Cats naturally have a variety of personalities. Some are outgoing while others tend to be more reserved. However, problems can arise when a cat is so fearful that it shuns any contact with its human family members, or even goes so far as to scratch and bite when it is approached. Cats can be overly fearful if they were not exposed to many different situations and people during an important developmental period that occurs between five and eight weeks of age. Also, if a cat has a history of unpleasant experiences with people, it should not be surprising if it reacts fearfully later.
Cats that are afraid generally try to run away, but if they are cornered they will often fluff up their coat, flatten their ears, crouch down close to the floor and may even urinate, defecate, bite and scratch in an attempt to fend off the person that they perceive to be a threat. Determining the cause of a cat's behavior can be difficult, and consulting with a behavioral specialist is often the most effective course of action.
Treating a cat's fearful behavior requires that an owner be persistent, calm and patient at all times. Yelling at or otherwise punishing a scared animal is always counterproductive. Treatment centers on rewarding cats when they remain relaxed in the presence of people. Anti-anxiety medications and/or pheromone products can be a useful supplement to behavior modification protocols. With time and appropriate therapy, many fearful cats can become much more trusting of the people in their lives.
Written by: Jennifer Coates, DVM
Last reviewed: October 2, 2008