Behavioral Problems

Why is My Cat So Scared of Everything All of a Sudden?

If your cat is hiding or fleeing, then it has anxiety. If this is a sudden change in demeanor, there will likely be a fear-based explanation.

If a cat is suddenly scared of everything, consider if anything in its life is different. Disruption to routine makes a cat skittish. Your cat may have encountered a predator and no longer feels safe. Unexpected loud noises will make a cat fearful. Your cat could also be sick or injured.

Managing the needs of a scared cat requires a calm, relaxed owner. In fact, owner anxiety will make the cat even more jittery. It would be best if you calmed the cat down, but how you approach this depends on the problem.

Why Is My Cat Suddenly Frightened?

Cats project an image of confidence and fearlessness. This is not always the case. Many cats are very nervous by nature. Your cat is skilled at hiding this fear and trepidation. Cats do not like anybody to know that they are afraid.

A previously brave cat can become nervous, seemingly overnight. Potential explanations for this change in demeanor include:

  • Trauma or injury
  • Sickness
  • Mistreatment

If your cat has hurt itself, you may not know. Cats do all they can to disguise signs of physical injury. Your cat worries that injury is seen as a weakness. This could lead to the cat losing territory or dominant status.

The same applies to illness. Cats hide their pain, but it will be frightened by ill health. This fear makes a cat jittery. According to Hormones and Behavior, parasitic infections (roundworms, tapeworms, heartworm, hookworms, and whipworms) cause anxiety.

The mistreatment of cats is a broad definition. Your cat may have been physically struck in the past. Certain scents and locations can trigger memories of this traumatic event. Cats remember any trauma.

Scolding a cat for unwanted behaviors leads to anxious behavior. This is likelier when punishment occurs after the action. Cats do not link scolding to behavioral issues. Your cat will become nervous, wondering if it will be punished again for seemingly no reason.

What Makes Cats Feel Afraid?

Cats have an array of fears and phobias based on instinct. Most are rational, but some are less so. Common things that cats are afraid of include:

  • Loud noises
  • Changes to routine or schedule
  • Unfamiliar residents or pets in the home
  • Wide, open spaces
  • Predatory animals
  • Visiting the vet
  • Separation from an owner

Any of these can trigger a frightened response in a cat. This is not good for the pet or owner. A nervous cat is frequently an aggressive cat.

Anxiety takes its toll on cats. As per Applied Animal Behavior Science, stressed cats live with constantly enhanced levels of cortisol. Cortisol is colloquially referred to as, “the stress hormone.”

Too much cortisol is dangerous. Cats have small bodies and comparatively weak hearts. Unrelenting stress will eventually leave your pet at risk of cardiac arrest.

What are the Most Common Scared Cat Behaviors?

Understanding the signs of frightened cats is pivotal. Acknowledge why your cat is so skittish, and work to keep it calm. Common signals that a cat is afraid are as follows:

  • Hiding
  • Freezing on the spot
  • Eliminating outside the litter box
  • Scenting from the anal glands
  • Uncharacteristic aggression
  • Frantic grooming
  • Constant vocalization
  • Refusal to eat, or eating to excess
  • Clinginess
  • Pacing

All cats will display these behaviors from time to time. Your cat should not be regularly frightened and skittish, though. If your cat’s demeanor has changed, you must learn why.

Helping a Cat to Cope with Change

Cats are creatures of habit, so changes to the structure and routine cause significant anxiety. If your cat does not feel secure, it will become increasingly nervous. This can become increasingly problematic. The most significant changes a cat can undergo are:

  • A new living environment
  • Getting a new pet
  • The arrival of a new lodger or baby

A cat will notice if an owner is missing. Likewise, cats experience bereavement if an animal companion dies.

Living in a New Home

Moving to a new home is overwhelming for cats. Everything they knew has changed. This means that a cat needs to learn everything all over again.

This is where a cat’s fear of open space comes to the fore. Until you unpack, the house will be bare. Your cat has lost all preferred hiding places. Your cat needs to learn the new lay of the land. It will be nervy until this happens.

Focus on providing hiding spaces. Every time you unpack a box, leave it on its side. Your cat will take comfort from hiding within. Space these boxes around the new home.

Unpack familiar items for your cat. Furniture that carries your cat’s scent will provoke calm. Ensure your cat has familiar toys and trees.

Above all, stick to your cat’s pre-existing routine. Provide one-on-one attention. Feed your cat when it would expect food. Show your cat that the only location has changed. Lifestyle and routine will remain consistent.

Adjusting to a New Pet

The arrival of a new pet will shatter a cat’s equilibrium. Cats are territorial by nature. The idea of sharing will provoke anxiety. In addition, a new cat may bully an existing incumbent.

If introducing a new cat to the home, take the process slowly. Keep the new cat locked in a room until accepted by your existing pet. Introduce the two cats through a gate. This will help the cats learn each other’s scents.

Feed the cats in separate locations. Provide each animal with its own food bowls, water supply, litter boxes, toys, and bed. Play with your cat and provide one-on-one attention. This reassures the cat that it will not be forgotten.

cat suddenly scared of me after being outside

New Home Resident

Cats grow used to the humans that share their home. When a new resident arrives, a cat will be perturbed. Babies will cause particular consternation.

Babies are loud and demand attention. It’s attention that used to go the cat. Your cat will become vocal and clingy, afraid that it has been replaced. The cat is imitating the behavior of the baby.

