Fear is a normal response for your cat to a perceived threat. Fear is a common reaction to change and can be a normal behavior, depending upon the circumstances. If your cat had no fear at all, she could endanger her life. Some fear is good. It’s only when your cat is fearful, cowers and hides with every person who enters your house or cringes in fright at any new sounds that fear becomes a problem. Your cat’s fears are irrational phobias when she reacts to people or situations that most cats would accept as harmless.
Fear is not only an unpleasant feeling for your cat, it can also cause health problems. Some cats may even be programmed genetically to be fearful. We have one of them. We’ve had her since she was a tiny kitten nursing on her mother. She has never had any harsh treatment–only kindness and good care for over eighteen years now. You simply cannot go up to her and pick her up. When you do get hold of her, she trembles and cries in fear! Her brother and mother are both friendly and outgoing. When strangers enter our home, they simply don’t see her, since she hides. Fortunately she doesn’t bite or claw you when she’s picked up. She just hates to be handled.
Cats have a much higher need for social interaction, socialization and exposure to a variety of things in the environment than most people realize. The most important socialization period for kittens is between two and seven weeks of age, when they can see, hear and freely move about. This is the time when they learn what’s safe and what is not. The more handling and exposure to friendly people, pets and sounds best prepares a kitten to accept things, rather than fear them, as they grow up.
A cat’s very experiences, or lack thereof, has a profound influence on her behavior. Early life experience and genetic makeup are both believed to determine how friendly a cat is to people. Researchers have found that friendliness is, in part, learned from the mother cat. If kittens observe their mothers pleasantly interacting with humans, they are much more likely to grow up to be friendly. Also, friendly fathers tend to sire friendly kittens.
Kittens also require early positive social experiences with people to provide best assurance that they will be friendly to people when they grow up. Properly socialized and confident kittens learn to generalize a single good experience (nice person) to all future similar situations (all people are nice). Kittens between two and seven weeks old that are handled by humans are much more likely to grow up to be friendly to people than kittens that are not handled. Interestingly, kittens handled by only one person during this sensitive period tend to just be friendly with the one person. But kittens that have contact with more people tend to become adult cats that are friendly with everyone.
Cats that have missed the opportunity for handling by humans during this sensitive period of socialization can sometimes be socialized, but the process requires much patience and time.
Kittens not properly socialized–such as raised by a feral mom–may not see humans as safe. Similarly, kittens raised without the benefit of good cat models may fear other cats and be unable to properly interact with them. Shy and fearful cats tend to generalize one specific scary event (say, a loud child) to all similar future events (all children) and take much longer to accept the “exceptions” of having a good, safe encounter.
Keep in mind that even confident cats can become fearful if treated badly. Continuous anxiety, threats (from you or other animals), yelling, punishment and/or abuse increases fear reactions and can create worse behavior problems. Cats who are abused, injured, abandoned, or neglected or who’ve had other unfortunate experiences can become chronically fearful, skittish, overly wary, and constantly stressed animals. Unlike some other psychological quirks, chronic fearfulness (not to be confused with lack of socialization) is almost always the result of nurture (not nature) gone wrong. To rebuild the fearful cat’s feeling of trust and comfort in the world and in her companions can be a long and arduous process.
Examples of two different frightened cats:
A cat, fully grown, who lives with a couple plus two other cats and two dogs is terrified of any stranger who enters the house. She is friendly with the couple and she tolerates other pets to a point, but really prefers to be by herself. She’s been like this even when she was a kitten. Whenever a stranger appears, she hides under the furniture and growls if any eye contact is made. She doesn’t come out until the stranger leaves.
A Siamese, a stray who was adopted around five to six months of age. The cat was confident until she had a bad experience as an adolescent which changed her opinion of strangers from then on. Her owners went on vacation and had a friend check on her daily. When they returned, she was no longer outgoing and friendly with strangers. She was now aggressive toward strangers. When a stranger entered the house, she wouldn’t hide but would make it very clear that she wanted the stranger to leave by hissing then growling and even swiping at the stranger with her paw. A very definite “You’re not welcome here” message. She has even nipped a stranger’s ankles. This cat never responded to having strangers ignore her (not look at her or even say her name) or to treats given to her at times she was acting calm. The friend who had checked on the cat while the couple was away was the cause of this cat’s problem. Apparently, the cat had escaped her confinement room several times. The friend ran her down each time and caught her, and was possibly a bit unintentionally rough. This terrified her. She now associates all strangers as something to fear.
