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Scared Cat? Here’s How to Solve Feline Stranger Danger!

by | Dec 29, 2023 | Cat Behavior & Care | 30 comments

Do you live with a scared cat? Does your fearful kitten hide under the bed? Do your adult cats disappear when visitors ring the doorbell—or thunder and fireworks BOOM? Does the new puppy send kitty into hiss-terics? It’s important to keep your cat happy, or else she can’t learn, and the stress can make her sick. Learning why a scared cat acts that way helps you know how to avoid “fright night” triggers.

scared cat

A scared cat crouches and may hide under the bed.

Why A Scared Cat Acts Afraid

A scared cat reacts with fear to unfamiliar people, places or situations. If kitties haven’t had a good experience—they assume the worst. Many kittens are clueless but as the cat matures, this “stranger danger” behavior protects kitties so they don’t walk up to hungry critters, dogs or people. Learn more about shrinking violet cats here.

Cats identify friends by smell. But if they haven’t cheek-rubbed, groomed or slept together, strangers “smell funny” and therefore are suspect. Kitties only used to women may fear men with lower voices or with beards. Kids move and sound differently than adults and can be scary to cats. New dogs or cats often intimidate them, especially when the kitten has never seen a dog before!

A strange environment turns up kitty nerves because the boogyman might lurk in some unknown spot. Your cat won’t know the escape routes or safety zones, so fear becomes the default emotion.

scared cats

WINNER of the Fear Free Award from the Cat Writers’ Association

Fearful cats that can’t run away may use aggression to protect themselves from perceived danger. Or they may spray urine or wet on the carpet to use self-scent to calm themselves. A panic attack shuts down the brain so that the cat literally can’t think and the instinctive fight-or-flight takes over. Use these tips to transform shivers into purrs.

You can get a free Ecopy of DOES MY CAT HATE ME when you watch the CAT-EGORICAL ENRICHMENT Webinar.

FEAR FREE CERTIFIED TRAINER!

My other news–I have completed the Fear Free Certification course and am proud to say I am a certified member of this important initiative. I discuss more about the program in the Quick Tips booklet above, but you can also learn more about the program at this link.

There are many reasons (not just vet visits) that prompt kitty hisses and angst. With kitten season looming and new adoptions on the horizon, please prepare in advance to help scared cats be brave. It’s much easier to prevent fear and encourage courage than to deal with the angst once it’s learned. You’ll get lots more details in the booklet MY CAT HATES MY VET but here’s how to start.

FOILING FELINE FEAR: HELP SCARED CATS BE BRAVE

Socialize Kittens. The prime socialization period for kittens is two-to-seven weeks of age. When you first adopt your kitten, expose youngsters to happy, positive experiences with a variety of strangers and other pets. That helps them learn that other people, places, and critters can be fun and not scary.

Offer Safe Retreats. Let the cat or kitten hide. Forcing interactions just makes the fear worse. Give time for the pet to cheek rub and become familiar with the new place. Cats prefer to hide in dark places where they can’t easily be seen, and inaccessible places they can’t be reached and/or can most easily defend so offer some neat options.

Use Play. When cats engage in fun games their brains can’t be happy and scared at the same time. A long-distance interactive toy like fishing-pole lures teach cats you are fun to be around, but without having to get too close. You can even sit on top of the bed, and “tease” the cat that hides underneath without scaring the kitty by reaching under to grab him.

Offer Treats. If your cat loves food, offer smelly treats to diffuse the angst. Have visitors drop or toss treats when they arrive at the door, so the doorbell means “food” instead of “stranger danger.”

Get On Kitty’s Level. To a little cat, humans look imposing especially when we stare, follow the cat, and try to pet them. Just think of that giant-size hand coming down toward your head! Instead, sit on the floor, and ignore the cat—no eye contact which can be intimidating—and lure the kitten or cat with treats or a toy. Let the cat approach and control the interaction.

