Fearful Behaviors in Cats and Kittens: How You Can Help

The more negative experiences your cat has had, the more ingrained their fear becomes. Here’s what you can do to help your cat overcome fearful behaviors.

By: glenbledsoe
Two cats can go through the same experience and be affected differently by it. Photo: glenbledsoe

The longer we live with cats, the more we realize how much we really don’t understand about their behavior.

Two cats, just like 2 people, can go through the same experience and be affected differently by it.

“Some cats are naturally more fearful than others because of their inherited temperament,” says the ASPCA.

Fearful Behaviors in Cats

Webster and Sam, a pair of Burmese cats I’ve worked with, are a good case in point.

They came from the same cattery, one run by an elderly woman who should’ve stopped breeding years ago. All the other cats there had severe health issues and ended up being euthanized.

Webster and Sam also lived together briefly in another home before being adopted by my friend Donna.

Webster bounced back quickly. Sam was the shell-shocked one.

Neither of the women at his previous homes had been stellar caregivers, so he didn’t trust Donna.

“Cats can also learn through the effect of even just one unpleasant experience that was intense or traumatic,” says the website Pet360. “This learning may then generalize to similar situations…. For example, a bad experience with a small child could result in a cat that is fearful of all small children.”

The more negative experiences your cat has had with a person, place or thing, the more ingrained that fear becomes.

Usually, a mix of counterconditioning and desensitization will do the trick.

  • But you have to work at the pace that’s right for the individual cat.
  • You also have to be ready to back off if you sense that the cat is getting anxious or agitated.
By: shouldbecleaning
Young cats need to be introduced to a variety of places, sounds and things. Photo: shouldbecleaning

The Social Component of Fearful Behaviors in Cats

“Fearful behaviors are common in cats,” says the ASPCA, “in part because most of us don’t socialize them as well as we do dogs, and we don’t expect them to be as active a part of our families.”

“They stay in our homes and don’t go walking, driving or traveling with us as dogs often do, so they don’t become accustomed to a variety of places, sounds and objects.”

I don’t entirely agree with this statement — I know a number of people who make a point of doing just those things with their cats. But I believe it’s worth thinking about.

Wendy Ratza says she took her cat Max everywhere as a kitten. Max not only let her put him in the tub but also took to walking in a harness immediately.

As long as his cat-buddy, Wren, was with him, he would follow her. “They would march right into the vets’,” Ratza says.

Then, Max was neutered. He also had a hernia operation, followed by a long recovery period in a pet playpen.

Shortly afterward, Ratza says she noticed that Max seemed to be “very fearful. He no longer wanted to play the bathtub game — in fact, he was “terrified” when she put him in — and wouldn’t go for walks anymore. At the vets’, he’d jump at the door latch, trying to get out.”

“Maybe he remembers being in there because it was pretty major surgery,” Ratza reflects.

She will retrain him to walk in a harness, but for now he travels in a carrier “because he’s unpredictable.”

So she’s taking things slowly. Forcing the issue doesn’t generally work with cats.

Hyperesthesia in Cats

According to some animal communicators, cats will take on our own stress.

Sometimes it’ll manifest as feline hyperesthesia syndrome (FHS), also known as “rippling skin disorder.”

The skin on the cat’s lower back actually will ripple. The cat will also bite or scratch their back and tail, meow loudly (usually at night) and do a pretty good imitation of a whirling dervish.

FHS can mean there’s a physical problem. But frequently it can also be the cat’s way of dealing with stress in the household, just as over-grooming, pica and other OCD behaviors are.

Exercise and interactive play — think wand toys — help, according to animal behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, MRCVS.

With the guidance of your vet, you can also try anticonvulsant medication (phenobarbital) or mood stabilizers.

By: Tambako the Jaguar
Figure out what’s causing your cat’s behavior instead of giving them up. Photo: Tambako the Jaguar

How Cat Therapists Help Solve Behavioral Problems

Right now I’m fostering Merlin, a 9-year-old Bombay cat.

Like a lot of older cats who suddenly find themselves out of a home, he has issues.

It’s not surprising. He spent the past 2 years in the basement of his old home in a deep depression after his cat-buddy died. Then he developed litter box issues.

That’s when his people contacted Animal Friends of Connecticut.

I talked with them about ways of working through the problems.

“No,” I was told firmly. “We’d like to see him get a fresh start elsewhere.”

A few days later, a miserable cat arrived at my house wanting nothing to do with anybody. He had lost faith in his own humans and didn’t think all that highly of the rest of the species.

Learning to Live in Harmony

Merlin is the kind of cat Carole Wilbourn has worked with steadily over the past 4 decades.

