When you adopt any animal, a hundred questions rush through your mind. Will they like you, will you like them, what will living together be like?
Some pets will adapt to their new home in a matter of days, while others will need much longer. Some cats in particular will remain frightened for what seems like forever.
If your cat appears to be afraid of everything (whether they have always been like that or have recently started exhibiting this strange behavior), understanding what the cause is and how you can help is exceptionally important.
Why Is My Can So Scared of Everything?
Most often, cats are scared of everything because they have made a lot of negative associations early in life. If they have been abused, mistreated or simply not socialized well, they will have trouble trusting humans and new environments.
Some cats are also just shy or timid by nature. There may be something about their genetic makeup that makes them a bit more “on edge”, and they may require years to calm down and learn how to trust their new people and their new environment.
Here are the possible reasons your cat friend may be scared of everything (as opposed to a couple of specific things, like cucumbers, loud bangs or the vacuum cleaner).
They’ve Just Met You
Most cats will appear timid and be exceptionally cautious when they first meet you, especially if they are no longer kittens. After all, they know nothing about you, and need to determine what kind of person you are before they decide to trust you.
Adult cats who’ve lived on the street will be especially nervous in most cases, although there are cats that know exactly which humans they want to choose and who will settle into their new family practically instantly. This may not be the case for you however.
Don’t be offended or surprised if your new cat spends their first days hiding, only coming out for meals. They are just getting used to their new home, and will need your patience to settle in. Don’t force them to socialize, let them do their own thing. They will come to you when they are ready.
They Are Not Used to Human Company
Cats that have been adopted from a shelter are not quite used to human company. Despite the best efforts of employees and volunteers, living in a shelter is simply not like living in a home. It will take time for your new friend to adapt.
Imagine if it was you: going from one living situation to something entirely different, surrounded by new humans who all want to cuddle and play with you, and all you want is a bit of time and space to adjust your bearings.
They Have Never Been Properly Socialized
We believe that cats should be exposed to positive human contact in the first two months of their life. WIthout it, they may have a difficult time adjusting to living with their new owners, especially if they were used to living with cats and are now the only cat in the home.
This is why fostering kittens is so important. They get to experience all kinds of fun with a human, and learn that they can in fact be trusted. Cats that come out of foster homes are much better socialized, and while they may have their behavioral quirks, they tend to settle in quicker.
They Have Been Abused
Cats that have been abused will often be scared of everything in their new home. They will have a particularly hard time trusting you, so you need to be extra patient and consistent.
If you notice your cat is particularly triggered by something (a noise, a person, an action), take it as a form of PTSD. Aim to eliminate these triggers by forming new, positive associations with them, but note that it will take a lot of work.
As you already know, cats don’t hold grudges – at least technically. They can however remember a person for a very long time, especially if they have treated them very well, or very poorly. If you share certain behaviors with their abuser, they will sometimes act out of fear, even though they have started to trust you.
Be patient, give them time and plenty of love. Ensure they feel safe, and they will start to feel more comfortable in your home.
They Are New to Their Environment
If you’ve moved (or your cat has just moved in with you), your cat will naturally be on their guard. After all, there are so many new sights and sounds, and especially smells they know nothing about yet.
While some cats are natural explorers and will freely investigate their new surroundings, others will take it room by room. If you notice your cat is not comfortable, limit their access to a couple of rooms only. Once they get used to them, open up a new room they can get to know. This will help pace them and ensure they have a safe haven to retreat to.
You’ve Changed Their Routine
Cats are creatures of habit. If you suddenly do something major to upset their routine, they may start to feel scared and anxious, especially if they are shy by nature.
If you start working odd hours, spend a lot of time away from home, go away on holiday, bring new furniture into the home, or do something else that is out of the ordinary, your cat will react.
Someone New Has Moved In
The same thing will happen if someone new moves into your home. It may be a significant other, or you may have had a baby, but a new member of the family is bound to put your usual schedule out of whack, not to mention there will be all kinds of new smells in the place.
Give your cat time to adjust to the new member of the family. If you know they are on the scared side, make sure to offer plenty of positive reinforcements and ask the new person (unless they are a newborn) to make sure they don’t make loud noises and sudden movements, and that they respect your cat’s space and privacy.
