How to calm down a frightened cat

Do you have a fearful cat? It’s natural to be afraid—it’s what keeps us alive—but problems arise when fear is expressed too often or if your cat is scared of objects that are not life-threatening.

Frightful scared cat

In this article, we are going to focus mainly on how to calm a scared cat. We are also going to briefly explain how to retrain your cat to not be afraid, but we won’t go into much detail, since it’s a lengthy topic and fear may be expressed in several ways. We are going to cover it sometime in the future, but you may be interested in:

Signs of fear in cats

Before we dive deeper, let’s take time to learn what your cat’s fear is, or more specifically, how to recognize fear in cats. Why? Because we often see people confusing fear with offensive aggression, so let’s take a look at signs that tell the cat is scared, not on the offence.

Signs of fear in cats
How many fear signs can you spot in this image?

Signs of fear in cats are:

  • crouched posture
  • flattened ears
  • flattened whiskers
  • hissing
  • wanting to escape
  • lateral positioning
  • arched back
  • hair standing on end or puffy tail
  • eyes enlarged or squinted
  • shivering

NOTE: Cats do act aggressively due to fear, but aggression is the last resort for a cat, acted out only if all the other possible outcomes of the situation are unlikely—for example, if the cat is cornered or too frightened to escape. Whenever possible, let your cat avoid the fear before the aggression occurs.

1. Identify the source of your cat’s fear

There are several things a cat could be afraid of. Each one of them may require different approaches. Cats can be afraid of their owners, of children, and of strangers. Sometimes cats are afraid of a specific person. A common kind of fear is that of other animals, most commonly dogs and other cats. Fear of places, especially fear of veterinary clinics, as well as fear of different noises, including thunderstorms and fireworks, are common. Last, but not least, cats may also be afraid of separation, though it’s not as common as separation anxiety seen in dogs.

It is not rare for a cat to appear afraid of more than one thing, and sometimes, yes, cats can seem afraid of almost everything. In such cases, the help of a veterinarian or professional cat behaviorist should be sought, but if you are able to identify one or a few sources of fear, you can work on calming your cat and helping him overcome the fear.

2. Decide what to do about your cat’s fear

From the time you identify the source of your cat’s fear, you have different ways to proceed. Here are possible action plans in the case of a fearful cat:

  1. help your cat avoid a fearful object or person
  2. help your cat accept a non-threatening object or person
  3. help your cat regain trust in a completely non-threatening thing that the cat has had a bad experience with before
  4. help your cat survive the temporary fearful thing

Which path to choose depends on what your cat is afraid of. For example, vet visits require you to help your cat live through the fearful event, as does his fear of thunderstorms. In the case of vacuum cleaners, you might either let your cat avoid the vacuum or slowly get him used to it. If your cat is afraid of you, there’s no other choice than to try and become friends. Whatever the case, you have to decide what will be the best, most effective solution.

2. Help your cat avoid the source of fear, even if you want to re-introduce it later

Unless you need to help your cat live through a transient fear, the initial step is to let your cat avoid the experience, at least for now. It can and should be done in several ways.

Scared cat in tree
Being above ground provides a security for your cat.

Provide your cat with his own space, preferably elevated and/or in a partial enclosure. Good examples are cat trees, shelves, cat carriers (if he’s not afraid of one), cat-safe indoor plants, windowsills (especially if covered with sheer curtains), boxes, existing household furniture, or just a quiet room. What kind of hideout you choose is actually not the main thing. The two most important features it must provide are: 1. It must keep your cat away from the fear source. 2. Your cat must not be unnecessarily disturbed when in this location. Even by you.

  • Provide your cat an escape path. That is, create the possibility for your cat to escape from the fear source on his own. For example, if you are vacuuming the house, make sure your cat is not trapped and can easily run to another room. If you have visitors, create a napping location in a distant room, but let him come and go as he wants.
  • Limit the fear source if possible. Not all fears, such as thunderstorms, can be minimized, but where possible, the fearful encounters should be. If the cat is afraid of the dog, limit their contact. If the cat is afraid of you punishing him, don’t punish him for being afraid. If the cat is afraid of outdoor cats, you can install blinds or keep neighborhood cats out of your garden, etc. IMPORTANT: If the source of fear is a part of everyday life and cannot be avoided, the cat must be trained to not be afraid of it. Find more about this below.
  • 3. Do not contribute to the fear of your cat

    Unless your cat is afraid of you, YOU ARE YOUR CAT’S BEST FRIEND. You are his sanctuary and his hope for better times. Try to keep up with your cat’s expectations.

