While some cats are naturally more skittish than others, most fearful behavior is brought on by a trigger of some kind. Since cats can really only use their body language to explain how they are feeling, it’s our job to study them for hints. If you are attentive to your cat’s behavior, you can slowly but surely work out the root of his fear. Sometimes this will be something trivial and easy to fix, while in more complicated cases it will require patience on your part.
One of the most common reasons for a cat to be skittish is when he is thrown into a new environment. Gradual introductions to unfamiliar circumstances are great, but in reality are not always possible. For shy cats, growing accustomed to a new home can take longer than it would for a more adaptable cat. This is particularly true for pets who have been adopted from a shelter. Since they have had an unstable life prior to arriving in their adoptive home, it takes time for them to trust a foreign setting. While animal shelters do their best to provide a comfortable home for animals “in-transit,” it can be scary and chaotic to be in a loud place with all those unfamiliar animals.
For cats who come from abusive backgrounds, any natural anxiety is going to be amplified. In addition to the stress of a new environment, the cat will also be carrying the baggage of where he came from. Whether that abuse manifested itself in emotional or physical trauma, you’ll see evidence of it in the way the cat carries himself. It may take some time for you to figure out all of the triggers that set off the cat. For example, a cat who was physically abused may be irrationally jumpy or head-shy. Similarly, a cat who was deprived of food may be territorial of his food dish. Normal household occurrences, such as vacuuming, could dismay a cat who was once a stray. It takes a certain amount of trial-and-error to identify what will upset an animal who comes from an abusive background.
Time for a Vet Visit?
If your cat is suddenly acting fearful and you’re not sure why it may be time for a veterinarian check-up. Cats naturally never want to appear vulnerable. Rather than appear to be in a weakened state, cats suffering from illness or injury will often lash out or hide. A normally calm cat who abruptly appears skittish could very well be trying to disguise his pain. Sometimes there is an environmental stimulus that clearly unsettles the cat, in which case he’ll just need some time to unwind. But if you can see no cause for his erratic behaviour, a vet visit can safely decipher if your cat is struggling health-wise.
Fear of People
Another potential cause for fear in cats is a certain person. If your cat is inexplicably terrified of someone and you don’t have his full history, it could be because of an issue from his past. Although it sounds strange to us, animals often associate an entire gender with just one person they’ve met. A man who roughly handled a cat could set that cat up for a lifetime of being timid around men. Additionally, some cats just haven’t been exposed to all kinds of people – especially children. The shorter stature and high energy of kids can take time for a cat to become acclimatized to, and some just never take to children. If your cat is sensitive to young people, make sure to enforce boundaries where your pet is concerned. Kids may have to be taught that they cannot run up to a cat and start petting or playing with him. Since a frightened cat may react aggressively out of alarm, that kind of impulsive behaviour could end badly for the child as well.
Finally, there are event-related stresses that can make a cat skittish. You probably know one of the frequent culprits very well – the vet visit. Ironically, an endeavour that is for the well-being of your cat can also be a cause of extreme tension. Whether it be due to past trauma at a vet’s office, or plainly the discomfort of traveling in a car, many cats become agitated when going to the vet. This type of fear is easy to diagnose, and the effects should not last long once you are back at home. The best thing that you can do is remain calm and take every opportunity to make it as painless as possible for your feline friend. Draping a towel over your carrier is one way to help shut out the stimulating outside world. Be sure to sit as far away as you can from any other animals who are in the waiting room. Talk to your cat in a soothing voice, and avoid any sudden, jerky movements. Unfortunately, despite your best efforts, some cats will just always hate going to the vet.
Once you have figured out the cause of your cat’s skittishness, it’s easier to come up with a plan of action. Some of the above triggers are short-term events, and some of them are unavoidable, in which case all you can do is be a reassuring presence. Like all animals, cats look to you for cues as to how they should be feeling. If you are at ease, your cat will feel safer in being the same. If you appear troubled, your cat’s anxiety will be intensified. He will be on guard, looking for whatever it is that has you on edge. Avoid adding to his emotion by being slow and deliberate in your movements. Keep your voice friendly, low, and stable. If it seems like he is okay with being touched, a rhythmic stroking of his fur can provide valuable support.
Know When to Leave Your Cat Be
However, sometimes a cat needs the exact opposite of coddling. For example, if a new presence in your house or a sudden event has scared him, he’ll probably want to scurry off to an area where he feels protected. As much as you might want to scoop him up and lavish attention on him, it’s best to let him find his “safe place” and remain there until he feels composed again. For most cats, that secure location will be either under something, or up high. Cats feel more assertive when they are able to get a good vantage point. If you have a frequently nervous cat, it might help to provide perches where he can quickly leap. This could be a built-in shelf, a windowsill, or a tall piece of cat furniture. Wherever it is, having that place that is “his” will give him a solid sense of security.
Maintaining Familiar Routines
Another way to instill confidence in your cat is to provide a routine. By maintaining the same morning and evening routine every day, your cat will feel he knows what to expect. Feeding meals at erratic times of the day gives a cat a sense of insecurity, but consistency provides stability. Though not every day can be exactly the same, making an effort to keep a few ritualistic habits will benefit your cat long-term.
Good Old-Fashioned Bribery
Bribery is a useful tool if you are trying to coax a cat into liking someone or something. If you have a member of the household who the cat is afraid of, let that person be the one to offer the cat his meals. When trying to get a cat relaxed in a new environment, bring along the treats he finds most irresistible. Tasty treats can be a swift way to alter a cat’s mindset. For those felines who are not strongly food-motivated, toys are a handy alternative. This is particularly useful for when you have guests coming over who you would like your cat to become accustomed to. Give your guests one of your cat’s favorite toys and encourage them to teasingly play with it. Hopefully, soon your cat will creep out from his hiding place to attack the fake mouse, string, or other beloved source of entertainment.
For cats with extreme fearfulness, there is also the last resort of anti-anxiety medication. Sometimes, whether it be the personality of the cat or his problematic history, there’s not much you can do to soothe him. If you’ve done everything you can and still your cat is living in constant apprehension, talk to your vet about medication options.
Living with A Skittish Kitty
Helping a skittish cat become less fearful is a job that requires patience, diligence, and love. All of that hard work is worth it when you see your cat begin to come out of his shell and live a happier life. Remain reassuring in your body language, stay attuned to your cat’s behaviour, and soon you will see the rewards of your kind efforts.