There’s a New Pet In The Home
It will come as no surprise that your cat can become jumpy and nervous when you bring a new pet into the home. Be it a cat or dog, a turtle or a hamster, they will bring new smells and sounds with them, and your cat will not appreciate the disruption to their routine.
Make sure you spend plenty of time with your cat to make it clear that they are not being replaced and that they are still just as loved. Socialize them with the new pet slowly, don’t just throw them in together and hope for the best. Expose them to each other’s smell, and make sure that they do not bully each other. Allow only supervised interactions until they get to know each other.
They Have Separation Anxiety
Despite popular opinion, some cats are not as independent as most people believe. Felines can in fact develop separation anxiety.
While more likely in cats that have been abandoned by previous owners or their mothers, cats who have never experienced abandonment can also become anxious when you leave the house. They simply aren’t suited to being alone for long periods of time, and will be afraid that you are never coming home. If you have an ever-shifting schedule, your cat may be unsure when they will see you next and start to become anxious.
Cats that suffer from separation anxiety will not be afraid of their owners though. In fact, they will be extra clingy and want to spend every second with you.
They Have Never Lived With Kids
If you have children, your cat may be skittish around them if they have never seen a child before. If your kids also tend to grab the cat and are loud and playful around them, the cat’s fears may be worsened.
Start by teaching your kids that the cat has its own feeling and that you need to treat it with care. Ensure the cat has a safe space that is absolutely child-free, and supervise the time they spend together, to make sure your kids don’t worsen the fear.
They Are Ill
Cats will also hide when they are injured or not feeling well. In the wild, they are at their most vulnerable when sick, so their instincts will tell them to lay low until they heal, even in your home.
If your cat suddenly starts to hide more than usual, and you also notice a change in their appetite or other strange behaviors, make an appointment with the vet to make sure they are not ill.
They Are Getting Older
Older cats can also appear frightened and anxious. As their cognitive functions begin to decline, they may not recognize their environment and their humans. If their sight and hearing also start to decline, they will have a harder time getting around, so they may appear scared and uneasy.
Do what you can to ease your cat’s old age. Make sure they are able to find the litter box and their food and water bowls, and fashion them plenty or resting spots where they can relax in peace, uninterrupted by the rest of the household.
How Can I Tell Whether My Cat is Scared?
You will be able to recognize your cat is scared if they start to exhibit some (or all) of these behaviors:
- They are hiding more than usual. Some cats will have designated hiding spots, while others will look for the nearest dark and confined space they can get into.
- Their appetite has changed. Cats will both overeat and start eating less when they are scared.
- They are jumpy. A scared cat will have trouble relaxing. They will be skittish, pace around a lot, sleep very lightly and jump at the tiniest noise.
- Excessive grooming. Grooming themselves is a calming behavior for cats. It helps them settle down and relax. If you notice your cat is grooming themselves more than usual, they may be anxious.
- Odd meows. Cats that meow excessively or have started to growl are also showing signs of fear. They may also be hissing or spitting.
- Body language. A scared cat will have its ears flattened to their head, their back will be arched and they will show their teeth. This means they feel there is an immediate threat around and they are ready to defend themselves. You may also notice their tail triple in size, and they may be running around a lot.
How To Help a Frightened Cat
If your cat is scared of everything and spends a lot of time hiding, there are some things you can do to make them feel safer and more at ease.
Introduce Yourself Slowly
If you are just getting to know a cat, take the time to slowly gain their trust. Don’t demand their attention and force them to play or cuddle with you. Rather sit on the floor and let them come to you. Don’t make any sudden movements, don’t talk to them, just let them get used to your presence.
It may take several days before they come over and start sniffing you. Don’t try to pet them, let them be the one to initiate first contact. Let the cat observe you as you go about your normal day and get used to your presence and routine.
Start talking to them when they have warmed up a bit. Literally do whatever it is you are doing, but keep a running conversation going so your new friend can get used to your voice.
