In this article I explore the things that scare domestic cats and how these fears can be prevented or overcome. Kittens become unusually fearful and aggressive towards other cats and people when they are separated from their mother much earlier than normal at about two weeks of age. This page is really about developing social relationships in the development of cats. In short it is about socialization. Cats will be scared of a lot of things if they are not socialized to those things when young. It is crucial.
There have been many studies about socialisation of kittens. I’ll mention one. Kittens handled for five minutes per day from birth to 45 days of age approached strange objects such as toys and humans with far more readiness. This indicates a general reduction in fearfulness resulting from early handling. Fearfulness equates to being scared. If you want to stop cats being scared of things then an important part of that process is excellent socialisation during the early weeks.
Fear is a reason why domestic cats urinate inappropriately. Perhaps the better word is “anxiety”. When a cat is anxious he or she will want to make the environment in which he lives more reassuring and to achieve that he may urinate or even defecate on objects in the home.
Cats like calm environments. If a cat owner creates a hostile environment because for example it is constantly noisy and there are strangers coming and going, the domestic cat living there might become perpetually anxious. In short, she will be scared. The overall ambience of the environment in which a cat lives engenders fear if it is inherently inhospitable.
Bad Experiences Remembered
When a cat has a bad experience it is remembered. The cat then becomes fearful of a repetition of that experience. I have an example. One morning I came back from the gym with my rucksack. I took off my rucksack. My cat was in front of me having greeted me inside the front door. A plastic buckle on one of the straps accidentally hit him on his nose. It wasn’t a big blow but it was enough to make him fearful of the rucksack. He is still scared of it and I have to protect him against it.
Here is another example. At one time I had a beautiful little female black-and-white cat. I rescued her from the streets. Something happened in her early life which left her fearful of the sound of heavy footsteps. She was scared whenever she heard the heavy footsteps of say a workman outside or coming towards my home.
Domestic cats have good memories and just like humans if they have a bad experience it is recalled when the events are repeated.
Most of us have seen the “cucumber” event (or bananas). This is when domestic cats are videoed demonstrating extreme fear when they encounter a cucumber which has been placed behind them. The strange object is suddenly encountered unannounced. The cat is scared not because the object is a cucumber but because it is an unknown object of a certain size which could be a threat to their survival. The immediate response is fearfulness and then perhaps a desire to investigate whereupon the fearfulness should subside.
Once again, most cat owners know that domestic cats are in general fearful of vacuum cleaners. I say “most” because you will also see some cats enjoying being vacuum cleaned. Yes, I mean the owner uses the vacuum cleaner to remove hairs which have been shed from the cat. Some cats love this.
However, certain noises (and sometimes combined with a disconcertingly large object) do create a fearful response in domestic cats. Another noise which I’ve noticed causes a slightly startled or scared response is the hissing sound produced by a bottle of fizzy water when the cap is unscrewed.
Indoor cats living a closeted quiet life may be scared of the front doorbell as it is associated, by the cat, to a stranger entering the home. The cat has learnt this from previous events. The cat attaches the sound of the doorbell with a stranger in the house.
Strange people in homes can produce a fearful response in a domestic cat. It does depend upon the cat. Some confident cats are not scared in the presence of strangers. However, in general domestic cats tend to be fearful of people they don’t know. This is a normal response in the interests of protecting themselves from unknown threats.
It is common knowledge that domestic cats become acquainted to and relaxed with their well-known environment. Remove them from the environment i.e. their home and they will naturally become scared until they have adjusted. Some cats return to their previous home territory in part because they are familiar with it and it is reassuring. We’ve all encountered scared cats in new homes hiding in the nearest available hiding place. They gradually emerge.
I can recount the story of a boy cat I adopted after my mother died. He was a large cat but in some ways quite timid. He hid in the bedroom for a while before he became acquainted with his new surroundings. When I went away on holiday for a week leaving him in the care of my girlfriend, once again he hid in the bedroom the entire time. He was in the company of somebody he was slightly unfamiliar with and in a home with which he was also slightly unfamiliar. Unfamiliarity can lead to fearfulness resulting in a scared cat.
Attacked by Another Cat
A cat who has been attacked by another larger cat will certainly experience fear and possibly pain. The cat will probably remember what the larger cat looks like and avoid the cat in the future. This is a version of my reference above to remembering bad experiences and becoming fearful of them. However, Dr Bradshaw says that domestic cats are quite sophisticated in that they can respond flexibly. They do not automatically respond in the same way to the same stimuli. Perhaps for example the cat might freeze to avoid being seen the next time she encounters the cat.
In multi-cat households it may be that one cat is dominant over the others. Timid cats may be submissive to dominant cats. They might become fearful of the dominant cats. They need places to hide. Timidity is a personality trait in domestic cats which encourages the cat to becoming more fearful more often. Outgoing, confident cats are less likely to be fearful. These are well socialized cats in any case.
Yelling at your cat will make him scared! Obvious, yes but it needs to be said. There is a lot of stress in modern life. Some cat owners may take it out on their cat. Enough said.
I can remember staying in the home of Helmi Flick, the well-known American cat photographer many years ago. At that time she had four cats. She had large sliding doors leading out to the garden. Her cats were indoor cats. When the sliding doors were opened her cats simply looked out into the space beyond fearful of going through the boundary represented by the glass door despite the invitation of a nice garden to explore. The outdoors, the unknown, can make a full-time indoor cat a little bit scared. The anxiety of the outdoors (within a cat confinement fence) can be overcome in time if the cat is given an opportunity to enter it gradually.
This is really about prevention. It is far easier to prevent cats becoming scared than curing the problem. Excellent socialisation over the first weeks to all kinds of stimulate in terms of noise and strangers and other circumstances will make for a well-rounded domestic cat, a confident cat who is able to integrate into the human household in a relatively relaxed manner. In addition, as mentioned, some domestic cats are more confident than others which helps them cope with unexpected events.
To the best of my knowledge, the only way to resolve the problem of a cat becoming scared of a particular person or sound is to gradually acquaint the cat to that person or sound in small steps so he or she becomes desensitised to it and accepts it. It is important to provide a hiding place and/or a high perch for a scared cat to alleviate stress. And the process should be reward based; treats should be to hand to reward progress.
Play is a great way to distract your cat’s anxiety, to forget it and provide a time frame during which he can lose his fear of a person. The desire to play (to hunt in real terms) overcomes the anxiety.
Don’t force the issue. It will make things worse. Observe your cat’s body language and respect it. Patience is the key.
A great cat environment will alleviate feline anxiety. Jackson Galaxy calls is ‘catification’. Cats feel at home in a catified, enriched environment.
It is obvious but I’ll restate it. Nearly all the above-mentioned things which scare cats are really unknown quantities from the cat’s viewpoint. Things that scare cats are things they don’t know or understand. They have to be cautious. It is the same for humans. Socialization acquaints them with these things.