It’s particularly vital to avoid any hint of force with a fearful cat, especially one who’s been abused. These cats require, and deserve, the utmost in patience and forbearance. It’s vital to give the fearful cat as much time, space, peace, and quiet as she needs to rebuild her shattered trust. Pushing her faster than she wants to go, or forcing her to interact with people before she’s ready, can make her more fearful. Give her plenty of space, time, and love. Let her set the pace.
A fearful cat, in a household with other cats and/or animals will inevitably be picked on and bullied. Many fearful cats simply hide, while others will behave in an aggressive manner, hissing, growling, biting and scratching.
The fearful cat is anxious and shows signs of unease by looking away, holding her ears down and sideways, shaking, crouching, sometimes urinating or defecating.
You need to discover what it is that triggers your cat’s fear. What sights, places, sounds, odors, people or other things trigger it. If her fear is mild and you can keep her from any contact with what triggers it, then no other treatment may be necessary.
A chronically fearful cat will benefit from living in a quiet, stress-free environment. She may never be able to tolerate certain stressors, such as dogs, children, loud noises, or frequent changes and upsets in her life. Concentrate on helping her build a loving bond with one person at first, then gradually enlarge her social circle as she becomes more comfortable. Take it slow, and don’t expect miracles.
Some cats, like people, are shy and retiring by nature. This isn’t usually a problem, though our society seems to prefer, appreciate, and reward gregarious and outgoing personalities in both cats and humans. Respect the special nature of the shy cat. Don’t force her to be the life of the party. In fact, don’t make her attend the party at all. That’s where her safe retreat comes in handy. The shy cat will appreciate your sensitivity.
If a moderate level of shyness turns into an extreme level of antipathy to any company, the cat may be ill or extremely unhappy. Take her to the veterinarian for a check-up to rule out any physical problems. Has the normally shy cat become an invisible cat? Does she hide and withdraw from all social interaction with people and other pets? She may feel highly stressed or threatened by something in her environment. Take a mental inventory of changes. Perhaps she needs a few more safe places to retreat from a barking dog, a domineering cat, a grasping toddler, or too many visitors. Have you installed new carpeting or bought new furniture? The odors, sights, and activities accompany such major changes, while pleasant for us, can send a sensitive cat over the edge.
Cats are highly intelligent, adaptable, and flexible creatures who nonetheless often do poorly with change. The cat regards any change in her familiar, comfortable circumstances as a possible threat to her survival. She’s highly territorial and sensitive to potential threats to her resource base. Life changes that are pleasant, welcome, and thrilling to us can be deeply unsettling to our cats.
Understanding how the cat perceives change is half the battle. You need to guide the cat through the sometimes scary and unsettling changes in your household routines, and life. Often, times of change are times when our attention is focused anywhere but on the cat’s feelings. Paying attention to the cat’s needs, feelings, and sensitivities during times of change–whether difficult and painful, or pleasant and thrilling–is important for the cat’s well-being.
A fearful or shy cat will benefit if you can create some safe hideaways for her. You need to observe your cat and discover the areas she seems to retreat to. Each cat’s choices will be different and these are usually determined by your cat’s personality, her need for space, privacy and quiet, and the observational opportunities the space provides. Some cats like high places, others want to be down and under or behind something. These selected cat areas are a place she can feel safe and comfortable in. this is not so much different from people. We all have a favorite chair, corner, or room in which to relax in.
Once you can pinpoint where your cat prefers to be, place a soft, comfortable bed there. Most cats seem to like a pillow, or some soft surface to lay on. A few prefer a firmer bed and a folded throw rug will do just fine for them. Keep the bedding clean. You enjoy a clean bed, and so does your cat. The more comfortable it is to your cat, the more relaxed she’ll be. Reducing her stress is the goal. Too much stress, as with people, can cause physical problems. This is a place she can find safety in.
NOTE: A cat usually has several different areas she will hide in. Accommodate her and put beds in several of them. It’ll give her a less stressful life if she is a “fraidy” cat.
If your cat fears certain sounds, say engine noise like a dryer or washing machine, a vacuum cleaner, or outside animal sounds during the spring mating season, or perhaps thunder, leaving a radio or T.V. on will lessen the disturbing noise.
