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Why Is My Cat Suddenly Acting So Scared?

By nature, some cats are shy and skittish. This is especially true of felines that were not socialized properly when they were young. Kittens that were not handled until they were 10 weeks or older are more likely to grow up with a fear of people.  It's not surprising that these skittish cats tend to dart when someone tries to pet them or hide when a stranger enters their home. There are also times when a typically outgoing and friendly feline will suddenly turn into a "scaredy-cat". Understandably, that sudden change in behavior can be upsetting to their owners.

Signs that your cat is afraid

The following are some obvious and not so obvious behaviors cats may exhibit when they are anxious or afraid:

  • Hiding or freezing in one spot
  • Excessive vocalization (meowing a lot)
  • Having accidents outside their litter box
  • Frequent movement (pacing or running) and general restlessness
  • Change in appetite
  • Trembling
  • Expelling anal gland fluid
  • Excessive grooming (a self-soothing behavior)
  • Increased dilation of the pupils
  • Uncharacteristic aggression

Reasons for your cat's behavioral changes

As a pet owner, your life is intertwined with your cat. You're used to it acting in a certain manner. That's why it can be confusing when your usually calm and friendly cat's behavior changes to nervous and agitated. It's hard not to wonder, "Why is my cat so jumpy all of a sudden?" The answer could be one of the following reasons:

  • Age-related changes: Elderly cats may experience a decline in their cognitive functioning. Some of their behaviors might resemble that of a scared feline. Cats with dementia (feline cognitive dysfunction) may, for example, have accidents outside their litter boxes, wander aimlessly, or appear anxious or agitated.
  • Illness or injury: Cats that are feeling sick or are injured may hide from you or exhibit other behavioral problems. They may even slash you with their claws or try to bite you if you should accidentally touch an area that is causing them pain.
  • Mistreatment: It's hard to imagine that someone might want to hurt or frighten your cat, but there are some sick individuals in this world. If your cat is suddenly flinching at human contact or has become fearful, and/or has unexplained injuries, don't just blow it off as "my cat is acting strange and scared." It's possible that someone may be abusing your pet.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Sometimes, cats will develop a fear response to something that happened to them in the past. Perhaps your cat was attacked by a dog as a kitten, but you were unaware of the situation. Bringing home a puppy could trigger PTSD in your cat and a fear response that you weren't expecting.
  • Change in circumstances: Some cats are extremely sensitive to change. A move to a different house or a new person in their lives can be upsetting to felines, which could result in behavioral issues.
  • Separation anxiety: Although cats have a reputation for being loners, some can get anxious when their owners are away. This is especially true if there is a dramatic change in an owner's schedule — for example, going from working at home to on-site employment. This change could worsen a cat's anxiety separation and cause it to engage in destructive behaviors or to have accidents outside its litter box.

Solutions to soothing a cat

Your cat's behavior may be temporary. For example, felines that are anxious after moving into a new home will usually revert to their old self once they get used to their surroundings. Other behaviors may require you to make changes in your cat's lifestyle or surroundings, including some of the following:

  • Provide your cat with a safe spot or haven. Skittish cats need a place where they can feel safe when they're overwhelmed or frightened. This is especially important if you are having a party and your cat is afraid of unfamiliar people.
  • Comfort your pet. If your cat is open to being held or petted, provide it with reassurance if you see that it is afraid. However, it is important to remember that some cats do not enjoy being held. Holding them could cause more stress.
  • Play soft music or leave the TV on when you're not home. This may help soothe a cat with separation anxiety issues.
  • Keep calm. Cats are in tune to feelings that their owners are projecting. If you're upset, your cat is likely to feel your anxiety. This could magnify your cat's fears. Always stay calm and maintain a reassuring demeanor around your pet when it is frightened.
  • Desensitize your cat. In some situations, you can gradually get your cat used to being around an event that is causing it anxiety. A good example is bringing home a baby. The new noises, sights, and sounds that accompany the arrival of a baby can be stressful for a cat. By slowly introducing your feline to the baby, you should be able to desensitize it to your wee one's noises and movements. In other situations, though, do not attempt to desensitize your cat to something frightening. For instance, forcing a cat to endure firecrackers in an attempt to desensitize it would only cause it more terror.

See your veterinarian

Finally, if your cat has become uncharacteristically aggressive and anxious or its general demeanor has changed dramatically for a sustained period, take your cat to a veterinarian for a thorough examination to rule out any physical or mental illnesses. If necessary, your veterinarian may prescribe anxiety medications for your feline.

Lizz Caputo is a Content Strategist at Figo, animal enthusiast, and owner of a rescued senior American Bully. Her hobbies include checking out new restaurants in her area, boxing, and petting dogs of all shapes and sizes.

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