“I usually get cats that people are ready to put down or give away,” she says.

Wilbourn isn’t just a cat therapist. She is the founding mother of cat therapy and has an international practice called The Cat Therapist.

She has written numerous books and columns for both Cat Fancy and In Defense of Animals, and she runs a blog called The Wilbourn Way.

“Cats have always been my teachers,” she says. “I was always ready for something new. It wasn’t like I was reading anything in particular. I was watching and listening and using all my senses so that I could distinguish what they wanted.”

But she doesn’t focus on just the cats. She does what is essentially bi-species therapy.

“If I can make the cats happier, then I can make the people happier,” she says.

“If I just worked with the cat, it would never work. In order for me to help the cat, I have to get through to the guardian. As the guardian’s body relaxes, the cat mirrors that because they’re so in tune to body language and voice.”

Wilbourn does phone consultations, video chat and instant messaging, sending recordings or videos of the sessions to her clients afterward.

Here are some of the things she uses in those sessions:

  • Music: She leans toward New Age, Yo-Yo Ma and mellow music in general. The music “becomes a security object.”
  • Medication: Generally, the cats that come to her are the ones “where the drugs didn’t work. Or I get a cat who hasn’t been through anything. I’ll start them on the program. Sometimes that’ll be enough.” If it’s not, that’s when she’ll look to “the auxiliary force” — a.k.a. medication.

This video shows Wilbourn helping a couple and their cat, Mingus, with music and suggestions to reduce anxiety:

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What’s Causing Your Cat Stress in the Home?

Some cat behaviorists focus more on the animal itself.

“My work is about the passion I have for the domestic cat as a species and the respect I have for their need to behave naturally and instinctively,” says Vicky Halls, a UK-based cat behavior consultant.

“Problems can be resolved by adopting an approach that allows the cat the freedom to do just that,” she says.

Lana Fraley Rich, known as the Catsultant, does “a thorough environmental analysis of the home … identifying any possible stressors.” She then draws up a customized plan to help resolve those problems.

Be Willing to Work on Your Cat’s Behavior Problems

Some people say only vets should be consulted regarding cat behavior issues.

I don’t agree. But I do think your vet is a good expert to start with to rule out any underlying health problems.

Once that’s done, they can point you in the direction of a reputable cat therapist.

But remember this: The best cat consultant in the world isn’t going to make a difference if you’re not willing to do the work.

“Sometimes people can’t or won’t commit because of who they are or because of their resources,” says Wilbourn. “But there are people who, as long as they feel there is a way, they’ll do it.”

And what about fearful behaviors in kittens? That’s what we’ll talk about next as this article continues below…

Keep kittens stimulated and socialized with toys and games. By: cherrymerry
Keep your kitten stimulated and socialized with toys and games. Photo: cherrymerry

Taking a Kitten From Fearful to Playful

Periodically, kittens show up at my home as fosters. Some are so young that they require bottle-feeding. Others are old enough to chow down on their own.

The current kittens here are almost 8 weeks old — and wildly playful.

Sometimes, though, these kittens get frightened.

Playtime and Socialization

Cats are problem solvers by nature, and this trait shows up fairly early.

It’s important to have lots of things around for the furry little problem solvers to work with.

“Kittens kept in a more complex environment for their first 2 months are less nervous later in life than those kept in unstimulating surroundings,” says Jacque Lynn Schultz, CPDT. “Provide plenty of sensory stimulation.”

This includes:

  • Interactive toys
  • Bouncy balls
  • A small cardboard box with a door cut into it (Schultz advises against using fresh produce boxes for fear of pesticide residue)
  • A crinkle tunnel or a handle-less paper bag

Socialization is also key. The kittens’ world is expanding beyond mom and their littermates to include the humans around them.

Start handling them gently when they’re 2–3 weeks old. This will make them friendlier and more adoptable.

But there’s more to it than that. According to The Cornell Book of Cats, “Handling kittens each day for the first month may improve the kittens’ learning ability.”

In other words, a socialized kitten is a sharper kitten, and a cat who “never had the opportunity to play as a kitten will not respond to the appropriate play signals as an adult.”

Check out these tiny kittens’ sweet soccer moves as they kick the ball around together:

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Are You My Mother?

Some kittens remain close to their moms.

Kittens and queens who stay together will groom each other long after the kitten is weaned,” says Melissa Schindler.

But kittens and their birth moms don’t generally end up staying together. Sometimes the kitten will latch on figuratively — and literally — to a spayed female at their new home.

Eventually, of course, the kitten will transfer these feelings to you — especially if they’ve grown up surrounded by warm, caring humans. You will become the kitten’s surrogate mom, and they will regard you as such for the rest of their life.