A cat’s behaviour and character are shaped by a complex mix of influences relating to the species, the individual’s genetics and its experiences as a kitten.
These elements create the cat’s unique personality: bold, confident, reactive or sociable, for example. Most adult cats, with the appropriate domestic upbringing, are confident enough to face what life throws at them. However, if a cat isn’t exposed to a full range of normal domestic happenings at an early age, it will potentially flee from the most innocuous things.
The cat’s highly developed survival instinct enables it to assess danger quickly and act accordingly. The response to that perceived danger is often to escape rather than stand and fight. Some cats are also born with a predisposition to anxious behaviour and even with the opportunity to socialise at the appropriate age they fail to learn that domestic life is comparatively free from danger.
A state of anxiety means that the cat experiences an emotion, particularly in unfamiliar situations, that is an apprehensive anticipation of something bad happening. This feeling may increase to fear if a specific stimulus is confirmed, via the cat’s own mental assessment, to be dangerous.
Fear is the innate trigger for the release of adrenaline that prepares the body for tackling life-threatening situations by fighting, escaping, freezing (hoping to remain undetected) or attempting to appease the dangerous adversary. Cats tend to favour the option of escape.
My cat hides under the bed most of the time, especially if there’s lots of activity in the house. Is this normal?
When you take on a cat or kitten it may be quiet and wary for the first few days or even the first few weeks until it gets used to you and its new environment. However, some cats remain very fearful despite a gentle welcome and time to settle in. This can cause their owners great anxiety because they feel the cat is not happy. The cat may run and hide as soon as someone comes into the house or if there is a sudden noise. Many such cats spend a great deal of their time under the bed or on top of the wardrobe, hiding from the world.
A nervous or frightened cat can make a very disappointing pet, especially if the household which has adopted it is a busy and noisy one. They will probably see little of the cat until the children have gone to bed and the adults have settled down quietly in front of the TV in the evening. However it is important to understand a nervous cat’s expectations of life. Hiding under a bed may seem like a wretched existence but if this is perceived by the cat to be an escape from danger and a safe place then the emotion would be one of relief rather than any directly negative feeling.
As a solitary species the cat has no pack to back it up if things go wrong - if threatened its best chance of survival is to run away and hide, staying very quiet until the danger has passed. Owners must be able to offer something even more rewarding than this feeling of safety and relief that the cat feels on following its instincts if they want to stop it running. This can be very difficult.
Was my nervous cat ill-treated when it was young as it seems to be terrified of feet?
It is impossible to say that any particular individual wasn’t ill-treated as a kitten but it is more likely that your cat has acquired its nervousness via its genes, lack of early socialization with humans or both. It may appear to be nervous of feet as these are the parts of humans closest to it!
When I choose a kitten how do I know that it won’t be a nervous adult?
It is impossible to absolutely guarantee how your kitten will develop but you can limit the risk if you choose wisely. Make enquiries before you visit any homes that advertise kittens for sale, even pedigree cat breeders, to establish the steps that are being taken to provide the appropriate socialisation and exposure to normal domestic life from an early age.
Some homing organisations look for homes for feral kittens (born to a cat living wild) which haven’t had contact with people in those early weeks. It will probably therefore behave like a wild animal and handling or confinement will cause acute fear. Although some people persevere with feral kittens, it requires a great deal of time and patience to get them to respond and this lack of early experience is usually very difficult, if not sometimes impossible, to get over. Hence, knowing a kitten's background can make a difference in determining whether you can help it or not. See our information on choosing a kitten.
Is it a good thing to be quiet and walk slowly when I’m around my anxious cat?
Owners often behave in a certain way around nervous cats, presuming that hushed voices and movement from room to room on the tips of their toes is the right strategy to adopt to avoid scaring them. Unfortunately the air of tension in the home that this creates may fuel your cat’s anxiety.
Acting normally and feeling relaxed as a consequence would have a more positive impact. Constant attempts to communicate and demonstrate love, involving seeking a nervous cat out and extracting it from a hiding place or focusing on it as it enters a room is also undesirable for a timid cat, often making the owner look threatening and obtrusive.
How should I behave around my anxious cat?
It is better to give a nervous cat a feeling of invisibility, to allow it to move around the home without being the focus of attention. This sense of relaxed cohabitation involves no direct eye contact, verbal or physical communication unless the cat directly initiates it by its own behaviour.
Food treats can be used to create positive associations and develop a bond between you and your cat. Offering small amounts of meat, fish or other tasty treats in a bowl is useful to encourage a cat to explore various rooms in the home or spend time in close proximity to you. Offering the same treats on the palm of your outstretched hand may entice your cat to take food directly from you.
Positive play interaction could also reap rewards as many cats find games irresistible. Using a toy, attached to a string and a long rod, would enable your cat to enjoy the game fully without feeling you are too close. See playing with your cat
Constant reassurance of timid behaviour in response to non-threatening events merely reinforces the nervousness. It is best to ignore it and give positive rewards (using whatever motivates the individual) for calm behaviour.
Never lose your temper or try to force it too quickly - this will just reinforce your cat's previous fears. If your cat progresses, even slowly, you are likely to be dealing with an animal which is overcoming a fear rather than one which has missed out during its socialising period as a kitten. Build on your successes gradually. Remember that cats feel safe in high places so when you progress to letting the cat out in the room with you, provide it with a high perch where it can sit in safety and watch the world go by beneath.
What else should I do?
If you are concerned about your cat’s quality of life then speak to your vet. Your cat may also benefit from the use of synthetic pheromones (Feliway®) to reinforce a message of safety and familiarity in the home. It may even be worthwhile to seek advice from a behaviour specialist who would be able to provide you with strategies to manage your cat’s anxiety in the most appropriate way.
My cat was never anxious in the past but has recently been behaving as if it’s scared of everything?
Any change in behaviour, particularly one as dramatic as this, should not be ignored so the best advice would be to contact your veterinarian and arrange for your cat to have a thorough examination. This behaviour may be a sign of illness or pain but if no physical cause is found your veterinarian will refer you to a behaviour specialist who will be able to advise further.