How to Help a Cat Scared of Dogs or Other Pets

Is your cat scared of your dog, another cat, or other pets? If your cat is suddenly afraid of your dog or another animal in the house — i.e., the fear represents a change in your cat's usual behavior — have your cat checked by your veterinarian. Feline health problems can cause many behavior changes. If there are no health issues present, it's time to take a close look at why your cat might be afraid of other pets — and learn ways to help your cat feel more comfortable. 

Cat scared of dogs

Cats have good reason to be scared of dogs: Most dogs are bigger than cats and smell like a predator. And, of course, many dogs instinctually chase fast-moving objects that are smaller than they are. Understandably, this can be a very scary experience for a cat. And your cat might learn to avoid your dog after even one negative experience — which can help to explain why your cat is suddenly afraid of your dog after them previously coexisting just fine.

Moreover, even if your cat has only ever had positive experiences with your dog, your dog still looks and smells like a canine to your cat. So if your cat wasn't introduced to dogs at a young age — or had a bad experience with a dog in the past — they might be more apprehensive around them.

Cat afraid of other cats

If your cat didn't grow up with other cats, they might not be used to interacting with others of their species. They might not recognize some feline body language and other cats' overtures of friendship. 

In addition, like dogs, cats have a hierarchy, though it is more complex. A more confident and bold cat in your household might be sending your fearful cat a subtle message to “stay out of my way.” This message can be communicated with a stare, by blocking certain pathways in your home, or by making one’s presence very obvious (e.g., lying outstretched in the middle of the living room). If you see your fearful cat going out of their way to avoid conflict, that might be them saying they understand the message from the more confident cat.

How can I help my nervous cat feel more comfortable?

The first objective is to prevent other pets from intimidating and chasing the cat. This will send a message to the instigator that this behavior is inappropriate and provide reassurance to the fearful cat that they're safe.

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You should provide safe areas for your fearful cat to retreat to if they're chased or otherwise intimidated by other pets. Here are some options for safe areas:

  • Clear off some bookshelves or add cat trees to your home, so your cat can jump to an elevated, protected area. 
  • Add skirts around tables or chairs to create hiding places for your cat to feel safe. 
  • Provide cardboard boxes with two holes cut out of them; the second hole allows your cat to escape if another cat jumps in. 
  • Place baby gates in doorways; cats can jump over them or squeeze through them if a dog is in hot pursuit. 
  • Buy cat collars that signal a cat door to open, which limits access to a room to only the cat wearing the collar.

You should also provide a “house of plenty,” so your fearful cat doesn't have to compete with other pets for food, water, toys, or attention from you. Highly confident cats often “guard” these resources by sitting or standing near them, preventing your fearful cat from approaching. To counteract this, place food dishes, water dishes, and litter boxes in several locations in your home. You can also put them in protected areas, such as on top of counters.

How can I help my cat get used to my dog, cat, or other pets?

One of the most effective ways to help cats feel more comfortable with dogs, cats, or other pets is to use the behavior modification techniques called desensitization and counterconditioning

You can gradually get your cat used to the presence of other pets by starting at a "safe" distance and then slowly moving your pet closer. Over multiple sessions, you will incrementally decrease the distance between your cat and your other pets until your fearful cat is able to remain relaxed in their presence. 

To do this exercise, you'll need treats, toys, or other rewards for your cat, and you'll also need control over your other pet(s). This might entail asking your dog to “down-stay” or keeping your more confident cat occupied with a bowl of food while you work with your fearful cat. Alternatives are to tether your dog, put your other cat behind a baby gate or screen door, or recruit a human helper to manage your other pet.

Once you've worked out these details, follow these steps:

  1. Find a starting distance. The exercises begin at the distance at which your cat does not exhibit any sign of anxiety, arousal, or aggression toward your other pet (while they are relatively stationary). Your fearful cat should appear completely calm and feel safe at this distance. The actual distance will depend on your cat’s temperament and the behavior of your other pet. For example, the starting distance between a very timid cat and a rambunctious young dog barking might be larger than the starting distance between a bolder cat and an older, inactive dog lying still. If you have a very fearful cat or if your other pet is aggressive, difficult to manage, or overactive, you might need to start with each pet in different rooms with the door between them closed. You can work through a closed door.
  2. Start behavior modification. Place your fearful cat at the starting distance. Watch your cat’s behavior and body language very closely. As long as the cat remains calm and non-anxious, reward this behavior with high-value treats, play, or petting. Continue this activity for a few minutes, and then end the session with a reward. You can provide your other pet with a plate of food or a treat to keep them occupied during this exercise as well.
  3. Decrease the distance. Do several sessions at the starting distance. After several sessions, you will notice your cat becoming more accustomed to the presence of your other pet. The next step is to decrease the distance between your cat and your other pet by a few inches. To do this, move your cat’s bowl of food or lure your cat closer with a treat or toy. Watch your cat closely for any signs of anxiety. If the cat remains calm, repeat the session a few times. Then, over many sessions, gradually and incrementally decrease the distance between your cat and your other pet.
  4. If your cat becomes anxious. If you notice your cat displaying signs of anxiety, move them farther away from your other pet until the cat is no longer fearful. At this distance, reward the calm behavior to end the session on a positive note. During the next session, start at this “safe” distance. When you start to decrease the distance, do so in smaller increments than you did before.
  5. Add movement to the mix. Once your cat is comfortable eating or playing near your other pet when they are seated or eating, you can repeat these exercises while adding in the element of movement. To add in movement, repeat step 1, finding a starting distance at which your cat remains calm or distracted by toys or treats. Rather than having your dog in a down-stay or your bolder cat eating out of a dish, ask a friend or family member to walk your dog back and forth on a leash or to play with your other cat at a distance. The starting distance for a moving pet might not be the same as a stationary one. This time, with your other pet moving, repeat steps 2 through 4.

Other movements, such as having the other pet walk toward your cat, can be desensitized in the same manner. Your cat’s ability to generalize and display calm behavior around a variety of situations will depend on how often you can repeat these exercises and add in different elements.

Try to keep in mind that these exercises take time, and progress might be slow. It might not be reasonable to expect your cat to remain calm if confronted by a barking dog or another cat pouncing on them or staring at them. It’s also important to know that not all fears can be fully overcome. Just remember that, overall, your efforts are helping to improve your cat’s quality of life.

In some cases, pheromones, nutraceuticals, and even anti-anxiety medication can help to facilitate behavior modification. If you have questions about desensitization and counterconditioning exercises or how to apply them to your cat, please consult with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist.

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