How to Tell If a Cat Is Scared – Trigger Signs, Anxiety & Aggression
By Ashley Bates
The term “scaredy cat” didn’t come from nowhere—and Halloween has no shortage of prickly, arched black cats on display. But scared cats don’t always have extreme reactions, and not all fear elicits the same response.
Also, being scared suddenly is pretty apparent, but you might not see other more subtle signs of longer term stress and fear. So, let’s talk more in-depth about how cats express fear and how to pinpoint it when it happens.
These Things Happen When a Cat Is Scared
When a cat is scared suddenly, they might have some pretty classic reactions. However, certain things might be fear-related that seem like normal behavior.
- Hunching – A frightened cat might hunker down to the ground cautiously.
- Arching – A cat might arch their back to appear bigger than they are to ward off the threat.
- Hair Standing – We’ve all seen the hair stand on a cat when they’re angry or frightened!
- Fleeing – A cat might run away to hide when they spot the first sign of danger.
- Attacking – If a cat feels threatened enough, they might attack out of perceived necessity.
- Springing – A cat who is scared suddenly might pop right up in the air before bolting.
- Shaking – Like us, cats might shake or tremble out of fear.
- Hiding – Your cat might hang out under the bed or run into the darkness.
- Acting Skittish – Cats might act erratic or neurotic when they’re scared.
- Hissing – A hiss is the classic warning we all know.
- Growling – Growling can change in pitch and mix with other vocalizations when your cat is feeling vulnerable.
- Screeching – Screeching is typically sound cats make when danger is truly imminent or they are being attacked.
- Meowing – Nervous meowing for seemingly no cause can be a panicky sign from your cat that they feel unsafe.
What is scaring your cat could make a big difference in their reactions. For instance, if they feel like their lives are threatened by another animal, they might attack out of necessity.
However, if you scare them with a vacuum, they might spring up and run away. Or a thunderstorm might be going on outside and they are ducking for cover. It just depends on what happens.
Nervousness is another story entirely. Cats who are naturally shy or nervous might exhibit consistent over-reactions to normal stimuli.
If your cat is scared, there’s likely an underlying reason—you just need to pinpoint the cause. It shouldn’t be difficult in most cases. But if it seems challenging, it might be a behavioral issue.
Anxiety in Cats
Anxiety is a disorder that we humans know all too well. If you have a cat that seems chronically scared, it could be anxiety. Anxiety can cause overreactions in cats that might seem like too much for a particular circumstance.
- Erratic pacing
- Quick mood changes or altered mood
- Excessive meowing
- Losing weight
- Toileting outside of the litter box
- Destructive behavior
- Compulsive behaviors
- Excessive grooming
- Ears turned back and brow furrowed
- Pupils dilated
If your cat has severe enough anxiety, it might warrant medication or other treatment. You can speak with your veterinarian or veterinary behaviourist on how to ease your cat’s nerves.
Early Interactions That Trigger Fear
If a kitten has a bad experience or interaction when they are young, some cats will remain cautious or afraid of it their whole lives. For instance, if a toddler yanks your cat’s tail and hurts them, they might carry a lifelong fear of small children. Kittens go through a developmental phase around two to seven weeks old when they are particularly sensitive to frightening situations.
Obviously, trauma can cause some lasting effects as adults in humans—and it’s the exact same for animals. You have to remember that even though something might affect one kitten severely, another kitten in the same circumstance may go unscathed.
And the way that animals react is based strictly on genetics, personality, and life experience. For example, in this study, there is a direct link between feline shyness and aggression toward humans.
When Fear Leads to Aggression
It’s one thing if your cat is defending itself against a predator. It’s quite another if they’re attacking other pets or people in your home. If your cat is afraid of a person or other animal, they might lash out if they feel threatened—even if no threat exists.
These fearful reactions can be linked to health concerns, but we do need to be concerned for housemates and their safety. It’s important to protect other animals and humans from cats who have aggressive reactions, but getting to the root cause is the first pathway toward recovery.
When your cat reaches 5 months of age, its hormones really start to take off. If not spayed or neutered, some cats will have hormone changes that can result in aggression, especially toward other cats.
To avoid this situation entirely, we always recommend getting your kitties fixed and due to other health benefits. Not being neutered or spayed can lead to increased risk of reproductive tumors, behavioral issues, marking or spraying, wandering and reduced life expectancy.
The best way to combat the issue is to fix your cat at a trusted vet or clinic before problems arise. This is especially true if their personality leans on the side of aloofness or moodiness, even before they reach sexual maturity.
If you are in a busy household or neighbourhood with lots of loud noises, it might be far too stimulating for your cat. If it is, it might cause fearful behaviors such as hiding or running round from place to place unsettled. Some cats just prefer a laid back quiet lifestyle without being bothered.
If this is your cat then you will likely need to adapt and compromise with other family members and develop ways everyone can be happy and stress-free. Your veterinary clinic will be able to recommend a professional to help with this.
Pain in cats can stem from injuries or health issues, like arthritis. If your cat is internally hurting, it could cause them to hide or avoid contact or seem fearful of those around them. They may avoid their usual activities and routines.
