Shy or Fearful Cats

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on March 16, 2023
3 min read

It’s not uncommon for cats to be scared of people they don’t know. They may be affectionate and calm with their family but fearful when other people visit. 

There are several reasons for this, including:

Lack of exposure. Shy cats may have lacked exposure to different people when they were kittens, especially between the ages of 2 to 7 weeks. Cats who have been exposed to different types of people may still feel afraid of certain kinds of people they haven’t come across often, such as children.

Timid personality. Fear is a natural characteristic in animals, and some cats may just be born with more fearful personalities.

Loud noises. Visitors tend to be accompanied by loud noises like laughing, loud talking, and things being moved about, which can add to skittish cats’ anxiety. 

If your cat’s behavior changes suddenly, it could mean they are sick. Hiding and aggression are some common symptoms of illness. See your veterinarian to rule out any medical reasons for a change in behavior.

If you have a shy kitten, expose them to people of different ages, sizes, ethnicities, and genders. When your kitten approaches a new person, give a reward, praise, and attention.  

If you have a skittish adult cat, it will take some time to get them comfortable around visitors. A gradual approach and rewards may help a shy cat. If possible, have a friend come over to play the part of a visitor. The goal is to reward your cat for staying calm in the presence of a stranger. Have your visitor start from a distance, then slowly get closer over several sessions.

When you have guests over, the following may help:

Create a safe space. Create a calm area for your cat to hide if they need to. This should be a room they’ve already spent time in. Provide food, water, and a litter box, and make sure your guests respect your cats' privacy.

Stick to one area. Restrict your guests to one part of the house so that your cat feels comfortable walking around the rest of the house.

Let your cat approach. Ask your visitors to let your cat approach them instead of the other way around. People approaching your cats directly can be seen by them as threatening.

Stay seated. Have your guests sit down and avoid staring directly at your cat. Try not to startle your cat with sudden movements or loud noises.

Offer treats and toys. Offer your cat healthy treats at a distance from your visitors. Some cats may be play-motivated, and toys or games can bring them out of hiding. As you repeat these behaviors and your cat becomes less skittish, decrease the distance between the visitor and your cat. If your cat shows signs of anxiety, move to a more comfortable distance for them and try again.

Give it time. If your cat hides, don’t force them to come out. It can take time to change a skittish cat’s behavior, so be patient and don’t expect too much too soon. Unfortunately, some cats may never feel comfortable with physical interaction with a stranger. 

Use food as a bonding tool. Instead of leaving food out all day, feed your cat at scheduled times. This will help them build positive associations with people and trust you more.

Provide a high viewpoint. Your cat may feel more comfortable observing visitors from a higher spot. This includes shelves, cat trees, or cat beds placed on top of furniture. 

Use a calming odor. Use a product that imitates a soothing natural cat odor around your house before visitors arrive. You won’t be able to smell it, but it may help calm your cat.

Never punish your cat for running away or hiding from guests. Punishment can make them more fearful.

Don’t pull your cat out of its hiding place or force them to be held by someone. This will only increase their fear and could also result in bites and scratches.