Why is My Cat Afraid of Me?
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It is common for a new cat adopted into a home to have some level of caution. They are entering into a new experience and simply might not have the confidence in security a more established pet will have. However, it is also possible a cat which has lived in a family for a long time begins to or persists in showing fear of a guardian. This may express itself in hiding, running away or even in displays of aggressive behavior. It can be very frustrating for the cat and understandably concerning for their human companion.
While a certain amount of fear is to be expected from any animal, excessive fear may be the sign of something being wrong either with the cat or the dynamic between feline and human. Let AnimalWised explain further by answering the question why is my cat afraid of me?
How to know if a cat is afraid
First, we need to differentiate between a cat who is afraid and one which is exhibiting some other behavioral pattern. Once we determine it is the former, we need to consider the level of fear which the cat is experiencing. When the intensity of a cat's fear is low, the cat will show certain behaviors such as lowering their posture or mydriasis (pupil dilation).
As the level of fear increases, a cat will laterally flatten their ears, display piloerection (bristling of their hair) or vocalizations such as grunting or hissing. If the fear intensity becomes high, the cat will adopt a lateral-ventral posture (meaning lying on one side and exposing their belly), while bearing their teeth and/or claws. Although cats prefer to avoid confrontation, they will likely attack in this state if they feel they do not have the ability to escape.
During the fear state, their levels of adrenaline and cortisol increase. The latter is the stress hormone, so a scared cat is a stressed cat. If the state of fear persists, the cat will develop chronic stress and anxiety which is very harmful to both their physical and mental health.
Neophobia when introducing a new cat into a home
All animals with a developed central nervous system will instinctively show caution for new things or situations. This is termed neophobia, although it is usually a mild form. The neurological center of fear is called the amygdala. It not only influences the reaction to fear, but also affects conditioned or learned fears.
When we introduce a cat or kitten into a new home, everything is new to them and with newness comes the potential for danger. It is completely normal for a cat to be scared in a new house or to observe fear when confronted with new stimuli. We need to give them time and space to adapt as they get to know a new home and its inhabitants. This period can range from a few days to several months depending on the individual cat.
All vertebrate offspring have a period during infancy known as the ‘critical period’ or ‘sensitive period’. During this time, the animal is more receptive to the stimuli in its environment. During this time they have the greatest capacity to learn and develop skills. The critical period in kittens occurs between the second and seventh week of age. They learn to communicate with others and form bonds with cats, other animals and people. Adequate socialization in kittens reduces the risk of aggressiveness and fear in later stages.
Karsh and Turner investigated the degree of sociability towards humans that an adult cat possessed in terms of how much interaction they experienced during childhood. They observed that the more manipulation at the hands of humans, the more tolerant they were of them. However, 15% of the cats in the experiment were ‘resistant’ to manipulation and were considered less tolerant. This suggests a genetic influence in terms of socialization, especially with those which exhibit hyperactive temperaments.
The early handling of cats specifically affects the perception of a cat on known individuals. If the interactions with cats are not maintained, they may lose their sociability.
Fear in cats due to trauma or illness
If we introduce an adult cat into a home, it can be difficult to know the specifics of their past. If such a cat exhibits fear, we will likely not know if it is learned or simply neophobia. We do not know if the cat has experienced traumatic events in their past such as abuse or abandonment. it is important to point out the difficulty in differentiating between fear due to abuse or neglect and that which occurs due to improper socialization.
Faced with this situation, the adaption period increases. We must try to ensure the cat is in a calm environment, we give the enough space and we always display positive behavior towards them.
At other times, this fear can appear spontaneously and the cat seems to be frightened for no apparent reason. They may grow suspicious, avoid contact with their human guardians and carry out certain behaviors linked to fear such as the aforementioned mydriasis. In these cases, it may be that we have a sick cat who shows a negative attitude towards being manipulated due to pain or discomfort.
Unlike dogs, it is not always easy to detect signs of pain in cats. However, if we see that a cat is hiding and doesn't want to come out, seems scared of other people or is overly alert to stimuli, it is possible they are in pain.
Treating fear in cats
The first thing to do when we see our cat displaying signs of excessive fear is to take them to the vet. This way, a physical ailment or pathology can be diagnosed or ruled out. Once the cat is determined not to have a physical ailment, behavior techniques will need to be implemented. These may include desensitization and counter-conditioning.
As we are the ones who may instill fear, our presence can act as an averse stimulus. We need to adopt a more positive aspect by approaching the feline slowly and calmly. We can provide treats to attract their attention. The cat should not be touched until they voluntarily come to us and engage.
Another option is to spend short periods of time in the space in which the cat is resting. Do some quiet activity such as reading to convey calm and build the animal's confidence in you. We must never force the animal as this will only act to make them more scared and will likely dampen your ability to treat their fear.
Additionally, it is essential to recognize situations which can induce fear in a cat and avoid them. This may include making direct eye contact, leaning over them in a position of superiority or producing loud and unexpected sounds. Preventing exposure to circumstances that cause fear is key to reducing stress and solving the problem. If the cat is experiencing fear, it is better to avoid them and let them calm down on their own.
If we observe that the cat's behavior does not improve or worsens, it is time to seek professional advice from either a veterinarian or feline ethologist.
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