Normal petting or playing with a feline friend might cause them more trouble than it’s worth. If you handle your cat and notice that they have areas of discomfort, they lash out or squirm and scramble to get away, don’t hesitate to get them to your vet for evaluation.
If your cat has certain other illnesses, it could cause changes that trigger erratic behaviors. If you notice your cat isn’t acting like themselves, it’s essential to look for other cues that could cause the shift.
You might notice other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, coat changes, lethargy, or diarrhea. Pay close attention so you can note any changes to your vet.
Lack of personal space
If their space is continually being invaded, you can imagine how that might negatively impact a loner cat over time. Being berated can be overstimulating. So, if you have conflicting personalities in felines where one is very invasive and playful, and the other is quiet and solitary, it could cause some friction.
If your cat needs some alone time to recharge their batteries and calm their nerves, make sure they have a safe haven they can run to when they just aren’t in the mood. Areas set aside such as cat shelves and closed in baskets to rest in.
Cats and Correct Punishment
If you picked up anything about felines, it’s quite evident that they do not like being reprimanded for their actions. Cats are not the same as dogs when it comes to being sensitive to what you think.
But harsh punishments like hitting or the use of squirt bottles can enhance fearful behavior and aggression, especially if it’s already present. If you are showing disapproval, or cat is more likely to have an adverse reaction than a dog who might try to butter you up.
If you show a cat “who’s boss” they will likely resent you at best and loathe you at worst. Some might get over it quicker, and some might not be phased—but most of the time, you’ll have one grudge-holding kitty who might take a while to revamp the bond between you.
Since cats, much like dogs, are highly food motivated, rewarding good behavior with tasty snacks might be an excellent trick to get them to obey.
The problem with reprimanding fearful cats is the chance of actually worsening the behavior. Some feline behaviorists can help out if worst comes to worst. You can look in your area to see what resources you have or ask your vet for a recommendation.
Mild Cases of Fear in Cats
Many cats are fearful simply due to lack of experience. If they are around something completely unfamiliar, it’s likely to cause insecurity and questionable reactions. For instance, if your cat has never seen a dog before, they might react poorly the first time they meet one.
After a while of exposure, fears usually dissipate once they see that no threat exists. However, the worst-case scenario is that something happened during the initial stages of uncertainty that add to the fear of what is going on.
For instance, if your cat escapes your home and has never seen anyone on the outside, having a bad run-in with your neighbor chasing them off their porch with a broom might cause lifelong panic over those circumstances.
Of course, you might not have to worry about your cat trying to escape your home anymore, but you do have to worry about the fear of newcomers—or brooms, for that matter.
A cat who has had any type of abusive reaction from a human might develop a fear of strangers, causing them to hide or act aloof if company comes over. But that same defense might not be present among the family.
Bringing a New Cat Home
Fear is an inevitable part of rehoming when you get a new cat. When they are placed in their forever homes, it will cause a total readjustment period. Reactions are nearly guaranteed in adults and still quite common among young kittens, though maybe not as prominently.
Many like to tout that you can’t tell a cat’s personality while they’re young. However, science tells us something very different. If you are looking for a highly social cat that can be a part of your everyday life, it’s best to get a social kitten as opposed to one that is hiding in the corner.
We aren’t recommending that you write off a skittish kitten from your mind entirely, it’s simply that they are more likely to develop fearful or antisocial behaviors as adults.
If you get a new kitten, remember that they are away from their mother and siblings for the first time. They no longer have their buddies to romp with, mother to cuddle, or familiar surroundings. As you can probably imagine, this isn’t reassuring to a kitten.
Luckily, kittens are resilient little creatures and warm up quite well in just a few short days. Some might take longer than others. If you have a more fearful baby, you might try extra steps to eliminate initial noise and introduce it to household members slowly.
They might grow out of some fearfulness with their housemates but may still be wary of strangers—animal and human alike.
If you adopted, found a stray, or otherwise took on the responsibility of an adult cat, they are much more set in their ways. Because of that, it can be quite challenging for them to adapt. This is especially true if their new home has unfamiliar stimuli that strike their nerves.
For instance, if your cat has never seen a dog and you have three—you can imagine how terrifying that probably is.
When you are picking out your cat, you may or may not notice certain mannerisms or behaviors that indicate anxious, neurotic, or excessively panicky habits. They could just be extra sensitive, too.
Allow the newcomer some time to adapt, trying to acclimate them slowly. They might have a lower tolerance to change than kittens, especially if they have extremely scared behaviors. Remember to be patient and understanding as they undergo this transition.
Here is a good resource for new adoptive pet parents on how to help your new adult kitty adjust to your home life.
If you’re dealing with a particularly scared, reserved, or uncertain kitty, you should take measures to ensure they feel safe and sound. However, part of the primary personality won’t change certain behaviors, like shyness or fear.
No matter the trigger, hopefully, this article helped you find potential solutions for your fearful feline—but more so understanding of their unspoken language.
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