Once your cat starts making contact, you can reinforce their behavior by giving them treats. Give them space when they want it, don’t try to pick them up or pet them when they don’t feel like it. Be very patient, and it will pay off.
As you may know by now, our Sasha is scared of everything. When she first arrived, she needed several days to warm up to us, but luckily, she and my daughter bonded very quickly. Just the two of them, mind, not the rest of the family.
The one thing I think really helped is blinking at her slowly. She still does it to reinforce the message of love it sends, and Sasha has become much less skittish.
She and I have also made friends since, and I am now her favorite person. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that our daughter has since moved, but Sasha still runs to her every time she opens the door.
Play With Them
When your cat starts to feel more comfortable around you, start playing with them. Take it slowly and don’t be aggressive with the toy. Just gently jiggle it in front of the cat, and let them engage at their own pace.
Make sure you are not making any sudden movements or loud noises, and that no one can interrupt your playtime. Do this as often as you can, and make sure your cat starts to feel more relaxed during play.
You can also use this time to start making physical contact. Pet them when they don’t expect it, and then go back to playing. Put the toy in your hand (careful that they don’t bite or scratch you), and have them come up to you.
The only time Sasha was truly unafraid at first was when we used to play. She has this furry toy we refer to as “the tail”, and she goes wild when she sees it. We literally have to hide it so she doesn’t tear the house down in the middle of the night.
Gradually Expose Them to New Experiences
Aim to slowly but surely expose your scared cat to new experiences. If they respond negatively, remember the trigger and keep exposing them to it, this time reinforcing it with something positive: playtime, a treat, cuddling.
Over time, your cat will start to associate this trigger with something positive, and they will start to look forward to it.
Be careful not to overdo it, and take it one trigger at a time. The more time you invest into this exposure therapy, the better your cat will respond, and you’ll notice them becoming more confident all around.
Provide an Escape Route
Always make sure your cat can easily get to their safe place. You’ll usually know what this is: the first spot they chose to hide in when they came to your house and which they retreat to in time of need.
Never close the door on the room they feel most comfortable in, and make sure they can always get to their litter box and food. Shutting them off from these necessities can make them feel more afraid.
You can also limit their access to certain areas of the house, especially while they are still getting used to it and your family. As they get more comfortable, let them move into new territory.
Keep The Environment Calm
Aim to have a calm home as much as possible. If you have kids, at least make sure there is one room in the house that’s quiet where the cat can have some alone time.
Don’t make any unexpected loud noises or sudden wild movements when around your cat. Stay calm and cool, don’t fidget and move around too much. You’ll notice how much better you feel yourself, trying to lower the energy level of the room and keep it positive for your feline friend.
When there are loud noises that scare your cat, let them figure it out on their own. If they hide, pet them when they come back. They may forever get frightened by them, and that’s okay.
You can also try using some of the smells cats love to make them feel more calm and relaxed. Don’t overdo it though, and make sure you only reinforce positive behaviors, i.e. don’t give your cat catnip when they are afraid, only when they are calm.
The most important piece of advice I can give you is to be patient. When your cat hides, don’t go after them. Don’t try to pet them or get them to come out. Let them do it on their own terms and in their own time. If you interfere, they will only get more scared.
The key is letting them make progress on their own, only by reinforcing positive behavior and slow and gradual exposure therapy. Don’t try to turn them into someone else overnight, just because you hoped you’d have a playful cat.
If you’ve ever had anxiety, you’ll know how important patience is. My daughter has suffered from really bad panic attacks for a couple of years, and the one thing she kept telling us was to give her time and space to deal with it. She needed to work through it, and I believe cats need the same courtesy. If you are trustworthy, they’ll let you in.
Seek Professional Help
If you feel you are not making any progress, try getting professional help. Your vet can tell you if your cat has a medical condition that may be affecting their behavior, and they will offer advice on how to approach the scared kitty problem.
You can also try talking to a cat behaviorist, who can offer a plan of action to desensitize your cat and help them become less fearful.
Wrapping It Up
If your cat is scared of everything, arm yourself with patience and give them plenty of space. They will get over it in time, but you should never rush them and try to get them to do things you want to do, which may make them uncomfortable and worsen their anxiety.