Cats International Cats International Logo
Cats International

Working With the Fearful Cat

Warning: Use of undefined constant php - assumed 'php' (this will throw an Error in a future version of PHP) in /home/customer/www/ on line 3


Most cats can be successfully treated for fearful behavior if the cause of the fear can be determined, reduced and gradually presented to the cat during desensitization and counterconditioning exercises. Once the fear-inducing stimulus is identified, the cat can be exposed to it at a very low level at first, a level that does not produce anxiety, and in subsequent sessions, at progressively higher levels. The goal is for the cat to learn to associate pleasure, rather than fear, with the stimulus. This process is facilitated with highly palatable food treats given to the cat during each step of the retraining program. The key to success is patience, taking the necessary time to work with the cat without pushing him into stressful situations. If the cat shows any fear, you must stop and back-up a few steps and start over.

There are two ways of conducting a desensitization program: the “active process” of re-exposure and the “passive approach”. The active approach is very effective with kittens under 12 weeks of age. It may involve sitting with the frightened kitten on your lap and tenderly stroking the top of its head until they relax. If the kitten is feral or if it poses a threat to the handler, then a towel can be gently wrapped around its body with only its head exposed. Similar to swaddling a human baby.   Speaking to the kitten in a quiet, soothing voice will accelerate the process. It is crucial that the handler not put the kitten back in its cage or special room until there is a clear sign of relaxation, however small. If the session ends with the kitten hissing and spitting, then the kitten has only learned that persistence pays off. A delicious food treat or meal should always be the finale. The handler should stay near the kitten while it is eating.

iStock_000008366774LargeNo time can be lost when socializing a kitten, as the most sensitive period for socialization occurs during the kitten’s first 4 to 7 weeks. This is the period when kittens most easily develop attachments with people as well with members of their own and other species. After this period, the ability to develop a trusting relationship with members of any species rapidly declines. If the kitten has had no human contact before it reaches 12 weeks of age, it is unlikely that the cat will ever live comfortably with people, though it may learn to trust its caretaker.

Another method that can be used while implementing the active approach, is to place the kitten or cat in a large wire cage when it is not being handled. The cage should be large enough to accommodate a litter box on one end, food and water on the other end, and a bed in between. When first acclimating the cat or kitten to the home environment, the cage should be placed in a very quiet room. For very stressed cats, a cloth can be draped over part of the cage; for kittens, a 3-sided box placed in the cage will provide a much-needed sense of security.  As the cat or kitten begins to relax and show some interest in its surroundings, the cage can be placed in rooms where there is more household activity.

Siamese Cat

Cats that have been living outside have to adjust to living in a whole new world of sights, sounds, and smells. Their behavior repertoire consists of instinctive responses that will insure their survival. This means hissing and spitting with all of the defensive body language that goes along with it whenever something new or different presents itself, they will be frightened.



The passive approach to desensitization, often referred to as “habituation”, involves allowing the cat to approach the feared stimulus at its own speed. No physical restraint is used, nothing forced.  This method is generally better suited to the adult cat. It takes longer, but there is less risk of injury to the individual working with the cat and the cat can move forward in the process on their own pace.

Basically by moving slowly, but eventually rewarding any progress made, it can bring a cat that is deeply mistrustful and fearful become calmer and less stressed.

If the cat never comes out from under the furniture and is rarely seen unless viewed scurrying from one hiding place to the next through out the day, the fear is deeply seated in the cat.  Although the cat would come out from hiding to eat food that was left out and left the signs that the litter box was being used, only would they venture out unless they felt it was safe from everything they feared and intentionally rarely seen.  This is a very sad and lonely existence for a cat to live, not a good quality of life.

This is the approach to be taken to help reassure that the cat is gaining confidence in themselves to exist happily in an environment of which they fear.  Every evening quieyly enter the room where the cat is hiding, just sit on the opposite side of the room reading (on the floor if possible), basically ignoring the cat with no eye contact or talking and occasionally toss them a food treat. To insure their interest in the treats, remove the food bowl a few hours earlier. During a period of weeks and months you will see signs of the cat gradually becoming bolder about retrieving the treats, you can also begin a little play with a fishing pole toy. Eventually throw treats not as far from you when you see that the cat is beginning to trust you, DON’T rush this process.  When they are finally taking food from your hand and sitting on your lap wanting to be petted do you have great success. Talk in a slow and calming voice. Even after this is accomplished, they still might be terrified when visitors come into the home. The cure to help them over this hurdle was along similar lines: gradual exposure and pleasant consequences.  Never force them to meet anyone they don’t  want to, simply allow them to make friends at their own pace, rewarding every step of the way.  This process must be at the cats pace and never rushed.

Sometimes cat owners inadvertently will contribute to fearful behaviors by trying to calm the cat when it is anxious. This generally results in only reinforcing the anxious response and increases the cats fear, let them calm down on their own, weather it is them leaving the room or just sitting off to the side and observing.  Attempting to introduce a nervous pet to a visitor or another fearful stimulus by carrying them toward their fear, makes the cat feel trapped and increases its fear, sometimes injuring the handler as they attempt to escape. The memory of the bad feeling the cat experienced is then added to the original fearful stimulus.  You may have to start over.


Warning: Use of undefined constant php - assumed 'php' (this will throw an Error in a future version of PHP) in /home/customer/www/ on line 63

« Back to Overcoming Stress