A shy cat is more apt to “freeze” in place and even tremble in hopes you will walk away. A fearful cat, however, is more apt to flatten his ears, dilate his pupils and deliver a warning hiss or growl before swatting or biting you if you attempt to touch him.
“There is no doubt that the behaviors exhibited by fearful and shy animals overlap,” notes Leni Kaplan, DVM, a lecturer in the Community Practice Service at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, N.Y. “In my experience, shy cats will usually not show signs of aggression because they are trying to get away or avoid being the center of attention. Fearful cats, on the other hand, tend to feel threatened or endangered (whether it is genuine or imagined) and are likely to swat, hiss or growl to discourage being handled.”
Other fearful signs include a cat bringing his feet closer to his body, lowering his head and making himself seem smaller. His back will become more arched and his ears more flattened when a person he does not know approaches. As the person gets closer, he may start hissing — a warning sign before he strikes.
When in doubt as to a cat’s emotional state, Dr. Kaplan cautions you to never:
• Attempt to invade the cat’s personal space.
• Lower yourself to be face-to-face with this cat.
• Touch his hind end, tail or paw pads.
• Speak in a loud voice.
• Move abruptly or use large gestures.
“I tell people that cats like quiet people,” adds behaviorist Katherine Houpt, VMD, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Cornell. “When meeting a cat, use your ‘library’ voice and resist making expressive hand motions.”
Unlike dogs, cats are solitary hunters by nature and are apt to avoid a fight or conflict whenever possible by distancing themselves by hiding or fleeing the room. As both predator and prey, cats often show fear or defensiveness in strange surroundings or with unfamiliar people. If they perceive they are being cornered, they may lash out.
In a 2013 study conducted by Maddie’s Institute under the direction of Sheila D’Arpino, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, how a kitten or cat behaves in a shelter is not always a good representation of the cat’s true behavior when he enters a less stressful surrounding, such as being placed in a home.
The study indicated that 87 percent of respondents (1,069 individuals) reported that a shy or fearful cat they adopted or fostered hid for the first 24 hours once in their homes. The majority — 55 percent — reported that they were able to interact with the shy or fearful feline within two weeks and that most of these cats became comfortable and relaxed in their homes in less than three months.
The study concluded that by proper handling, offering a safe environment and when needed, using behavior modifications and/or anti-anxiety medications, many shy or fearful cats can evolve into loving pets.
Predictability is one way to build confidence and a sense of security in newly adopted kittens or cats. Felines are fans of household routines.
“Make sure the cat has escape routes like on top or under furniture, especially if there are dogs or other cats in the home,” says Dr. Houpt. “Initially, keep dogs on leashes inside or at least separate them in different rooms using barriers, such as baby gates, so they can sniff one another without having close or physical contact.”
Dr. Kaplan encourages owners to be in tune with their cat’s individual temperaments and work within the limits of that pet. Some cats may just prefer less handling and attention than others. She offers these tips to help a shy or fearful cat feel more at home:
1. Limit exposure to situations that create fear and anxiety. For example, feed the cat in a separate room from other pets. He needs to feel he can eat without being threatened by other pets. 2. Consider clicker training the cat to teach him new tricks and build his confidence.
3. Create a calm, predictable and stable environment by offering cat trees and litter boxes in different locations in the house.
4. Limit the amount of handling the cat initially and slowly build his trust in you.
Recognize that your cat tunes into your emotional level as well and can sense when you are feeling impatient or afraid. When taking your cat to the veterinary clinic, for example, try to remain calm and reduce any outward display of fear or anxiety.
Also, understand that the source of your cat’s fearful response may be an underlying medical condition, such as pain or hormonal imbalances. Book an appointment with your veterinarian to exam your cat who may be an ideal candidate for a sedative or anti-anxiety medication that is given prior to an anticipated stressful situation, says Dr. Kaplan.
When it comes to handling a fearful cat, less is more.
“I’m a strong advocate of low-stress handling techniques,” says Dr. Kaplan. “I use towels (or large blankets) to handle cats. Usually they feel secure and do not fight or flail because they are not being directly touched by the person restraining them. Do not scruff cats because this will only escalate their fear, anxiety and shyness so that they will no longer be able to be handled.”
Keep in mind that fear ranks as the most common cause of aggression in cats at veterinary practices, according to the American Association of Feline Practitioners. That is why it is critical to recognize early signs to take measures to reduce or prevent the escalation of fear.
The use of nylon face muzzles that cover the eyes calms some cats because it reduces the intensity of visual stimuli in the exam room.
The type of pet carrier you select can also help mitigate some fearfulness in your cat at the clinic. Plastic carriers with removable tops and front can allow a fearful cat to remain in the carrier during an examination. And the use of a towel can make an examination less stressful. Some cats feel more secure and relaxed when lightly swaddled in a towel while being examined in their carrier or on the exam table.
By allowing the cat to stay in the bottom half of the carrier, a towel can be placed over the cat, creating a “tent effect” but still allowing the veterinarian to access your cat.
When coming home with your cat, you can reduce the chance of any aggression from other cats at home by leaving the returning cat in the carrier. Watch how the other cat(s) are reacting to his return. If there is no hissing, wait about 5 minutes before letting the cat out of the carrier. Monitor for any reaction and if any signs of aggression surface, distract the cats by clapping or stomping to separate them. Never attempt to separate them or pick one up when they are in an aroused state because one or both may redirect their aggression on you.
Reducing the Fear Factor for Veterinary Visits
All cats need and deserve to be examined by veterinarians at least once a year, ideally twice a year. Marty Becker, DVM, America’s Veterinarian, is spearheading a national Fear-Free™ Initiative that includes veterinarians, animal behaviorists and other key pet professionals.
Leaders of the Fear-Free Initiative identifies these strategies to make veterinary visits less traumatic for cats:
1. Make sure your cat is safely inside the pet carrier, ideally one with an opening on top and front. To build a positive association with the carrier, leave it open in your living room with bedding or a thick towel to make the carrier a comfortable resting place for your cat.
2. Limit your cat’s food intake before a veterinary visit. Some cats may respond favorably to receiving a favorite treat during the appointment.
3. Call ahead and request that your fearful cat be allowed to go directly into an exam room rather than wait in the lobby area. Strive to select an appointment time during the typical “rush hour” times.
4. Seek veterinary clinics that may incorporate pheromones, calming music and a silent space heater to keep the exam room feel safe and cozy.
5. Make sure to bring a bath towel to place your cat on so he does not slip and slide on the stainless steel exam table.
6. Allow your cat time to explore the room to get used to the environment before beginning an examination.
7. Identify the best way to handle your cat in a calm manner and make sure the veterinarian puts down this information in your cat’s chart.
8. Inquire about the safe option to choose vaccines that can be administered in a less stressful route through small-gauge needles or through a reduced dose. Also ask about warming injections to room temperature — as long as this does not impact the product’s efficacy.
By Sarah Zumhofe