Whatever triggers fright in your cat, be sure to give her space and don’t try to touch, talk to or follow her if she is very frightened. Touching her at this time might only increase her panic and she might react by biting or clawing you. Turning off the lights in the room and drawing the blinds and/or drapes may help to calm a very frightened cat. Try to remove the source of her fear, if possible. Give her time to calm down before attempting to handle her.
Cats that have been rescued are often very fearful. They have good cause. The mere act of being caught in an humane trap can be very traumatic. Then the cat is brought into close contact with people, which she is frightened of and put into confinement (a cage) in a strange place full of new sights, sounds and smells. Usually cats that are trapped and therefore rescued from starvation and other dangers don’t trust people. Oftentimes people will chase a stray cat, particularly if it is trying to find food in their garbage can. The cat learns that people can be dangerous.
If the rescued cat hasn’t been out on her own for long, you can regain her trust fairly soon. We deal with this type of situation all the time. Some rescued cats are close to being feral, and it can take many months to win their trust, but it can be done with a lot of patience, kindness and understanding. We let the fearful rescued cat move at her own pace. We never force her. When she is ready for touching and handling, she’ll tell us. She first must begin to trust you and learn that you are not going to hurt her. Trust doesn’t come overnight. Each cat is different, so there is no set time. A cat we recently trapped settled in and trusted us in a month. He is still not one hundred percent trusting, but is moving quickly in that direction. Another rescued cat took over eight months of careful and constant working with him to be comfortable with touching. A couple of years later, he is a delightful cat who very much enjoys petting and cuddling. It just takes a lot of time and patience as well as daily sessions of working with a fearful rescued cat.
Several times daily we work with the fearful rescued cat. The sessions are short; if the cat shows too much stress, we discontinue at that time only to return again later.
It is desirable to expose your fearful cat gradually to the situations that trigger her fear. This is called “counter-conditioning” and it involves staged “safe” exposures to the feared situation. For example, your cat fears another pet in your household. Have the scary pet stand across the room (being restrained there by a second person) while you give your fearful cat a favorite treat or play with, say, a feather toy (or one she can’t resist) to reward her for staying calm. This helps her to associate the presence of the other animal (the fear trigger) with something pleasant.
Then little by little, bring them closer together while continually rewarding her with treats for staying calm.
NOTE: If the fear trigger is another cat or animal, reward them too for remaining calm.
Only lessen the distance when your cat remains calm. Look for relaxed breathing, or calm expression and body posture. Above all, be patient and don’t rush the process. It depends on how great your cat’s fear is to her fear trigger. It could take a long time, but eventually her fear will lessen and disappear.
The mistake most people make in dealing with a fearful cat is to rush the process. If you rushing things because you are impatient and don’t want to take so much time, you’ll end up convincing your fearful cat that she was right in being frightened. Your fearful cat must be calm in order to learn. The fear itself will override any reasoning, as it can with us when we are afraid. The brain can only deal with one thing at a time so the fear will “short-circuit” the “thinking” part and cause the cat to act irrationally.
Medication can be helpful in solving the problem, but cannot cure it. The correct medication must be chosen for each specific situation. Not all behavior medications work for every type of fear, so an accurate behavior diagnosis by a veterinarian is vital.
There is a neurochemistry associated with being stressed. Certain hormones function as neurotransmitters.
Norepinephrine–works on the startle response.
Serotonin–helps modulate moods and emotions.
Both of the above medications are associated with anxiety and can help normalize the brain chemistry in cats.
The most popular class of behavior medications is the benzodiazepines which include Valium, Xanax, and Ativan. These tend to decrease the cat’s activity, ease social interactions, and interfere with short-term memory, which makes them particularly helpful in managing situational and social anxieties.
TCA’s (tricyclic antidepressants) affect the way serotonin and norepinephrine are used in the brain. They help particularly with anxiety disorders that also involve inflammation. Another TCA particularly useful in managing marking/spraying in cats is Clomicalm. It also helps with compulsive behaviors such as anxiety-related over-grooming.
