We cannot simply tell our cat to not be afraid of something. Rather, we must communicate it through our actions and our energy. With time, patience, and proper training, you can help your shy and fearful cat develop into a confident and friendly feline.
Before anything else, it is important to consult your veterinarian to rule out any potential medical issues that may be contributing to your cat’s fearful behavior.
Fearful Body Language
It’s important to remember that cats cannot talk; instead they try their best to communicate with us through their body language. Recognizing a cat’s body language is crucial to telling how he is feeling and what he is thinking at the time. If your feline companion is exhibiting any of these signs, he may be trying to tell you that he is afraid of something.
Fearful Feline Body Language:
Ears flattened back against the head
Head lowered with gaze angled upwards
Eyes open wide, pupils fully dilated, whiskers flattened or bristling
Hissing or spitting, growling, striking with claws out
Tail under body or slashing vigorously side to side
Cat Safe Zone
Provide a small, quiet place for your cat, such as a spare bedroom or bathroom. Make sure the room is equipped with windows and allows natural light. This will allow your cat to express natural behavior while in the room. Make sure your cat has access to water and a litter box at all times. Scatter some enticing kitty toys throughout the room, such as a catnip mouse and a ball to bat around.
Offer your new cat a cozy place to hide. This could be a hut-type cat bed purchased from a pet store, a cardboard box with an opening cut in the side and bedding placed inside (keep the top flaps closed but don’t seal them), or a plastic shelving unit with bedding on one of the higher shelves and a towel or blanket draped over the front. Use what works for your home.
Place your cat’s hiding spot somewhere that is easily accessible by you and your cat, but that is mostly out of view.
Block off potential hiding spots that are inaccessible to you. Cats often feel safer when elevated; be cautious of loft rafters or attic access doors in closets.
Develop a consistent schedule for litter box cleaning, feeding, and socialization time. This will help avoid surprising and startling your cat when you enter the room.
To make your cat feel more comfortable and secure in his cat safe zone, consider placing a Comfort Zone® with Feliway® diffuser in the room. The synthetic pheromone emitted helps ease stress in cats and helps them feel more secure.
A fearful cat requires controlled, prolonged exposure to warm up to any new person and situation. Under no circumstance should you force a fearful cat to sit in your lap, hold her, or chase her. Doing so will only make the behavior worse and instill even more fear in your cat. Instead, go at whatever pace your cat feels comfortable. Just sitting calmly in the same room as your cat will help her warm up to your presence. No matter the situation, make sure to remain positive and relaxed while interacting with your cat during this process.
Feeding and Rewards
Offer your cat canned food several times a day and remain in the room while he eats. This will help create a bond and help your cat learn to trust you. In the beginning, spoon feeding your cat in his hiding place may be the best option. If he won’t eat from the spoon, place the food as close as you can to the cat and simply sit at the farthest point in the room. Warming the food a bit could stimulate the appetite in a cat who otherwise isn’t eating in your presence. As he becomes more comfortable, you can move a little closer and hand feed him, then transition to giving the food on a plate and luring him out of hiding to eat.
You might be surprised how many shut-down, fearful cats spring to life when invited to play. Interactive toys are a great way to bond with your new cat and help him feel more comfortable. Wand toys are the obvious choice. The Cat Charmer usually lives up to its name but there are plenty of options. Don’t fling the toy toward your cat; move it back and forth in front of him, drag it away from him occasionally, and lightly draw it toward him to re-engage. Straws, pipe cleaners, and the wand of a toy work well, too. Wiggle the toy back and forth across the floor or base of your cat’s hiding spot, a few inches from his face. Vary the speed so that it is occasionally crawling along and then briefly darting to and fro. Some cats will be more intrigued if their prey is hidden under a light blanket or towel and pops out at times.
If you would like information from an Anti-Cruelty Behavior Specialist regarding this behavior topic, please call 312-645-8253 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.