Diffuse Cat Fights. Fearful cats act like they’re wearing a “kick me” sign so other felines pick on the victim. Offer lots of cat trees and hiding spots for escapes, multiple litter boxes, and feeding stations so they don’t have to argue or interact too closely. Try putting a bell on the aggressor-cat’s collar to give the fearful cat warning to get out of the way.

“Doctor” The Angst. Feliway, a synthetic feline facial pheromone, comes as a plug-in or spray that helps ease tensions related to territorial and environmental stress. Rescue Remedy is a natural remedy that helps some anxious cats when added to the water. You can find Feliway and Rescue Remedy at pet product stores. In severe cases, your veterinarian may prescribe anti-anxiety medications for the scared cat.

Some cats are simply less touchy-feely than others and never will be lap snugglers. These tips won’t turn all cats into social butterflies, but they can help dial down the fear. Patience and giving your cat time to learn she has nothing to fear goes a long way toward turning up the purrs.

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I love hearing from you, so please share comments and questions. Do you have an ASK AMY question you’d like answered? Do you have a new kitten and need answers? Stay up to date on all the latest just subscribe the blog, “like” me on Facebook, and sign up for Pet Peeves newsletter. Stay up to date with the latest book giveaways and appearances related to my September Day pet-centric THRILLERS WITH BITE!

Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!

 

 

30 Comments

  1. Vivian Zabel

    Congratulations on your honors and accomplishments. Now, I have just the opposite problem with Panther: He knows no stranger. He goes to anyone and would probably go WITH anyone. All the other cats that have ever lived with me might observe before engaging with other people, but they weren’t scared nor were they too friendly. I do believe the only thing Panther fears is the vacuum.

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      Panther is a great cat! That confidence helps keep him healthy, too.

      Reply
  2. Sweet Purrfections

    First, congratulations on the Certificate of Excellence from CWA and on getting your certificate for Fear Free. I interviewed the girls’ vet last week since they recently became a Cat Friendly Practice and they are now working toward getting as many certified in Fear Free as possible. I look forward to the changes once this is completed. Thank you for the insights. Truffle is the one who get scared easier and it didn’t happen until about 2 years ago. I don’t know what happened, but loud noises and storms scare her now.

    Reply
  3. Robin

    Thank you for the tips! I’m preparing my kitties for their first experience with travel (to BlogPaws). They are great with people in our home, but there are still some jitters when getting out and about. I will have to try a few of these tips!

    Reply
  4. Bryn Nowell

    Great post! Congrats to you on the nomination (paws crossed) and your recent certification. Both are super exciting. Your list of helpful insight for folks who may have cats that are showing signs of fear will be incredibly helpful for pet parents to use as a resource. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  5. Cathy Armato

    Congrats on completing your fear free certification. Congrats on your CWA award nomination as well, very exciting and so well deserved! One of my cats started hiding underneath the stove right after bringing her home. It was so scary, but after a few days I was able to lure her out with food.
    Love & Biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

    Reply
  6. Beth

    Congratulations on being nominated! Our cat is a former stray and he used to hide when we have a lot of people over. We’ve always just let him be, and now he doesn’t disappear when people come over.

    Reply
  7. Kitty Cat Chronicles

    Congratulations on your CWA nominations! That’s awesome! Great tips to help scared cats too. One of my cats we rescued off the streets as a stray. She must have had some bad run-ins with other cats, because she can’t stand the other cats in our house. The sight of them sends her into a hissy, whappy, crazy fit! I’ve done a lot of work with her to try to get her used to other cats, but I think I’ve finally just come to the conclusion that some cats are just not meant to coexist with others! So Sassy (name suits her perfectly) gets her own living quarters.

    Reply
  8. raisingyourpetsnaturally

    Congratulations on all your accomplishments. Allowing a cat a place to go and not be cornered is so important. I can’t imagine not being able to move or leave when I’m afraid.

