a stream of strangers coming in and out of the home. It may be noises or stranger cats outside which your cat sees as cats invading their territory. Or it may concern one cat in a multicat home who is bullied. Domestic cats don’t natural get along with other cats.

Cats don’t automatically love each other. It is the opposite. Illustration by PoC from images in the public domain.

An ideal cat environment is one in which the owner is there all the time. It is calm, it is safe and it feels protective of a cat. It gives the cat confidence. An owner needs to build a cat’s confidence with play and as much interaction as possible. Interactions between the person and the cat should be gentle and reassuring. It may take time to build confidence and a more relaxed attitude in a cat who has been fearful for a while. There should be a good hiding place and she should have the freedom to use it. The food should be good and you can try artificial methods to calm her down such as putting a drop or two of Rescue Remedy in her water or using a pheromone diffuser such as Feliway. Ultimately it comes down to the owner creating a reassuring environment on a permanent basis.

Owner not there

It may be the case that the owner is not in the home for lengthy periods of the day. That alone might cause anxiety and upset in a cat. It would be separation anxiety and you don’t know what is happening when you’re away either. There may be ongoing issues which are unobserved by the owner. It is very hard to be a good cat guardian if you’re not there most of the time. Actually, I am not sure that it’s viable to create a reassuring environment if the owner is out for most of the day. I don’t think it’s discharging one’s responsibilities properly but I fully understand the issues.

Cat relocation anxiety.

For years I worked hard and left for work in the morning and came back at night and it was far from ideal. My cat became anxious. I felt bad about it. I wanted to get home. I felt a failure and I really was a failure in terms of being an excellent cat guardian.

Of all the tools one can employ to relax a cat and make them more confident, play is probably the best. I mean playing with them for long periods; real human input not just waving a laser pointer around for 3 minutes. It brings them out of their shell and they learn to be confident with their person. They forget the wider environment because they’re very focused on what they’re doing. Play is a brilliant way of helping to resolve underlying fearfulness.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

View Comments

  • yup, one time i got a new cat who immediately went and hid under the bed.. all it took was a wand toy to lure her out she was happily playing and it loosened her up to explore

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