Shy or Fearful Cats
Cats can develop a fear of people they don’t know for
many reasons. Companion felines have unique personalities, and some are just
more outgoing than others. However, if a cat is calm and friendly with his
family but afraid of visitors, it’s often because he didn’t have enough
experience meeting new people when he was very young. To be social and
comfortable with all kinds of people, a cat must have frequent opportunities to
meet numerous new and different people in low-key, pleasant circumstances while
still a kitten, especially between the ages of two and seven weeks. Cats who
didn’t spend much time with people as kittens-for example, former stray
cats-might remain skittish around people their entire lives. Even cats who did
meet lots of people when young can be afraid of specific kinds of people that
they didn’t encounter very often, such as children, tall people or men. Having
a bad experience with a person can also make a cat fearful around people. This
fear might remain specific to the person involved in the bad experience, or it
might broaden to include other people as well.
Other Possible Explanations for Your Cat's Behavior
Any sudden change in your cat’s behavior might indicate an underlying
medical condition. If you notice any unusual physical or behavioral changes, or
if your cat stops eating, see your veterinarian right away to rule out medical
How to Resolve the Problem
Prevention is the best medicine. If you have a kitten, give him lots of
chances to meet new people of different ages, sizes, shapes, races and genders.
Make sure he also interacts with people who look unique for some reason, such
as people in wheelchairs, people wearing hats and glasses, and people with
beards. Whenever your kitten approaches a new person, reward him with praise,
attention, play sessions or treats.
If you have an adult cat who’s afraid of people, the main way to help him
relax around guests is to encourage him to approach them very gradually and
give him lots of rewards along the way. When visitors arrive, try the
- Ask guests to let your cat approach them instead of approaching him.
- Ask your guests to squat or sit down so they seem smaller and less
intimidating to your cat. Remaining quiet and avoiding direct eye contact will
also make guests seem less scary.
- You or someone your cat loves and trusts can offer him treats or encourage
him to play, as far away from visitors as necessary to make him
- If you cat doesn’t want to come out of hiding, try rattling his food bag or
opening a can of his food, which might coax him out. You can also try closing
doors before visitors arrive so your cat can’t hide in another room.
- If your cat can remain calm enough to eat or play at a distance from
visitors, gradually entice him to come closer with treats or toys.
- If your cat will come within several feet of visitors, ask your guests to
gently toss treats or toys for him.
- Cats have short attention spans. Your cat might prefer to walk away or go
hide after just a few minutes. Let him leave and don’t feel discouraged. Just
try another short session later.
- Anti-anxiety medication might help ease your cat’s fear, especially if you
have frequent guests or if your cat is particularly fearful. If you’re
interested in learning more about medications, contact a board-certified
veterinary behaviorist or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB). Please
see our article called Finding Professional
Help for information about how to locate one of these professionals in your
area. Always consult with your veterinarian or a board-certified
veterinary behaviorist before giving your cat any type of medication for a