Why are Some Cats Afraid of Strangers / New People?
You step into your neighbor’s house and her cat takes one look at you and runs from the room. Do you have bad breath? Are you badly dressed? Possibly. However, your neighbor tells you that her cat runs and hides from everyone. So it isn’t just you. Why is it that some cats are so shy of people and other cats are so friendly?
Shyness is usually a sign of fear and fears of people can develop for lots of different reasons. Sometimes it develops as a result of a bad experience with a person. For example, the dog may have been stepped on accidentally or the cat may have been abused by unthinking children. The animal may not have been exposed to people in pleasant ways when young and as a result of this poor socialization, now is fearful of people. Some animals just seem to have genetic predisposition to be fearful of people.
Causes - Genetics and Socialization as a Kitten
One factor is the genetic predisposition of the cat. It is known that some cats are born shy and reticent while others are born bold and friendly.
Experiences early in life also influence the fearfulness of cats. Cats that are exposed as kittens to new people, new situations and other animals are more likely as adults to be friendly and tolerant of the things they are exposed to and less likely to be fearful. This is true only if the experiences are pleasant ones. A lack of pleasant experiences early in life or bad experiences can lead kittens to be more fearful as adults.
Causes - Bad Experiences in Adult Cats
Bad experiences in adulthood can also influence the fearfulness of cats. A cat that is repeatedly chased by a dog is unlikely to be friendly to other dogs. It is the combination of genetics, early experiences and later experiences that determines the fearfulness of cats. Owners can help their cats be less fearful by providing pleasant experiences for them with new people, situations and other animals. Taking your cat for a ride in the car, on a walk in the neighborhood and to visit your friends could help to provide such good experiences. Usually, the younger you start exposing your cat to these pleasant experiences the better.
How to Help Scaredy-Cats
Regardless of the cause, most fears are dealt with in the same way. Gradual, pleasant exposures to people in non-threatening situations are at the heart of reducing most fears. If people can be associated with really pleasant experiences such as getting a tasty treat or playing with a fun toy, then people become more positive and less fearful for the animal. Our friend could track down the cat, drag him out of his hiding place and show him that she isn’t going to hurt him, but this will not make him more friendly. It will only make him more fearful. Forcing the animal to experience the things that make him afraid usually only make him more afraid.
By Suzanne Hetts and Daniel Estep
Rocky Mountain News
Drs. Hetts and Estep can be contacted on the web at www.AnimalBehaviorAssociates.com or by phone at (303) 932-9095