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Why Is My Cat Scared of Strangers? 5 Possible Causes & Solutions

Cats are sometimes described as unemotional, unsympathetic, and even supernaturally aloof. You may have heard catchy expressions like “a dog is man’s best friend, but a cat is man’s best observer.” Most cat lovers ignore the criticisms because, through experience, they learn that felines are emotional beings that react in different ways to their environments than canines and other pets.

Understanding a feline’s behavior is complex, and even the world’s veterinary experts have not solved every mystery surrounding the curious animals. However, as a pet parent, you can help your cat overcome its fears regarding strangers and unannounced visits. If your cat runs away at the sight of a new face, your priority is determining the cause of the behavior.


The 5 Reasons Your Cat Is Scared of Strangers:

1. Lack of Early Socialization

Whether you adopted a kitten or a full-grown feline, the animal’s behavior is related to its upbringing. Like most creatures, cats learn by watching their parents. Compared to dogs, cats have a briefer socialization period from three to nine weeks old. Why are some cats timid as kittens and others are outgoing? Veterinarians speculate that the father’s behavior significantly impacts his offspring. If the father is fearful and runs from strangers, the kittens may be likely to display the same fear.

How to remedy the behavior:

Young cats introduced to children, neighbors, car rides, and loud noises are less likely to fear them as adults. Exposing your cat to multiple stimuli can help it develop into a more sociable creature. If you have an adult that’s skittish of strangers, you can encourage them to warm up to other people in small increments, but it will take more time for an adult to adapt than a kitten.

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2. Past Trauma

When a cat fears a person or loud noise, it may have had a previous traumatic experience that caused the behavior. For instance, a cat that’s new to the neighborhood may have seen a neighbor scream at his kids at the top of his lungs. When the neighbor visits the cat’s home to welcome the new occupants, the cat may associate the outburst with the human and run the other way. Like the inhumane studies performed on monkeys by the behaviorist Harry Harlowe demonstrated, early trauma can affect how animals and humans perceive their environments.

a cat hiding under a couch
Image Credit: Rawpixel.com, Shutterstock
How to remedy the behavior:

After determining the source of the trauma, like the noisy neighbor previously mentioned, expose the stranger to your cat in small steps. Allow them to enter your home for brief periods, but ensure they keep their distance and do not approach the cat. Instruct them to stay longer each visit and gradually inch closer to the cat’s location. When the cat does not immediately run, provide a treat as a reward. If the cat retreats, allow your pet to stay in the hiding spot until it wants to come out and try again another day.

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3. Environmental Stress

Past trauma or socialization issues may not be the reasons for your cat’s behavior. If you recently moved into a new house, your cat may take several days or weeks to get used to the new environment. Until the animal feels safe in its home, it may react with fear when a stranger enters. Cats need to explore and sniff around their new habitat, and until they know that every square inch is safe, they can experience anxiety when additional stimuli like a loud stranger disrupt the process.

How to remedy the behavior:

Give your cat time to accept its new home, and watch the animal when it picks a favorite spot to hide. By creating a safe zone for your pet near the hiding spot, you provide a comfortable area where it can relax and avoid frightening encounters. Set a cozy cat bed or cardboard box with catnip toys, fresh water, and a few treats. Ask your visitors to stay away from the room at first, and then gradually let them congregate closer to the cat’s spot. Reward your pet when it stays relaxed when strangers appear so that it will associate the visitors with the reward.

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4. Other Pets

Pets of different species can learn to love each other quickly when they’re raised as youngsters, but a new pet entering the home of an adult cat may not be greeted with enthusiasm. If the feline feels threatened by the new animal, it will not be thrilled to see strangers associate with the new pet and may decide to hide when they visit. Training your cat to like a new dog or cat is probably impossible, but you can reward your cat for staying relaxed when the new pet is nearby.

dog and cat with parcel at door
Image Credit: WiP-Studio, Shutterstock
How to remedy the behavior:

Teaching your pet to accept a new animal in the house can help it relax when strangers visit. Using the previous techniques of slowly exposing your cat to the stimuli may be more challenging with an animal. When the new pet is hyper and untrained, it may be hard to move it closer to the cat in increments. However, you can use a harness or crate to prevent your cat from running during the socialization period.

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5. Medical Issues

Although you can help your cat with its fear of strangers, you need professional assistance for extreme cases. If your cat hides or displays aggression to strangers, the cause may be related to an illness. A veterinarian can determine the cause and provide treatment, but you should avoid treating the animal with over-the-counter medications without consulting the doctor. Several anti-anxiety supplements are available, but they may not treat the root cause of anxiety.

How to remedy the behavior:

For illnesses that cause anxiety or hiding, the only solution is to follow your vet’s treatment plan. You can use pheromone diffusers that make your pet feel more at ease, but a prescription medication will treat the illness and hopefully correct the behavior.

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Additional Tips for Socializing Your Cat

We discussed how you can slowly convince your cat to accept strangers, but here are some additional suggestions to help you manage the process.

  • Avoid harsh corrections: When your cat escapes to hide from someone, let them find peace in their hiding spot. Yelling at the animal and calling for it to meet your friends will only increase the fear.
  • Remove noisy distractions: Before company visits, turn down the stereo or television and eliminate as much background noise as possible. Visitors will add to the noise when they enter the house, and it may be too much for the cat to handle.
  • Instruct visitors to refrain from antagonizing the animal: Everyone has an irritating friend who enjoys teasing pets, but try to keep problematic humans from chasing after the cat when it runs. Even if the person were joking, the cat would not interpret the action as humorous.
  • Be patient: Socialization is a slow process, especially for newly adopted adult cats, and you cannot expect the cat to warm up to strangers quickly. By providing rewards when the feline remains calm and slowly moving the visitor closer, your cat will gradually become more comfortable around new faces.
Tortoiseshell with owner
Image Credit: Page Light Studios, Shutterstock

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Cat behavior is mysterious to pet owners, casual observers, and veterinary specialists, but we know a little more, thanks to research, about why felines run for shelter when they feel threatened. Hiding from larger predators is instinctual for cats, but it takes time to train cats to regard strangers as friends rather than enemies. After identifying the origin of the distress, you can work with your cat and friends to make subsequent visits less traumatizing.

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Featured Image: llaszlo, Shutterstock