Ensure your cat receives attention and enjoys a familiar, undisrupted routine. Do not leave the cat alone with the baby. The cat’s fear may manifest as aggression. 

Lodgers and visitors also frighten cats. New people bring new scents, sounds, and behaviors. The cat will be initially afraid of this new person.

Over time, the cat will build courage. At this point, the cat will approach your lodger. Once the cat starts marking the human, bonding can begin. Talking to the cat will help. Cats recognize humans by voice, not sight. The more a cat hears a new human speak, the faster it will overcome fear.

Noisy Environments

Cats have excellent hearing. Loud noises, especially short, sharp sounds, cause stress. Background noise can make a cat nervous. Examples include:

  • Car horns
  • Garbage trucks
  • Emergency vehicle sirens
  • Fireworks
  • Doorbells
  • Home improvements
  • Street works

Loud household appliances can also cause anxiety in cats. Vacuums are the most common example. Many cats fear the family hoover. Loud kitchen appliances, such as blenders, may also spark nervous reactions.

You can attempt to muffle noise. Allow your cat to find a safe location. Use blankets and towels to reduce the volume of noise. You can also distract a cat from external noise through music.

A popular view is that classical music keeps a cat calm. This is not necessarily the case. As per Applied Animal Behavior Science, cats prefer species-specific music. Senior cats are particularly responsive to music. Appropriate music can enhance an older cat’s life.

Fear of Predators

It may appear hypocritical for a cat to fear predators. Cat odor provokes anxiety in rodents and other small animals. Despite being born hunters, cats understand they are not at the top of the food chain.

As the Journal of Animal Ecology explains, the animal kingdom is divided into three tiers. These are prey, mesopredators, and superpredators. Cats are mesopredators. This means they are both the hunters and the hunted.

Your cat may have encountered a predator in your yard. This will provoke significant, prolonged fear. Cats are driven by instinct. They are always on the lookout for threats. Wild animals that prey upon cats include:

If your cat has become nervous, keep it indoors, especially at night. Over time, your cat will calm down and feel secure again. Until this happens, provide reassurance and a safe environment.

Separation Anxiety in Cats

If you leave your cat for a prolonged period, it may develop separation anxiety. The cat will be clingy and nervous when you return.

Your cat is worried that you may leave again at any moment. This becomes likely if you take a vacation and the house is empty.

You will need to rebuild your cat’s trust. Show your cat that you are not going to abandon it. Follow a strict routine and provide attention.

Expose your cat to a short time apart from you. Leave the house for a few minutes at a time. When you return, offer a treat to change the thinking of a cat. Your cat will not fear your departure and look forward to your return.

Fear of the Dark

Despite often sleeping through the day, cats are not nocturnal. Felines are crepuscular. Crepuscular animals are most energetic at dawn and dusk.

Many domestic cats enjoy the darkness. Your cat’s night vision is not perfect, but it’s superior to a human. Domestic cats use the stillness of the night to explore and hunt.

If your cat has developed a sudden fear of the dark, there are three possible explanations:

  • The cat experienced a frightening experience at night
  • The cat is fearful that you will not respond to its wishes at night
  • The cat has developed cognitive dysfunction syndrome

If your cat ventures outside at night, it may have encountered a predator. Many feline predators are nocturnal. The cat is afraid of reliving this experience. Keep your cat indoors at night. Play and feed it late at night so that it’s more inclined to sleep.

Cats know that, while you are asleep, you will not provide attention. Your cat may be nervous about this. It may feel that it has not spent enough time with you. Alternatively, you may have forgotten an important activity.

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome impacts senior cats, typically older than 15 years. As explained by Veterinary Clinics, the symptoms include anxiety and clinginess. This is especially notable at night.

Cats with cognitive dysfunction syndrome experience a reversed sleep-waking cycle. This makes the senior cat anxious and vocal at night. Your cat will become distressed at being parted from you while you sleep.

cat acting scared after being outside

What Can Be Done About My Cat’s Nerves and Anxiety?

If you have attempted lifestyle changes to no avail, consider professional help. Your cat may have a generalized anxiety disorder. This is an illness caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.

A vet can prescribe anti-anxiety medication, but cognitive-behavioral therapy may be recommended first. Many vets consider exposure therapy an effective treatment for feline phobias.

Exposure Therapy

This involves turning a negative into a positive experience. Expose your cat to whatever makes it nervous. Offer play, petting, and grooming.

When the cat starts to calm down, offer a treat. The cat may come to look forward to something that previously provoked a fear response. If not, it may at least become more tolerable.

Daily Management

The best way to manage a cat with generalized anxiety is to pretend they are invisible. Go about your daily routine as normal. Do not aggravate the cat’s fears, though. Avoid unnecessary loud noises or routine changes.

Maintain your cat’s medication, if it has a prescription. Continue to work on overcoming your cat’s nerves. You can also apply some calming touches to the home, including:

  • Light scented candles (lavender or frankincense)
  • Play appropriate music
  • Give the cat space
  • Do not handle the cat unnecessarily
  • Provide plenty of hiding places
  • Offer regular treats

You could also make use of natural herbs to calm down an anxious cat. Herbs should be initially offered in small quantities. If the cat shows no negative reaction, gradually increase the dosage. Suitable herbs include:

  • Catnip
  • Chamomile (dried flowers or a tablespoon of cooled, brewed tea)
  • Hops
  • Valerian

With time and patience, many cats begin to calm down. If this is not the case, you have to accept it. A cat with a generalized anxiety disorder will always be nervous, and such cats just need affection and understanding.