Helping cats overcome phobias
Your cat’s impressive survival instinct is part of the reason they’re so good at looking after themselves in the great outdoors! When cats are scared, most will flee from anything that could pose a potential threat, or find a hidey-hole until it’s gone, and reassess it from a distance rather than stay and face their fear.
However, this instinct can develop into a less rational phobia, where your cat fears something that you know is safe. Their general wellbeing may be affected by this stress if it is recurring and strong. There are a number of things that can be done to make your cat feel completely safe in their own home, especially if you can spot the signs of a scared cat.
Start getting your cat used to things when they’re young, and you can help them grow to be unafraid of disruptions such as thunder, fireworks, travelling or the arrival of new visitors. The key is to get your cat used to these harmless (but seemingly ‘threatening’) things at an impressionable age, before they start to view these minor disruptions as serious threats. An unafraid kitten will generally grow into an unafraid (and therefore less stressed) adult.
Safe havens when leaving your cat at home
Some cats get nervous when left at home alone, so a safe den will provide them with somewhere comforting to go until you return. Think of it like cuddling up in bed – it’s somewhere your nervous cat can feel warm, secure and completely in charge.
Make sure they have somewhere comfortable to hide, which will act as a bolthole for whenever they need it. For example, a cardboard box with a hole cut in the side lined with warm, comfortable bedding and placed in an airing cupboard or on a deep window ledge can be a cheap, safe haven for unsure and stressed cats.
A bolthole like this will give them peace of mind, so if they need to run, they’ve got somewhere they can feel safe. A synthetic pheromone spray or plug-in diffuser can also help boost their sense of wellbeing and security. Ask your vet for more advice about this, and whether it will benefit your stressed cat.
If you have an alarmed or stressed cat don’t pursue them, even to reassure them: their safe hiding place will provide all the comfort they need. The best thing you can do if you spot the signs of a scared cat is to carry on as normal, making sure you know where they are and that they’re in a safe place.
Is your cat scared of people?
It is unusual for a healthy, well-socialised cat or kitten to be afraid of unfamiliar people. Initial suspicion is natural, but your cat should soon realise that new people can be an extra source of affection, play and even treats! What better reason is there for your cat to make new friends?
Naturally, the situation is different for unsocialised and feral cats, or cats that have been treated badly in the past. Unfortunately, these cats do not always associate people with pleasant experiences and are instinctively wary. Bad experiences with previous owners or people might explain why you have an anxious cat, so bear in mind the past experiences they have had. This might be explained if your cat came from a rescue centre as an adult.
This is why early socialisation and handling are so important in kittens – particularly those from rescue centres. The more varied a kitten’s early positive experiences, the less likely they are to be fearful in the future.
Cats that are afraid of normal domestic events, such as guests visiting, are difficult to treat, but you can certainly help reduce their stress levels and see an improvement with a little time and patience. Seek help from your vet or ask to be referred to a feline behaviourist sooner rather than later if you notice that you have an anxious cat.
Senior cat phobia
If you have a senior cat (a cat over the age of seven years), they are likely to be more reliant on you for security and social interaction. Your senior cat may call out to you much more than when they were younger, but try not to respond with over-attention as you don’t want to reinforce any feelings of dependency or encourage learned helplessness. Save the comfort cuddles until they really need them, and then spoil them as much as you like!