You know the look: ears back, eyes wide, maybe hissing or spitting. Her legs are straight and stiff, either ready to fight or run away. Her tail is swishing back and forth. If she does run away, you may try to lure your cat out of hiding but nothing gets her out.
All of these are signs of a fearful cat. A loud noise can momentarily frighten a cat. Unusual occurrences like visits to the veterinarian's office — where your cat may have to be stuffed into a transport box and go for a stressful car ride, then be poked and prodded — might naturally give most cats a reason to be afraid.
But removing sources of everyday fear, and working with an already-fearful cat to improve her quality of life, can give you a much happier cat who will likely live longer, and be a better companion to you.
Here are a few reasons why your cat may be acting especially fearful.
They're new to your household
A new household full of unfamiliar smells is bound to make cats feel less than secure. Whether you are bringing home a kitten for the first time or are moving an adult cat to a new home, it's best to let them start out in a "safe room." This means not giving him access to the whole house all at once, but setting him up in a smaller area, perhaps a bathroom or bedroom, where he can slowly get used to the new sites and smells.
Give him a place to hide in the small area. He will come out and start exploring when he is ready. Once he seems like he has explored everything in the safe room, open up the door and move the hiding place out to a new area. Again, let him explore at his own pace.
They weren't properly socialized
Most people know about the importance of socializing puppies when they are young, so they get used to people and other animals. The same must be done for cats too. Cat behavior develops most rapidly during a time of "sensitive period of socialization" from the second to the seventh week of the cat's life. It's during this period that a cat's nervous system develops enough to give them the senses they need to explore and understand the world around them.
The more experiences you can give a cat, such as other cats or other animals to visit with, new places, new smells, humans and human activity such as walking or knocking on the door, the better adjusted your cat will be. The cat's experiences during this time will form the foundational basis for their future behavior, including things that make them fearful, or not. This brings up another reasons that cats are sometimes fearful.
They had a traumatic past
Living in a noisy shelter, living in a cat hoarding situation where they would not have had the best of care, or living with someone who abused your cat could all be things that would make her fearful. A cat who has been rescued from a dire or life-threatening situation could also be a fearful cat.
According to cat behaviorist Sparrow Marcioni, signs that a cat might have PTSD include aggressiveness, especially when they would not normally be aggressive, decreased appetite and weight loss, increased neediness or attachment, and destructive behavior. Other signs include trying desperately to run away during a scary event such as a thunderstorm, hiding for no clear reason, not sleeping, or an avoidance of certain people, places, or things.
How to help a fearful cat
It's normal for a at to be scared every now and then. But long-term fearful behavior is more of a health concern and should be easy to spot. There may be a medical reason for your cat's fearful behavior, so schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for an examination, particularly if the fearfulness is a new behavior. The Conscious Cat says that chronic stress in cats can cause health problems and can exacerbate others — just like it can in humans.
When you're dealing with a fearful cat, approach them slowly and be comforting. If he's hiding, let him stay there for a while rather than pulling him out. Chances are good he will come out on his own when he's ready. Place some food and water near his hiding spot so he has easy access.
If you can figure out what is making your cat fearful, such as a toy or a particular person, you may be able to desensitize him with some practice and training. For instance, introduce the fearful situation while you are comforting him and giving him treats. Work on this very slowly. An animal behaviorist can help make sure you're not going to traumatize him again by putting him in stressful situations.
Finally, don't punish your cat when he exhibits fearful behavior, as this could simple reinforce the fear and make it worse. Animals associate punishment with what they're doing at the time of the punishment. Punishment when she's already fearful could just instill fear and not help her understand why he is being punished.