By Maura McAndrew
There’s a reason the term is “scaredy-cat” and not “scaredy-dog”: cats are sensitive creatures, the pets we most tend to associate with timidity. But it’s important to recognize that fear and anxiety are not natural cat traits, but serious feelings with causes that need to be investigated.
According to Ingrid Johnson, a Georgia-based certified cat behavioral consultant at Fundamentally Feline, fear and anxiety can be at the root of what we consider timid cat behavior. “A confident cat is going to walk right through the center of the room, their tail held high, and act like they own the place,” she says, while a more fearful cat may “slink on the perimeters of the space.” And cats’ behavior will depend on whether they’re experiencing acute or chronic stress, explains Dr. Jill Goldman, a California-based certified applied animal behaviorist. Acute stress is “an event that happens and stops,” she says, while chronic stress “is something that’s ongoing that the cat has to deal with on a long-term basis.” Acute stress may cause the most obvious fearful reactions, like recoiling, an arched back, piloerection (raised hair), aggression, running away or hiding. Chronic stress, on the other hand, can result in behaviors like “house-soiling,” litter box issues, or “over-grooming,” she notes.
While these behaviors will vary from cat to cat, if you suspect your feline companion is suffering from fear, anxiety, or stress, you’ll want to get to the bottom of it ASAP. To help, we’ve compiled a list of common cat fears and anxieties.
If you’ve ever had houseguests combined with a somewhat antisocial cat, you’ve probably witnessed this particular fear. “I think for most kitties, sadly, if they’re not socialized well to humans from a young age, they’re often fearful of newcomers,” Johnson says. Goldman explains that cats who are fearful of visitors will often retreat to their beds or hide under furniture. “Generally speaking, an unfamiliar person requires gradual introductions,” she says. Guests’ behavior also plays a role in how the cat adjusts to them. Goldman advises against strangers trying to “hold the cat, caress the cat, restrain the cat, cuddle the cat,” noting that the person’s unfamiliarity can cause the cat to run away or even become aggressive. Likewise, Johnson suggests giving cats time to “decompress and get used to” strangers in the home. According to Goldman, it’s best to socialize cats during their developmental stage (up to 11 or 12 weeks of age) to avoid future skittishness.
In addition to strange people, cats are often scared and stressed by the presence of new cats or other pets in the home. “I get a lot of calls that are for cat-cat introductions,” Goldman says, noting that the issue of cat house-soiling is in some cases related to the stress of introducing a second pet. Johnson adds that because “cats are big creatures of habit,” a new pet in the house can cause anxiety by simple disruption of routine.
If a new pet is moving in even temporarily, the introduction process is extremely important—especially if your cat doesn’t have much experience with other cats or animals, Goldman says. “If you are introducing cats, the first thing you want to start doing is to familiarize them with each other by scent-sharing,” she advises. Then, “to make sure that this new cat coming in is presented in a way that is non-threatening and breeds familiarity,” she stresses limiting the animals to visual contact, separated physically by a crate or screen. Overall, it needs to be positive and gradual, she says—the introduction process can take six months or even a year. “People may want to rush through the introduction, but the cat who is afraid needs more time than the cat who is not afraid, and that needs to be respected.”
As our list so far indicates, novelty is a major component of cat fears—and that can include objects as well as people and animals. “As a whole, inanimate objects are not scary,” Johnson says, but she explains that if “there’s something large that was not there before and it smells funny,” like a piece of furniture, it can take some getting used to. To help cats adjust, she suggests laying one of your sheets or blankets over new items to give them a less foreign scent.
This fear of the unfamiliar can sometimes extend to smaller objects as well, Goldman explains. For example, ever seen those viral “cats vs. cucumbers” videos, in which owners scare their cats with the vegetables? “The people who were instigating this type of behavior and reaction were not doing their pets any favors,” she says, as cats can be quite fearful of objects, like cucumbers, that they have never seen before. “It varies with each cat and each cat’s history,” she says, but generally, you should introduce potentially unfamiliar objects slowly and carefully.
Along those same lines, sudden movements or changes within their field of vision can startle cats, even during playtime. Johnson’s take on “cats vs. cucumbers” is that the fear stems in part from the suddenness of the cucumber’s appearance, and the fact that the cat can’t see it being placed behind them. “Cats can’t even focus about 10 inches off their face; everything’s just a blur,” she says, explaining that cats’ vision is designed for distance. “So they have a little bit of a memory as to what was [behind them], and when something else is suddenly there, of course it’s going to trigger a response.” Even familiar objects can scare cats if placed near them suddenly, she says, noting that people can scare a cat with a toy if they dangle it close or touch his face with it. Basically, what’s amusing to you or your YouTube followers is not always fun for your kitty—so avoiding surprising or startling them with toys or other objects.
Unsurprisingly, cats are also not fans of loud noises. Especially if it continues over time, noise can cause high levels of anxiety and stress. “Their sense of hearing is so acute compared to ours,” Johnson says. “They can hear a mouse in a football field and pinpoint it…so can you imagine what the ear-piercing screams of an infant might feel like for them? Excruciating!” Goldman adds that “anything loud and abrupt” can constitute a stress-inducing noise. Think vacuum cleaners, loud traffic outside, construction noise, or even loud sounds on the TV. “If they don’t get acclimated and desensitized to those types of experiences from a young age, they tend to get spooked by them very easily,” Johnson says.
Ever wonder why cats tend to hide under the bed, in boxes, or in the laundry pile? According to Johnson, cats are a predator-prey species that likes to be hidden, so they often feel anxious in wide-open spaces. “Quite honestly, the [stereotypical] ‘crazy cat lady’ house, with boxes and newspapers everywhere? That creates a cozier environment for a cat to feel secure,” she says. “Big, vast, open spaces are really scary.” She explains that owners, not realizing this, often “set cats up to fail” by placing litter boxes down in a basement and food bowls in places like the laundry room. “We often make it too hard to get to the things they need most,” she says, noting that if cats have to walk through open, high-ceilinged rooms, they may feel exposed, with nowhere to hide. Instead of making kitty trek to the basement to do his business, put the litter box close to his favorite spot in the house, she advises.
Like many of us, cats are attached to their homes. So naturally, one common cause of fear or anxiety is leaving a familiar environment for a new, unfamiliar one. “Anything that removes them from their home base causes stress,” Goldman says. Going on vacation? Think twice about taking your cat, Johnson warns. “I don’t even recommend boarding,” she says. “They’re very attached to what’s familiar, where they feel safe, where they know that food is plentiful. So change of environment is one of the most stressful experiences for a cat to undergo.” She recommends pet sitters, whenever possible, over taking your cat on a trip. And what if you’re moving? “Whenever cats go to a new home, I always suggest that they only have a bathroom to start, because they feel comfort in small, confined spaces,” Johnson says. She advises gradually opening up the rest of the house to your cat once she has made herself at home.
In Goldman’s opinion, the most severe source of stress and anxiety in cats is punishment. “Hitting, punishing, anything aversive” is extremely detrimental, she explains, because “the cat loses trust in the sender of the punishment.” If you’re having issues with your cat’s behavior, lashing out is never the answer—in fact, Goldman notes, punishment or aversive treatment only serves to increase the problems you may be experiencing, like aggression or house soiling, which are worsened by fear and stress. Instead of disciplining your cat in harsh ways, she advises seeking appropriate support from a trained and certified behaviorist. “Deal with the problem by identifying its source in a way that nurtures a trust bond between you and the cat, as opposed to trying to punish the behavior away, because that will only escalate and exacerbate the problem,” she says.