Terrified toms and quivering queens – cats aren’t known for their bravery. The phrase ‘scaredy cat’ does have some basis in truth and although it doesn’t apply to every feline; certainly the majority will spend at least some of their lives feeling on-edge and unsure. But why is this the case and what can we do to help them feel safe?

Fight or flight

The main reason behind a cat’s fearful behaviour lies in the fight or flight response. In that in the majority of cases, a cat will choose flight over fight. This response is often triggered in new or ‘high-threat’ situations such as a visitor to the house, a loud noise or that dreaded visit to the vets. It is accompanied by a surge of adrenaline which gives the cat the energy to flee. A cat’s reaction times are also a lot quicker than ours due to their super sharp hearing, smell and sight so sometimes they’re gone before we recognise their anxiety. 

Conversely, some cats may choose to freeze rather than run. As vets, we often see this in the clinic; a cat sitting ‘perfectly’ on the table for an examination which in many cases, is actually a cat so scared, that they are afraid to move. But subtle signs such as body tension, ear position, pupil size and heart rate can let us know that they are really not happy with the situation. And we can try our best to make them feel more comfortable. 

Most common feline phobias

1) Noise

Cats have great hearing. Not only can they hear sounds up to three times higher than the usual human range, but they have over 30 muscles in each ear. This allows them to focus in on what they want to hear. And the slightly conical shape of their ears helps to amplify the sound. With all this in mind, imagine how loud and sudden sounds such as fireworks appear to a cat; and you can understand why they can be so afraid of them. 

2) Strangers

One of the biggest differences between dog and cat behaviour can be seen with visitors to their house. Dogs will often bark and rush to the door when the doorbell goes; some may be excited, some may actually be anxious, but generally the reaction is the same – loud and confrontational. Cats will often scarper. Cats like routine and anything that disturbs this, especially a new person that sounds different, smells different and often sits on their sofa will trigger that fight or flight response. 

3) Leaving the house

Cats are territorial and like staying within their home and local outside areas. So nothing about leaving this is likely to be seen as a positive – the cat box, the car or the destination, be it a new home, a cattery or the vets. They may also associate the experience with a previous negative one; especially a trip to the vets. So as soon as that cat box comes out, their instinct is to run and hide. 

4) Dogs

In many situations, dogs and cats can live together in relative harmony despite traditionally being mortal enemies. But problems can arise with unknown dogs; especially if encountered in the cat’s territory or if the dog elicits a chase. Cats can also see dogs as predators so tend not to be particularly comfortable in their company. Even other cats can cause friction as cats are designed to live alone and are frequently unsettled with the appearance of another cat in their territory – especially if it isn’t one they’ve known all their life. 

5) Water

It’s common knowledge that cats hate water. But you may be surprised to know that there is at least one breed of cat that has a natural affinity for water. The Turkish Van has even been given the nickname of the ‘swimming cat’. Other breeds may enjoy playing with a running tap or ‘padding’ their water bowl. But it’s not generally recommended to try to take a shower with your feline friend!

How to help your cat feel less afraid

Although hopefully your cat doesn’t feel scared all the time, there are things you can do to minimise their fear during stressful events. 

Ideally, all cats should be well socialised as kittens, not just with different people, including both children and adults, but also with general household experiences like the sounds of household appliances, getting used to being gently handled or living with other pets. If your cat wasn’t socialised like this or if they are still fearful, then try to turn any negative experience into a positive one with food treats, vocal or touch reassurance. It’s also important to provide an area they can escape to if they want to; be it a box in a high place, a hide-away under a sofa or a completely separate room. 

Many cats also respond positively to use of feline pheromone therapy. A plug-in adapter can prove very useful when moving house and a spray applied in the cat box before travel can help to settle their nerves. Ultimately, there are calming medications or supplements that may benefit your cat if they really are unhappy so speak to your vet if you have any concerns. 

It’s also worth mentioning that if your cat shows a change in behaviour, it could be a sign of an underlying health concern, so it would be worth getting them checked out. 

Cats are genetically made up to be of a nervous disposition when exposed to unfamiliar situations, but that doesn’t mean they have to live their whole life as a bundle of nerves. They deserve a warm, loving home at the centre of their world and all the fuss and attention they could wish for. 

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