Shyness and Fear in Cats

Help for reducing shyness and fear in cats

Billy is a one-person cat and that person is Lance
Billy "Kissing" Lance. Photo Credit: © Franny Syufy

Cat Behavior & Training > Cat Behavior 101 > Shyness and Fear in Cats

Is your kitty a "scaredy-cat?" Shyness and fear stem from a number of causes but can be overcome with gentleness and patience, as these tips explain. Is your cat trying to tell you something? The optimum word here is patience. You must allow your cat to set the pace, otherwise, he or she may change from "flight" to "fight." Remember always that there are no "bad" cats, only uninformed cat caregivers.

Shyness in Cats

Cats, like people, come in all sorts of different personalities. Your cat may be shy by nature, and may never become the "lap cat" you envisioned. But with luck, love, and patience, she may enjoy sitting on your lap for short periods, from time to time. You'll find yourself enjoying those moments even more.

What Causes Shyness in Cats?

As with several other behavioral problems, shyness and fear can stem from a medical condition. It's always a good idea to have your cat checked by a veterinarian to rule out illness.

  • Lack of Socialization Training
    A classic example is kittens taken from their mother at a very early age. The mother cats train socialization with humans, children, and other cats over a period of time. Ideally, kittens should stay with their mother a minimum of eight weeks; twelve weeks is better for them to become fully socialized.

    Your best bet with a poorly socialized kitten is to get him accustomed to one person in the residence at a time, handle him gently, petting and talking to him in a soothing voice, as long as he his comfortable. Allow him to explore his surroundings at his own pace. Once he is comfortable, another person can enter the socialization role.

  • Environmental Changes
    It's a well-known fact that cats are creatures of habit and hate change, both to their environment and to their daily routines. That shelter cat that seemed so friendly in its cage may act entirely differently once she arrives in her "forever home," especially if there are children and/or other pets in the home. This is a good reason to know what to expect when you bring home a shelter cat.

    Other environmental changes include moving furniture; noise, such as loud parties or construction; and the introduction of new pets into the household.

    With any of these changes, it's best to give the cat a safe room for as long as needed. She may stay under the bed for several days, just coming out long enough to eat and use the litter box. Gradually, you can coax her out with treats, but let her set her own comfort zone. A good example of how environmental changes can affect a cat's behavior can be found in this FAQ.

    Fear in Cats

    Fear in cats can be caused by many of the issues which affect shy cats, along with an assortment of more specific causes.

    An important point for dealing with fearful cats: Do not stare directly into your cat's eyes when trying to calm her. A direct stare is a sign of aggression among cats and will only exacerbate her fears.

    • Fear of People

      Unless your cat was born in your home, you have no way of knowing what her relationship was with previous humans in her life, other than the information provided by a shelter or cat rescue organization. The cat may have an innate fear of humans because of previous abuse or abandonment.

      Your cat can be taught to trust humans, starting with yourself, but it may be a slow process. As always, take it in slow baby steps, try to eliminate her other fears, and let her set the pace. Eventually, once she has learned to trust you, other humans in your life may follow the same process. Don't be surprised, though, if she remains a one-person cat for the rest of her life.

      I have this exact situation with my Billy, whose person is my son, Lance. Billy (pictured here) came as a kitten from a crowded foster home to a home with three adult humans. My husband and I had the task of administering medications and eye ointment for a URI he brought with him. He slept with my son until he could be safely introduced to our other cats. He is six years old now, and to this day, he will rarely let me touch him and keeps a wide berth when I walk near him. But he adores Lance, plays catch with him, and loves being petted by him.

    • Aggression by Another Cat
      The typical scenario here is when a timid cat is trapped in a covered litter box by a dominant cat. It is also a common reason for litter box avoidance. The solution here is to provide litter boxes with an "easy out," as well as addressing the aggressive behavior. The other typical situation involves redirected aggression between previously friendly cats.
    • Loud Noises
      This falls under the umbrella of environmental changes, noted under shyness in cats. More specifically, loud noises, such as construction, parties, and holiday celebrations involving fireworks, such as New Year's Eve and the 4th of July, can be particularly frightening to cats.

      Since these activities are known of in advance, it is suggested to remove the cats to a safe room until the activities have ended.

    • Natural Disasters
      Events such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes give little if any advance warning. It is incumbent on you to have a plan in place so that you are prepared for these emergencies Your plan will include an emergency evacuation kit, which should also contain one or more natural remedies for stress. Once you are safely back home, you can set the process of easing your cat's fears.

    I hope these tips will help you with your own shy and/or fearful cat. Readers are invited to use the form linked below to share their own success stories for these or other behavioral problems.

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