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Cat psychology: is my cat scared?

Fear in cats and anger have some elements in common and both come from the same set of instincts, the ones that tell them to fight, run away or freeze. Most animals use these instincts to judge a situation and their reaction to it. But what other signs are there that a cat is scared, and what can be done to calm it down?

Signs of fear

A scared cat will often show signs associated with anger because this is better than showing fear. They will hiss, spit and growl at the cause of their fear while making themselves look big and fearsome by bristling their fur, which is called piloerection. If the cause of fear gets close to them, they will scratch, slide or bite the object to try to get it to leave them alone and this can be unpleasant if your hand is the object in question.

A frightened cat is more likely to retreat to a hiding place, often behind a couch, under a bed, or another dark, sheltered location. This is where they feel safe and where they defend their position against an attacker. Alternatively, if the cat is caught outdoors, it is likely to freeze, as many predators work by motion and cannot detect prey that remains perfectly still as easily as moving prey.

Another sign of fear is losing bladder or bowel control outside of the litter box. This is particularly common in younger cats who have less control of their waterworks and in older cats for the same reason. This can accompany freezing in one place, as fear triggers the reaction and their instinct tells them to stay perfectly still.

Causes of fear

Many things can provoke a fear reaction in a cat, some seem natural and others completely irrational. Cats can even suffer from phobias, which often start when they are young and have negative experiences that turn into a phobia of the stimulus involved.

Cats may be afraid of another animal, especially one seen as a predator, such as a dog. They can also get scared by people they don’t know or even a specific person they do know if they have negative connections on their mind. Children often scare cats by moving quickly and making loud, random noises that cats cannot understand. Loud noises are also scary, so if you drop something, the cat will often run away even if the falling object doesn’t touch it. This is why fireworks are particularly stressful for cats even without seeing the lights – the loud bang makes them jump and they can’t see anything to cause it.

Dealing with a scared cat

The most important thing to remember when dealing with a scared cat is that you cannot convince, calm or force it to stop being afraid. If you approach them in this state, you are likely to be injured. Give them space, try to keep everything relatively calm and quiet, and leave them in their hiding place until they have calmed down.

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