    • Do not punish your cat. Do not punish your cat for being fearful. It’s not your cat’s fault that he is afraid, and punishment will make it worse. Period.
    • Be close. If your cat is scared of something, your presence may make a huge difference.
    • But don’t be too intrusive. That is, do not overwhelm your cat. We often see people trying to calm their cat too earnestly, in a way that ultimately causes the cat to wind up. If your cat has already calmed down a little, good! Maybe it’s time to leave him or her alone.
    • Be calm yourself. Your stress easily translates to your cat. Talk to your cat in a calm manner, and also make sure the surroundings are calm. Don’t forget to limit the fear source, if possible, as discussed above.
    Calm cat and owner
    Be calm and your cat will calm down too!
  • Feed your cat. Cats love and respond to food, and what is more attention grabbing than food? At least there will be a few minutes he or she won’t be afraid. We always order a meal when flying a plane, because eating often distracts us. Make sure you keep your cat’s daily food amount reasonable.
  • Play with your cat. Just like eating, playing can hold your cat’s attention away from the fear. Playing is more fun, lasts longer, and is healthier, too. You can also provide your cat with a food-dispenser toy, so he can play and receive treats simultaneously.
  • If your cat is afraid of YOU Set your cat up in a separate room, and initially keep your distane. See here for more information.
  • 4. Re-introduce the fear source in a non-threatening manner

    Sometimes, the fear source is unavoidable, as when the fear is of the household dog or you, or even the new carpet you just bought. In such cases a gradual introduction process must be carried out. We will talk more about this process in the future, but here are the main parts of it:

    • Choose a quiet location. You want to have as few distractions as possible. Also, the cat must be accustomed to the site and, as mentioned above, it’s good if there is a cat tree or some elevated surface to which your cat can climb up.
    If your cat is afraid of your dog, a big part of the process is to train your dog. More information here.
    If your cat is afraid of your dog, a big part of the desensitization process is to train your dog. More information here.

    Be able to control the fear source. Make sure your dog is not going to go wild and come after your cat. For example, put your dog on a leash or turn off the vacuum cleaner if necessary.

  • Work for very short periods. Sometimes even a minute’s exposure is too much. Go short and end BEFORE your cat’s fear rises.
  • Use distractions and rewards. As you introduce the fearful object or person, you may want to distract your cat’s attention with the use of treats or by playing or petting or talking to your cat. Get closer to the fear during the next session, but go slowly. The distance between your cat and the fear stimulus must not be decreased too fast—say, a few inches each time—and watch your cat’s body language closely.
  • Gradually increase time spent in each session. Make the sessions longer and longer, until there is no sign of fear.
  • 5. Can you use calming substances to help your cat overcome fear?

    Backed by science, the pet product industry offers several tools to help your cat overcome fear. The most common are:

    • Herbal remedies. They can be bought in veterinary clinics, some pet stores, and online without a prescription. However, we think they should not be used without veterinarian consultation and never in order to manage long-term fear. A complete treatment plan, considering our above points, should be made.
    Calming cat pheromones. FeliWay plug-in. diffuser.
    Feline pheromones are a great way to improve the friendly atmosphere of your cat’s environment

    Feline pheromones. Pheromones are substances released by cats to comfort themselves and communicate to other cats. Synthetic derivatives can be used to make a calming environment for your cat. Such pheromones are available in different forms, such as a spray, plug-in, and calming pheromone collars. You can find more information about feline pheromones here. We think they are a great addition to a stress reduction plan, but they are not a good choice as the only way to calm a fearful cat.

  • Medications. There are magic pills, yes, but they should be used only if your veterinarian suggests it.
  • The most important thing to know about fear in cats is that you must always learn your cat’s body language. Be sure to observe when your cat is afraid and how afraid he is, and keep an eye on when your actions make it better or not. If you understand these tips, you may not only be able to calm your cat down when he or she is frightened, but also may manage to treat your cat’s fear completely.

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