Scaredy cat, fraidy cat – youve certainly heard these expressions before. Lets face it: Some cats have a reputation for timidity and experience fear in situations that may leave other cats undaunted. Behavior is caused by a combination of genes and learning, says Kim Barry, PhD, certified animal behaviorist at the Town Lake Animal Center in Austin, Texas. Some cats have more flexibility in handling their fears due to their genetic makeup.
Each cat has genetic traits that influence certain of his reactions to his environment. Some adapt well to new situations, but others are influenced in ways that make them more sensitive to noises, for example, or prone to be fearful. The cats experiences or learning also play a role. If a cat has had a frightening experience with a child, for example, the cat is more likely to be fearful around kids, says Dr. Barry.
The Common Signs
A timid cat may exhibit a variety of symptoms. Timid cats may run, often appearing ungraceful and uncoordinated. They may hide and, if they feel threatened, can become aggressive. Generally when cats are fearful, they crouch low and make themselves small, says Dr. Barry. They exhibit a tense body posture and sometimes briefly and rapidly lick their nose.
If your cat hides occasionally to avoid visiting with noisy Aunt Ethel or pesky Uncle Harry, dont worry about it. But if your cat is constantly fearful, you may want to bolster his confidence so that he will be able to deal with what he feels are frightening situations. Common signs of fear are your cats hiding a large part of the day and showing signs of stress, such as overgrooming, lethargy or inappetance. He may also display other compulsive behavior such as chewing non-food items.
The first step is to identify what is causing the fear, and then begin a program of desensitization. If its a noise-related fear, identify the specific noise and any other pertinent details. Is it just the pots and pans, or any loud noise in the kitchen? Think through the fear trigger, says Dr. Barry. You need to know what youre working with.
Determine how you can introduce the fear trigger without frightening your cat. Can it be far enough away that your cat can see the object without it making noise? If the vacuum cleaner is causing the stress, for example, leave it out – but away from your cat. Then pair it with positive things like play or something your cat likes to eat, such as certain flavors of wet food or treats. Make sure the vacuum cleaner is the farthest distance from your cat, says Dr. Barry, so its not generating a fear response.
Give your cat the positive enticement when the fear trigger is present. If he shows fear, begin the process again, but place the object farther away. As your cat becomes braver, move the object closer until you can actually use the vacuum cleaner, for example, without frightening your cat.
Of course, its not always possible to recreate what is causing your cats fear response.
If your cat runs when he hears thunder, recordings of thunder can be helpful. Adjust the volume, says Dr. Barry. Increase it as your cat becomes more courageous.
If your cat hides from strangers, dont reinforce the fear by physically carrying your cat to the person hes afraid of. This reinforces the fear, says Dr. Barry. If your cat prefers to stay under the bed when guests arrive, dont be concerned. Instead, worry if your cat seems chronically stressed, says Dr. Barry.
Cats are good at redirecting their fears, so consoling your cat or trying to pet him when he is afraid may have no effect on his behavior. The fear response occurs independent of whether we pet the cat or not, says Dr. Barry. If your cat is really afraid, your job is to get him to a place where he is not showing fear. If consoling or petting reduces the fear response, its okay to do so. Your primary goal is to get the cat relaxed, says Dr. Barry.
Professional Help Is Available
If your cat resists your attempts to thwart his fears, seek professional help. Start with your veterinarian, advises Dr. Barry. Your veterinarian will be able to refer you to a veterinary behaviorist or certified animal behaviorist if necessary or, in extreme cases, recommend medication.
With feral cats and others that experienced no human interaction as kittens, preventing a fear response to people can be challenging. It can be difficult if the cat has not been exposed to people during critical times, says Dr. Barry. But that doesnt mean all cats that missed that early exposure cant become friendly.