Training Your Fearful Cat


PetMD Editorial

Updated Nov. 28, 2016

Signs and Symptoms of Fear and Anxiety in Your Cat

When frightened, a cat may hide, try to appear smaller by rolling into a ball, or place its ears back on its head and be immobile. On the other hand, a cat may show signs of agitation or aggression, such as dilated pupils, arched back, pilo-erection (hair standing on end), and hissing.

Causes of Fear and Anxiety in Cats

There are many reasons that cats can develop fear and anxiety. Cats can develop a fear of people or other animals as a result of having only limited exposure to people and other animals when they were young. Socialization is an important aspect of raising a kitten. Without adequate, continuous, and positive interactions with people and other animals, cats may develop fears and exhibit fearful behavior.

Because the socialization period in cats begins and ends earlier (generally between 3-9 weeks) than it does in dogs, the early environment of the kitten is most important. Because of this, cats adopted as strays or from shelters may not have had adequate early exposure to new and novel things. Cats can also learn through the effect of even just one unpleasant experience that was intense or traumatic. This learning may then generalize to similar situations.

For example, a bad experience with a small child could result in being fearful of all small children. Sometimes a number of unpleasant events that were paired or associated with a person or animal can lead to increasing fear. For example, if a cat is punished or some disturbing event occurs in the presence of a particular person or other animal, the cat may begin to pair the stimulus (the person or other animal) with the unpleasant consequence (punishment or event).

Genetics and the early environment are other important contributing factors to the development of fear. Cats that are handled frequently and regularly during the first few weeks of life are generally more exploratory, social, and outgoing. There are some cats that are inherently timid and fearful. These cats may never become outgoing and highly sociable. Cats can also be affected by poor nutrition or poor maternal care during fetal development or while kittens, which can negatively impact physical and emotional development.

Diagnosis of Fear and Anxiety in Cats

A behavioral consultation is needed for cats that are showing extreme fear and/or aggression. If the fears are mild, then owner intervention may help to prevent the fears from progressing.

First it is necessary to identify all of the stimuli that are making your cat fearful. This is not always easy and needs to be very exact. Which person(s) or animal(s) is the cat afraid of and where does the fearful behavior occur? Often there are certain situations, people, and places that provoke the behavior more than others.

For treatment to be most successful, it is important to be able to place the fearful stimuli along a gradient from low to high. Identify those situations, people, places, and animals that are least likely, as well as most likely, to cause the fear. Any ongoing interactions that provoke fear need to be identified and removed. This could be teasing behavior, painful interactions, punishment, or overwhelming stimuli.

Next, examine what factors may be reinforcing the behavior. A cat may be successful at getting the fearful stimulus to leave by displaying aggressive behavior, thus reinforcing the behavior. Some owners reward the fearful behavior by reassuring their pets with vocal intonations or body contact, which leads the animal to assume that what they are doing at that moment is appropriate.

Treatment for Fear and Anxiety in Cats

Before a behavior modification program can begin, you must be able to control your cat. This can be accomplished with a figure eight harness and leash or, if needed, a crate. Cats can also be trained to respond to basic commands in exchange for rewards (e.g., sit, come, give a paw). Next, teach your cat to pair a non-fearful situation with food rewards. The goal of this training is to allow the cat to assume a relaxed and happy body posture and facial expression in the presence of the stimulus.

For mild fears, cats may settle down with constant exposure to the stimulus (referred to as flooding) provided there are no consequences that aggravate the fear. For example, cats kept in a cage for a few days in a boarding facility will often get used to the situation and settle down, provided there are no events that add to the fear.

For most cats, a program of counter-conditioning and desensitization will be required to acclimatize the cat to the stimuli that causes the fearful response. Do this slowly. Start by exposing the cat to stimuli that are sufficiently mild that they do not evoke fear. Reward the cat for sitting quietly and calmly. Save all favored rewards for these retraining sessions so that the cat is highly motivated to get the reward. The cat soon learns to expect rewards when placed in the cage and exposed to the stimulus. Gradually the stimulus intensity is increased.

If the cat acts afraid during training, the stimuli are too intense and should be stopped. You must set the cat up for success. Over time, the stimulus can be presented at a closer distance, or in a louder or more animated manner. The situation may then need to be changed to advance the training.

For example, if your cat is fearful of a particular person, you can begin with having the person sit beside the cage while your cat eats. The person could then attempt to feed the cat favored treats through the bars of the cage. Next, the cat might eat and take rewards while out of the cage, wearing a leash and harness if necessary, initially going back to an increased distance to ensure success and safety. Over time the person can move closer at feeding times, until he or she can give the cat its food.

Cats that are fearful of other cats in the home might be fed in two different cages in the same room. Once the cats will eat with the cages next to each other during feeding times, you could begin to keep one cat in the cage during feeding with one out, and alternate at future feedings. Next, both cats could be fed while out of the cages at a distance, with one or both on halters, and then progress to having the cats side-by-side at feedings. This can then advance to play sessions, catnip and treat times, and other times when the cats can “enjoy” themselves in each other’s company.

Each time the cat experiences the stimulus and reacts with a fear response, the problem is likely to be further aggravated. Each time the cat escapes, the behavior has been reinforced. 

On the other hand, any time the stimulus (e.g., other cat or person) threatens, retaliates, or displays fear toward the fearful cat, the fearful behavior has been aggravated. Try to avoid the fear-producing stimulus if possible. This may mean confining the cat when children visit, or when the house is full of strangers.

Drug therapy can also be useful to reduce fears and anxieties during times when the stimulus cannot be avoided. You can discuss possible drug therapies with your veterinarian.

Prevention of Fear and Anxiety in Cats

Early, frequent, and pleasant encounters with people of all ages and types can help prevent later fears. Genetics plays a role in the development of fears; therefore select kittens that are non-fearful and sociable. Since some evidence has indicated the father’s role in personality, assessing and observing the kitten’s parents, particularly the father, will give some insight into the personality that a kitten may develop when it grows up.

Image: tankist276 / Shutterstock

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