WHEN taken home as a pet, a cat or kitten may be quiet and wary for the first few days, or even weeks, whilst getting used to you and the new environment.
However, some cats remain fearful despite a gentle welcome and time to settle in. This can cause their owners great anxiety because they feel that the cat is not happy. The cat may run and hide as soon as someone comes to the house, if there is a sudden noise, or from common everyday sounds such as the television.
A nervous or frightened cat needs a quiet and understanding household. If it is a busy and noisy one, the owners 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.
Causes of nervousness in cats:
- Genetics – as with people, some cats seem to be more nervous than others
- Bad experiences – the cat may previously have had a frightening experience and survival mechanisms make the animal generally fearful in anticipation of it happening again
- Lack of experience at a crucial time in development – kittens that meet people and other animals and are exposed to the general hubbub of life by the time they are eight weeks old will take almost anything in their stride. This is the making of a confident cat. If the cat has missed out on these early experiences, life with humans can be difficult to cope with.
Hence, knowing a cat’s background can make a difference in determining whether you can help or not. However, for many owners this is impossible as they have no idea what happened before they took the cat on. They have to try to tackle the problem, but it is not something that can be solved overnight, if at all. It takes patience and time.
Consider a cat that hides under the bed at the slightest noise or activity within the house. The cat has moved away from what is seen as a life-threatening situation, and feels a flood of relief. This feeling is strong and reinforces “flight” behaviour – after all, the cat thinks that doing this is a life-saving act. Owners must be able to offer something more rewarding than the feeling of safety the cat gets by following their instincts – this can be difficult.
The cat must learn that there is nothing threatening in the situation that they are running from. It can be useful to obtain an indoor crate or kittening pen for the cat’s re-education. Place it in the corner of the room and cover with a blanket so that the cat can see out of the front but as the sides remain covered the cat feels somewhat protected. Place the cat in the pen during a quiet period initially, so that the cat can get used to it and relax. The cat will probably like the feeling of protection the pen provides. Feed your cat favourite treats in the pen and provide a litter tray. Let the cat view all normal household goings-on from this safe haven and gradually add more “action”.
When the cat seems relaxed, ask a friend to visit. Normally the cat would run away when the doorbell rings, but now the cat has to watch and listen, albeit from the safety of the pen. Ask your guest to feed the cat through the cage with a special tit-bit and talk soothingly.
You can then graduate to having the cat in the room without the pen and inviting visitors in. As the cat learns that everything is not a threat, they also discover that the rewards of staying around are indeed worth overcoming the fear. Never lose your temper or become impatient with your cat – this will just reinforce the cat’s previous fears.
Remember, cats feel safe in high places, therefore when you progress to letting the cat out of the pen, provide a high perch for your cat to sit on safely.