The Real Reasons Your Cat Is so Skittish and How to Help

Figure out why your cat is so skittish and help them gain the kitty confidence they deserve.

Published March 5, 2023
Wide-eyed tabby cat

Every cat has their own unique personality, but if your cat is skittish and scared all the time, it can affect their quality of life as well as your bond. A scaredy cat lives in a state of fear, which can be distressing. Whether you've just brought a new kitty into your home or your long-time cat has suddenly become skittish, there are several reasons for this behavior. Do some investigative work to determine the cause and help your cat become a confident feline.

Why Is My Cat So Skittish?

It's not uncommon for a newly adopted cat to be a bit hesitant while they adjust to their new home. Your cat should gradually become more comfortable and settle in completely within a few weeks.

But if your cat is still scared of everything or suddenly becomes skittish, it's important to investigate the cause. Something occurred that triggered this behavior, or it's possible they're not feeling well. Because your cat can't communicate with you through words, you'll need to do some investigative work. The most common reasons cats are so skittish include:

  1. Separation anxiety
  2. Lack of socialization
  3. History of mistreatment
  4. Environmental changes
  5. Illness or injury
Skittish cat peaking around door

1. Separation Anxiety

When people talk about pet separation anxiety, it's usually in relation to dogs, but cats experience it too. If you're away on vacation or are back in the office full-time, your cat may miss you. Your absence can make them feel anxious.

Separation from another pet could also manifest as skittishness. The loss of a housemate or a roommate's pet who moved out could cause your cat to feel less confident on their own. If your cat is acting skittish after you've been away or another pet has left, this might be why.

How to address it: There are several things you can do for feline separation anxiety, including pheromone therapy, adding cat enrichment activities, or adhering to a routine. Speak to a pet behaviorist if the separation is causing your cat a lot of distress.

Fast Fact

Cats can be obsessive-compulsive. In fact, drugs to treat OCD in humans have been studied for use with cats.

2. Lack of Socialization

Every cat is an individual with their own personality. They can be shy, nervous, and unconfident, just like we can. If your cat didn't receive enough socialization when they were young, they might act skittish, even in a safe environment.

Cats who aren't familiar with humans may be skittish. They don't yet understand that you're not a threat and are actually a source of food, shelter, and comfort. If you adopted a shy cat from the shelter, they should be able to give you insight into the cat's behaviors as well as tips on how to interact with them.

How to address it: Take action to socialize your cat. It's best to start when they are young kittens. Give them plenty of places to hide, speak to them soothingly, and stick to a routine so they know when to expect what. It will take patience and time to socialize a skittish cat, but it's absolutely worth it in the end.

3. History of Mistreatment

If a cat was abused in their previous living situation, it could significantly impact how they interact with people or other pets. Remember, neglect is a form of animal abuse, so even being ignored could cause a cat to be skittish. Stray cats who were rescued may still have the mindset that they must be on high alert and show skittish behavior around loud noises or quick movements.

How to address it: Go slow when you're around your cat. Try not to make sudden movements or loud noises, and gradually help them understand you don't want to hurt them. Use a calm, reassuring voice and stick to a routine whenever possible. You can also use the cat slow blink technique to let your kitty know you trust them, and if they return with a slow blink, they're beginning to trust you too.

4. Environmental Changes

Consider whether there were any sudden changes to their environment. Did you just bring your new cat home? Did you bring any new furniture into your house? Did your roommate get a new puppy? Has a new neighborhood cat been walking around the backyard? Cats can be incredibly sensitive to their environments, so even something minor could perturb them, and shy cats may need more support adjusting to a new environment.

How to address it: If you can identify a change that's upsetting your cat, change it back if possible. This isn't always easy to do, so you may have to work on training to create a positive experience around the item, person, or pet. Gradually introduce them to the change and monitor their body language as they interact with it.

5. Illness or Injury

Cats are typically stoic creatures, which means if they have an illness or injury, they'll try to hide it. This is a survival instinct felines developed in the wild to prevent predators from knowing they are compromised, but it can make it difficult for owners to detect sickness in their cats. If something is brewing, your cat may hide more or become skittish.

How to address it: Bring your cat to the vet to have them examined and run some baseline diagnostics. Some of the most common cat illnesses, such as kidney disease or feline leukemia virus, don't show any obvious signs until the disease has progressed. Blood work can give you more insight into what is going on inside your cat's body.

Build Your Kitty's Confidence

A confident cat is one that feels comfortable and safe in their environment. Help your kitty be more self-assured with these methods:

  • Build a routine. Cats - like dogs and other pets - thrive on regular schedules. Feed them at the same time, give them love and reassurance, and make sure they can rely on their schedule.
  • Give them space. Cats are social, but they are also territorial. If your cat feels insecure in their environment, make sure they have a safe place to escape to that feels controlled.
  • Create high spots to lounge. Your cat probably likes climbing on stuff. Cats do this to find a secure spot to rest where they feel safe. Make sure your cat has a perch to call their own.
  • Offer enrichment. Bored cats often display behavior problems. Help them work off their excess energy with training and games that keep them occupied and mentally stimulated.
  • Socialize your cat. If your cat is scared of new people, take the time to introduce guests in a safe way, and offer positive encouragement. This can be tricky, but persistence pays off.

There's much more you can do to help your cat get over their anxiety. Talk to a feline behaviorist or your veterinarian if you aren't able to help. Behavioral modification and training can do wonders, and you may need to consider anxiety medication at some point if your veterinarian recommends it.

Help Your Skittish Cat Overcome Their Fears

It can be frustrating to know that your skittish cat doesn't feel at ease in your home, but no one is at fault for this. Cats can be incredibly sensitive, so it's possible something very minor sets them off. However, something more serious could be going on. As a first step, have your cat examined by a vet to rule out any physical causes of their skittishness, then address behavioral training to help them feel safe and confident. With patience and love, your cat can learn to calm down and live at peace.

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The Real Reasons Your Cat Is so Skittish and How to Help