By Monica Weymouth
If your cat is scared, chances are that you’re a little scared, too. In addition to the stress of seeing your pet uncomfortable, frightened cats have been known to claw first and ask questions later.
So, what to do if you have a scaredy cat on your hands? We consulted the experts for this step-by-step guide to assessing, comforting and preventing frightened felines.
Determine If Your Cat is Frightened
Cats are notoriously hard to read. But although each cat is different, they tend to exhibit some telltale behaviors when experiencing stress.
“The fear response will manifest differently depending upon the cat’s options,” says Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, a veterinarian and board member of the American Society of Feline Practitioners. “A fearful cat will run away from a threat if that’s possible. If that isn’t, he may become more aroused.”
Be on the lookout for the following body language: dilated pupils, whiskers raised to near horizontal, a furrowed brow and a focused stare, she adds. A frightened cat’s feet will be poised to either run off or defend himself.
Respect Your Cat’s Space
Although it might make you feel better, resist the urge to pick up or cuddle a frightened cat.
“Forcing interactions on a nervous cat is never, ever a good idea,” says Nicole Larocco-Skeehan, a certified animal trainer and behavior consultant and owner of pet training facility Philly Unleashed. “The best thing you can do is give your cat space—never underestimate the power of space.”
Remembering your cat’s need for space could prevent incidents from happening in the first place. Many cats initially become frightened from forced interactions—unlike your goofy Labrador, your cat may not feel the need to becomes best friends with everyone who walks through the door.
“If you have visitors and the cat isn’t being social, ignoring him is the best idea—don’t force him to come say hello,” says Larocco-Skeehan. “Make sure your cat has a safe place to escape to—set up a room with food, water, a comfy spot to rest and a litter box.”
Similarly, forced interactions with other cats can cause your cat to become frightened. If you’re introducing a new kitty into the home, don’t expect everyone to immediately become fast friends. Instead, provide each of them with space, space and more space.
“Cats are territorial creatures who don’t take well to interlopers,” Colleran says. “A new cat needs to have everything separated from the cat whose territory he is being brought into. It should be assumed that the cats will willingly share their resources.”
This means that each cat should have his own room, water, food, litter box and toys until they tell you otherwise.
Be Patient as Your Cat Recovers
There’s no telling how long your cat will need to feel safe, secure and ready for interaction after a stressful event. Whether it was a loud noise, an overfriendly human or a territorial feline that caused him to become frightened, be patient and give him some time to come around.
“If your cat feels safe with you, you should sit down by yourself and wait, quietly,” says Colleran. If you find yourself waiting longer than expected, don’t be alarmed, and don’t try to rush the recovery process.
“A cat will come to you on his own terms—which might not be your terms,” says Larocco-Skeehan. “It may take hours, or it make take days—they play by a different set of rules.”
Set Your Home up for Success
The best thing you can do for a scared cat? Do your best to prevent him from becoming frightened in the first place. If your cat is naturally nervous, establish a routine to help him feel calm and safe.
“Skittish cats do best when everything is predictable—the same person feeds and cleans for them, at the same time each day, and their home range is not regularly altered,” says Colleran. When you know there will be changes to your schedule or home, anticipate some unease and prepare a room with familiar objects for him to decompress, she adds.
Naturally skittish or not, most cats appreciate vertical space and cover when stressful situations arise.
“Scared cats are looking for two things: a place to hide, and a way to go up,” says Larocco-Skeehan. “Being able to observe things from a higher vantage point makes cats feels safe.”
For these occasions, invest in a cat tree, Larocco-Skeehan recommends one around 6-feet tall, or cat-specific shelving to provide plenty of safe spaces.