Trying to Make Sense of Fearful Behaviors in Cats

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

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

Ryoki is a 15-year-old Maine Coon. She and her late brother, Rajah, came from a shelter. Ryoki adjusted beautifully, but Rajah carried the trauma with him his entire life.

Maxwell Smart, a young Ruddy Abyssinian, used to love playing in the bathtub as a kitten. He’d even swim for his human, Wendy Ratza. Now he’s suddenly, inexplicably afraid of the bathtub and a number of other things that never bothered him before.

Moonlight, my Lilac Abyssinian, will suddenly start grooming for seemingly no reason. She frequently seems to know when I’m stressed out before I do.

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

Old Baggage

Not all cats land on their feet, figuratively speaking. Two felines, 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.

Webster and Sam, the pair of Burmese 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,” notes 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 that 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. By: shouldbecleaning

The Social Component

“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, as I know a number of people who make a point of doing just those things with their felines. But I believe it’s worth thinking about.

Wendy Ratza brought 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 Blue Aby buddy, Wren, “was with him, he would follow her. They would march right into the vets’.” Wren would make herself comfortable in a chair, and Max would hop up and join her.

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

Shortly afterward, Ratza 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.


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. He will also bite or scratch his 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, says animal behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, MRCVS. With the guidance of your veterinarian, you can also try anticonvulsant medication (phenobarbital) or mood stabilizers.

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, which received a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has also received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association, ByLine and The Writing Self. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Single Parent’s Soul and A Cup of Comfort for Women in Love, and T.J. has worked as a stringer for the Associated Press, as an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School and as a columnist.

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