    Reply
  9. MARJORIE DAWSON

    Our cats run fron strangers who come to the door and I don’t think this is a bad thing as it keeps them safe if anyone meant them harm (and we have nutters in NZ too). They do eventually come ’round when we have staying visitors though, especially with a good bribe!

    Reply
  10. The Daily Pip

    Our cat, Moo Shu, is quite timid with new people. At the vet, she mostly just freezes, but with others coming into our house she hides. I always worry about her when we go out of town. Fortunately, our cat sitter is very good about going and finding her and getting on her level – otherwise, I worry she might not eat.

    Reply
  11. Ruth Epstein

    I had a rescue cat who was petrified and stayed under the bed for about a month excluding coming out for food or litter box, I let her do her thing but would lie next to the bed talking to her as much as possible and one day out of the blue she jumped on the bed, sat next to my other cat and the rest was history, She lived a happy healthy life with me for nearly 12 years

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      Oh that’s great news! It doesn’t always turn out so well, so you must have done a lot right!

      Reply
  12. fullyfeline (@fullyfeline)

    My cat Marty was going to be euthanized because he was so fearful he’d hide in the corner when potential adopters would visit. I adopted him in 2011. He’s made a lot of progress but is still afraid of anyone but me.

    I would like to enroll in the Fear Free program for pet professionals but the site indicated it isn’t available yet.

    Thanks for sharing, I will be watching for it.

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      Awww….glad you saw through the fear and adopted Marty. Yes, I think they have plans to open it up later this summer. It was so popular that they had to migrate to a new server, right as I was finishing up my program!

      Reply
  13. denisegruzensky

    Congratulations on your nominations! I hadn’t heard of the Fear Free program but have saved it so I can look into it more as it sounds PAWsome! Thank you for the information!

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      You’re very welcome. I believe they’re going to open that up later this summer to more folks, too.

      Reply
  14. Kamira Gayle

    My sister has a timid cat at home. I think this blog post tips could be quite useful. Thanks!

    Reply
  15. carleenp

    I love the Fear Free initiative. I hope to see it keep making inroads with vets. Congrats on your certification!

    Reply
  16. Jana Rade

    Congratulations on your certification! Fear-free movement is so important. Jasmine’s vet has had fear-free clinic long before it became “a thing.” He was always really awesome. Our dogs love going to a vet.

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      Yay for your vet! When I interviewed veterinarians for my Natural Healing book, many of them were doing much of what’s now advocated in the program. Some of this you just smack your head and say, “well, DUH, that makes sense!”

      Reply
  17. Debbie Bailey

    Great tips and congrats on the nomination! We have a cat that prefers to keep her distance from strangers at first, but she eventually comes out and says hi on her own terms. I tell people to just ignore her and she’ll come to them, which she always does. 🙂

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      Ignoring cats (don’t STARE) helps enormously to calm kitty nerves.

      Reply
  18. hbethp

    Congratulations!! I’ve never heard of Fear Free but I had a quick look and it certainly sounds like a great program, I’ll look more closely at it. I found a 3 week old feral kitten on the way home from work many years ago, and she was petrified of everything. I can’t even tell you what going to the vet was like. She was okay with me, but no one else could get near her, and she would hide under the bed at the slightest sound. Feliway helped a lot, she was like a different get once I plugged it in.

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      I remember when Feliway first came out–oh my cats, what a great help that has been!

      Reply
  19. Tenacious Little Terrier

    Congratulations on the nominations and the certification! What are you going to use the certification for?

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      I’m also a certified animal behavior consultant (cats/dogs) through IAABC.org, and required to get continuing education hours to maintain that. So this will go toward my CEU requirements, and also (I hope) will offer additional credentials for my consulting work.

      Reply
  20. Lola The Rescued Cat

    Concatulations on your nominations! I read “My Cat Hates the Vet” and there was some great info in there. When Lola first came to live here, she was a scaredy cat. But with time and patience she has become a brave girl.

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      Thanks so much! If you liked the booklet, love to have you review it on amazon if/when you get the chance. *s* That’d help other folks find it and get help.

      Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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