Fear is a natural and functional response to a fear-inducing stimulus. If we, or our cats, were frightened of nothing, we would soon wind up in serious trouble. When we talk about fearfulness as a behavior problem, we are referring to excessive fearfulness or, more specifically, a phobia. A phobia is an excessive and seemingly irrational fear - one that is unnecessary and dysfunctional not, in reality, protective.
There are some cats that are frightened of almost everything unfamiliar, including people and other cats. They hide when people come over, shy away from other cats and, in general, are much better when they live with the few people or other cats they have come to accept.
According to one scientific classification of feline personalities, such cats would be deemed as having “low sociability” - i.e. they don't get along well with other living creatures. The question arises, why would a cat become so fearful? The answer, as usual, is a combination of nature and nurture. Some cats are set up to become fearful by virtue of their genetic makeup. One or other parents or grandparents may have been excessively fearful, and the “fear” genes were passed on.
But the genetic component is only part of the puzzle; a kitten's environmental experiences play at least as important a role. A cat that is genetically prone to be fearful may grow up relatively secure, if properly socialized. On the other hand, a genetically sound cat can become fearful if s/he had bad experiences with people or other animals during a sensitive developmental phase.
The sensitive period for learning in cats is between 2 and 7 weeks of age. During this early period of life, cats learn their social Ps and Qs and can develop lifelong acceptances of people, other cats, dogs, birds, even mice, as long as the circumstances are conducive. It is as if they open their young eyes and see the world as it is and accept it.
During the latter part of the sensitive period, kittens start to develop natural and necessary apprehension about things with which they are not familiar. Without fear they would be at great risk from all of life's dangers so this component of learning is just as important as the seemingly more positive aspects. The trick is to get the kitten pleasantly associated with people and other animals before this socialization window closes.
How Fearfulness Appears
A frightened cat has several ways to respond to fear-inducing stimuli (persons or other animals)
Cats do not have the canine attribute of being able to signal appeasement to defuse a threatening conspecific. Because catecholamines are released during fearfulness, affected cats' pupils dilate, their heart rates and blood pressure increase, and their hair stands on end (piloerection). The latter can create a larger-than-life appearance and the notorious big bushy tail.
A brain region called the amygdala is the central repository for learned fearfulness and seems to function like camera film, retaining images of fearful cues. One or two regions within the amygdala are involved in memorization of visual images, e.g. angry face, while another is more closely linked to fear of noises. The amygdala activates the hypothalamus and brain stem regions involved in physical manifestations of fearfulness. A brain region, the locus coeruleus, is also activated during fearfulness in freely moving cats.
- Shielding the cat from any uncontrolled exposure to fear-inducing stimuli
- Introducing strangers at a distance so that they are less threatening (it may be necessary to use a harness or cat carrier to ensure that the cat stays within eyesight)
- Encouraging the cat to eat or play in the person's presence
- Gradually reducing the distance between the stranger and the cat
When a cat is extremely frightened by visitors, whether people or other cats, it is not always the owner's problem because the cat simply hides. It is, however, a problem for the cat. Cowering upstairs under a bed for hours at a time is no way to enjoy life. These anti-social, nervous Nellie's of cats are often created by our ignorance of their needs and education. The condition of excessive fearfulness once fully developed, cannot be completely reversed. It can, however, be substantially alleviated by means of appropriate therapy.