Help for skittish kitties?

Your cat is skittish. You want to help. He or she is probably skittish for three main reasons (1) he is timid and shy or (2) he is in a new home and has not settled down properly or (2) the home is unsettled in terms of ambience.

Background animosity between humans and cats can make a cat skittish through anxiety. Image: MikeB

The last factor I think is a key one. It is now common knowledge that domestic cats like to live in a calm environment with solid routines and rhythms which are integrated with their human caregiver. If you add into that a home which is adapted, at least to a certain extent, to a cat's behaviour plus plenty of play a cat should not be skittish for environmental reasons. It would be hard to shake skittishness due to timidity which is inherited. The best you can do there is to once again create a very calm, friendly environment to enable a skittish cat to feel calmer and become more confident in their environment.

Skittishness is a product of anxiety or fear. This, as mentioned, can emanate from an inherently shy character. But if the cat is not inherently shy but is still skittish it's going to be environmental factors which cause this. In a multi-cat home, there may be bullying by a dominant cat or a cat might not get along that well with the other cats. It is said that at behavioural problems most often start in multi-cat homes where domestic cats are brought together in a confined space. This is especially true if they are all full-time indoor cats which is probably going to be common for the simple reason you can't let a lot of cats outside to roam freely.

The kind of person who keeps a lot of cats as pets is also the kind of person who keeps their cats indoors all the time. This can build up some anxieties in some cats if they lack confidence. It would be hard to beat this problem. What I mean is if a cat is skittish because they feel unsettled due to the other cats around them, there is no cure for that other than separating the cat from the other cats which is not going to be practical.

Play is a great way to bring a shy cat out of their shell. They forget where they are when they are playing because their instinct takes over and they chase and hunt a cat toy. It also helps to create a stronger bond between person and cat. With a stronger bond a cat is likely to feel more settled and therefore less skittish.

It all comes down to the environment. At one end of the spectrum, you might have a retired person like myself living with one cat. If that cat has a normal character i.e. neither nervous or overconfident, then they will be calm and they will not be skittish. It may occur temporarily for some extraordinary reason but in general they will be calm. At the other end of the spectrum, you might have a home where people come and go all the time, which is noisy, and where there is more than one cat. This sort of home opens up the door to a lot of potential conflicts or situations which could unnerve a domestic cat even one who is not inherently skittish.

It may be impossible to make that noisy, active and unsettled home into one which is calm and quiet for practical or functional reasons. In which case the cat will not lose their skittishness unless they are able to adapt to it. Domestic cats are very adaptable and they can get used to some extraordinary situations. I have seen a community cat in Asia sleeping at the top of an underground railway escalator at the exact point where the passengers leave the escalator. Clearly that cat is completely adapted to a noisy and active environment.

One big problem for domestic cats is ensuring that they have enough space i.e. their home-range. If they are able to enjoy their home range, which they feel they can control, it does help to calm them. And skittishness overlaps with aggression. Domestic cats who suffer intrusions into their home range can become defensively aggressive which may be perceived as agitated or even skittish by some observers. Once again it is down to the environment.

The last resort in dealing with a skittish kitty is to consider drug treatment. I'm talking about tranquilizers for domestic cats. It does happen but I think you have to be quite desperate to take this route. All the other normal steps must take place first because drugs simply mask the symptoms whereas what I discussed on this page gets to the root of the problem.

As an afterthought, if the problem is the other cats in the home, then creating a room or rooms which are for the exclusive use of the skittish kitty and their human caregiver will certainly help the cat to recover some confidence.

And it might be easy to forget about the skittish kitty because he or she is hiding some of the time. Out of sight out of mind is the motto and this can happen with domestic cats. People are too busy and they take it for granted that cats are "independent" when they are not in truth. But leaving an anxious kitty alone without plenty of human interaction of the right kind will make her condition worse.

And of course, it goes without saying, that patience is a vital ingredient in getting a wallflower to bloom. Jackson Galaxy calls timid cats 'wallflowers' but you can get them to bloom. They have to believe that the place where they live is not hostile but is very friendly. If you achieve that he will be relaxed and come to you.

To conclude, the key to helping a skittish cat to feel calmer is to ensure that the environment is as suited as best as possible to a feline character. In the words of Jackson Galaxy, the owner needs to tap into the raw cat beneath the domestic cat to find out what makes them tick. This will allow them to find their mojo which means to behave normally in a balanced way.

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