Many things can cause a cat to become fearful, such as:
Lack of socialization as a kitten
Being the target of aggression by other animals
Pain and illness
Being the target of abuse
Stressful living conditions (too many cats, dirty conditions, tense family environment, etc.)
A move to an unfamiliar environment (new home, being relinquished to shelter, being rehomed, etc.)
Change in family (new owner, death, divorce, new baby, etc.)
Excessive ongoing noise
Here are some ideas to help create more security for a fearful cat:
A fearful cat feels more security if he knows he can’t be seen. There should be hiding places set up for him in all the rooms he frequents. If you want to encourage your cat to venture out from under the bed you need to set up cozy hideaway alternatives for him. “A” frame beds are great hideaways because the cat can peer out if he wishes but he knows he won’t be ambushed from behind. High-sided donut beds are also good. Cats love being able to curl up into a tight little ball and feel the sides of the bed surrounding them.
You can create homemade hideaways with cardboard boxes. Place the box on its side and one of the flaps hang down so the opening is partially covered. Line the box with a towel or cat bed for comfort.
A cat tree is a great piece of real estate for a cat, but if kitty is fearful, he may not be secure enough being so exposed on a perch. If that’s the case, choose a cat tree that has at least one perch that has an enclosure built on it or you can place an “A” frame bed on one of the perches. Some fearful kitties actually like being on an open perch up high because it gives them more of a visible advantage. They have more warning time to see if someone is approaching. Being on the top perch of the cat tree also prevents the fearful cat from being ambushed from behind.
Interact at the Cat’s Pace
If you think you’ll be able to convince your cat to get over his fear by forcibly holding him in your arms or insisting that he interact with family members, you’re very mistaken. All that will do is severely set back the trust-building process.
What a fearful cat needs is choice. If he feels he has the choice to move closer and check things out or interact with you, then he’ll be more relaxed about it. A cat who feels he has no choice will always feel backed in a corner and will look for the first opportunity to bolt for cover.
Keep treats on-hand and whenever kitty makes even the smallest positive step, reward him with something yummy. Clicker training works well in this type of situation. You can click and reward for any behavior you’d like to see again, such as when kitty walks in the room or pokes him head out from under the bed.
If your fearful cat won’t take the treat from your hand, then gently toss it closer to him. If the treat consists of wet food, place a little on a chop stick in order to put a distance between you and the cat. Many times with fearful cats I’ve taped soft-tipped baby spoons to the end of a chop stick in order to give the cat a larger amount of wet food.
Use a fishing pole toy to encourage your fearful cat to play. The pole puts a distance between you and the cat so he’ll be able to stay in his comfort zone. If he’s more comfortable being partially hidden under the bed or behind a chair you can still offer playtime opportunities with the fishing pole. The movement you do should not be frantic or over-the-top though. A fearful cat doesn’t want to view the toy as an opponent. Make your motions low-key and easy for kitty to conquer his prey.
Choose your interactive toy based on your cat’s personality. If he’s extremely frightened, you may need to start with something like a feather and gradually work up to more challenging toys.
If you want kitty to feel comfortable venturing out from under the bed, create secure paths to resources such as the litter box, scratching post and feeding station. If he doesn’t feel safe then you’ll never see him during the day because he’ll only wander out to eat or use the litter box in the middle of the night when the family is asleep. Locate resources so kitty doesn’t have to walk across the house to reach them. You can even create little tunnels along the way so the cat remains partially hidden. You can use soft-sided fabric tunnels (available at your local pet product store and online) or you can make your own by connecting several paper bags that have the bottoms cut out. You can also use boxes or even large cardboard tubing.
Observe and respect your fearful cat’s body language. A contributing factor to his fearful behavior may be that his communication signals haven’t been respected. If your cat’s body language is saying “please don’t come closer” and you continue to move toward him then he’ll soon learn to dart away.
In addition to the hideaways, the cat tree and conducting interactive playtime mentioned previously, pique his curiosity and trigger his desire to play by creating a more interesting environment overall. Place puzzle feeders around and distribute interesting little toys for him to bat at for solo playtime. This will help him begin to form a positive association with his surroundings.
Need More Information?
You can find in-depth information on helping fearful or timid cats in the book Starting From Scratch. This book specifically addresses correcting behavior issues in adult cats.
If your fearful kitty is a kitten you can find more specific information in the book Think Like a Cat. This comprehensive cat care and training book covers all aspects of raising a well-adjusted cat and includes in-depth information on all stages of a cat’s life.