The most common inhibitor medications for behavior problems include Zoloft, Paxil, and Prozac. They are recommended to manage anxiety, depression and aggressive behaviors. The above are only some of the medications available. It just shows you that no one medication works for everything. You need a veterinarian to diagnose your cat’s problem accurately and then to prescribe an appropriate medication. As with people, cats can have adverse reactions to drugs. Their metabolisms work differently from ours.
NEVER GIVE YOUR CAT A MEDICATION without a veterinarian’s guidance.
People medications are wrong for your cat, and could kill her. A veterinarian needs to determine the correct dosage, based upon your cat’s weight and physical condition and must monitor the use of that drug to ensure your cat’s safety.
Some medications take many days or even weeks to produce a positive effect. Your cat may require the medication only temporarily or for longer periods. The medication needs to be used with behavior modification methods for any success in modifying and solving the fearful cat. Again, don’t use any behavior medications without the guidance of your veterinarian.
When two cats are properly introduced, they can live together under one roof and be the best of friends. The largest mistake you can possibly make is to bring another cat home and simply put it down and turn it loose. The new cat will be viewed immediately as an intruder to your cat’s territory and a fight is in the making. Think how you would react if another person just moved in to your home and it was permanent. Suddenly, everything would change. Your privacy would be compromised, your daily routines disrupted, etc. You most likely would resent that person. Jealousy would probably raise its ugly head when the new person would become the focal point of other family members’ attention thus making you feel that you have been pushed aside. This is how your cat views the addition of another cat. She must defend her home and food supply against this intruder.
The solution is found in using a neutral zone where there is no need to defend or protect it. Male cats are more apartment to defend their territory than females, though female cats may still do the same.
Simply separate the cats so they can’t see each other for a couple of days or so. Then gradually re-introduce them. First, allow contact through a door. We create a fine-meshed, yet strong wire or hardware cloth door (you can find hardware cloth and 1”x4” boards at any home improvement center, such as Menards or Home Depot). We make a frame with the 1×4’s and staple the wire to it, then place it in the doorway and secure it so the cats can’t push through or climb over it. Cats are strong and creative in getting around barriers, so check it closely. The cats can now see each other but cannot hurt each other, since the hardware cloth is composed of tiny, ¼” squares that they cannot reach through. Keep your cat confined until there is no negative interaction. Then gradually allow the cats to be together, under close supervision. Separate them if a problem arises. If they leave each other alone, then increase the supervised time each day, gradually, until they get along. This process is not quick, so be patient. There are some instances where it might be better to find a new home for one of the cats. Some cats simply won’t tolerate each other, no matter what you do. Just like people; some people can’t get along.
NOTE: Instead of building the wire mesh door, a large cage or carrier can also be used when trying to help the cats to get along. Don’t keep the one cat confined in the cage or carrier all the time. Use the close confinement only when you are present when they are allowed contact. The cat you put in the cage or carrier needs to be kept in a confinement room that has room for exercise, a soft bed, food, water, toys, a litter pan, and hopefully a window. You’re not punishing your cat with this confinement. It should be a safe, comfortable area and you need to cuddle and interact with your cat daily or other behavior problems may occur.
To help relieve the stress and fear between two cats who don’t get along, try to visualize your cat’s world from her perspective. Living with someone you don’t get along with and having to share everything is very stressful, particularly when you cannot get away from the situation. Cats are usually confined indoors with no escape available. Stress can be reduced considerably if you simply provide separate eating, drinking, and sleeping areas, as well as a separate litter box for each cat, plus one extra (a total of three boxes for two cats). Also provide separate scratching posts and toys. This lessens the competition. If a cat cannot get access to one area due to the other cat’s dominance, she will have another area to get what she wants. Just keep the separate items far apart. Say, in different rooms, if possible, or at least on different sides of the same room. Be sure plenty of food is available for each cat. Feed them separately, in different areas so the more dominant cat won’t prevent your other cat from getting her food. The same holds true with litter pans. Sometimes the more dominant cat will attack your other cat while she is using her litter pan, and she will stop using it out of fear. That’s why more than one litter pan is very desirable.
Try to feed your two cats together, one on each side of your wire gate. Start with the bowls at comfort zones and gradually move them closer together over a period of time. When they begin to eat side-by-side with only the gate between them with no problems, the cat can be opened, then eventually removed altogether.
By simply separating all the above-mentioned items, your problem with your cat not getting along with another cat will be greatly reduced, and peace may be reestablished within your household-.