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Q&A: How Can I Get My Fearful Cat to Be More Confident?

Dr. Mark is a veterinarian with over 40 years of experience in the field. He works with dogs, cats, exotics, and livestock.

Cats can have major trouble overcoming the stress of being attacked by other cats in the household, but there are strategies that may help.

Cats can have major trouble overcoming the stress of being attacked by other cats in the household, but there are strategies that may help.

How Can I Help My Cat Get Along Better With My Other Cats?

"In order to ask this question, I have to be very descriptive with respect to what I am about to ask. I'm all out of answers and I'm hoping you can salvage what is becoming a very tumultuous feline relationship in my household.

I am the "person" to six rescue cats. I never planned on having six cats, but the universe works in mysterious ways. So? Here we are ...

My family includes (girlfriend notwithstanding) Toby (10 years old); Sydney and Skyler (2 years old), who are two brothers that were abandoned by their mother and nursed via a dropper from 3 weeks to 8 weeks old, who I adopted two years ago; Scout, estimated current age of 9–10 months old, who's story I'm about to share; and her offspring IO and Juno, who are now 14 weeks old.

I've always had cats, and for the last two years I have had a cozy little family with Toby, Skylar, and Sydney. (Toby was all alone after my other 2 cats died, which is why I adopted Skylar, and Sydney—so he'd have company when I'm gone). All three cats are the sweetest, most affectionate cats you could ever meet. They love people and they love each other. They are inseparable, play together, stare out the window together, sleep together, etc.

That said, 5 1/2 months ago, a stray kitten I've now named Scout showed up at my back door. She was, according to my vet, less than 48 hours away from dying. She was literally a skeleton with skin draped over her. Skin and bones.

Upon bringing her into my house hoping she'd survive the night, I took her to the animal hospital the next morning. She weighed a whopping 2.8 pounds with an estimated age of 5 months old. She was clearly dehydrated and starving to death, but that was the least of her problems.

She had clearly belonged to someone prior to showing up on my back deck. She wore a collar that she tried to remove and inadvertently had managed to shove her entire left front leg through the collar. Over the course of what my vet has estimated a minimum of six weeks, she had grown into the collar that became so tight it was both killing her and simultaneously keeping her alive through compression. The collar was so unimaginably tight that when I managed to cut most of it away, I realized that it had not only removed all the fur from her neck, but had also removed the skin and rather efficiently cut through the muscle. She abscessed under her armpit, and the collar had cut so deeply into her chest wall that it had to be surgically removed and cut out of her. The surgery, which cost me $2,400, was just the first step. That was followed by five weeks of taking the kitten (Scout) to the vet every two days for a laser treatment and the subsequent replacement of her bandages. Every 2 days for 5 weeks.

Three weeks into the treatment, Scout became very ill, vomiting 10 to 15 times a day. Nothing she attempted to eat stayed down. In performing an ultrasound on her abdomen, we came to find out that she was 30 days pregnant. Having taught Anatomy & Physiology for 4 years, I voted to terminate the pregnancy but my vet argued she would do just fine. I very reluctantly put my concerns about her small size aside and trusted my vet.

Unfortunately, she didn't do just fine. She went into labor a week beyond her predicted due date and gave birth to an underdeveloped kitten that ultimately died the following morning. Thank god, because I don't know that I would have known she was in labor because she showed no obvious signs of being in labor after the first kitten was birthed, even though I was extremely concerned about the fact that I knew, via an x-ray weeks earlier, there were 2 kittens remaining to be born.

After birthing the first kitten, 12 hours passed and the other two kittens were not birthing. Rushing her to an animal hospital, because my vet was on vacation, Scout had to undergo an immediate interventional cesarean section to save not only the kittens' lives but to save her. The x-ray revealed that the kittens were too large to pass through the birth canal, so evacuating them via surgery was the only option, which cost me $2,200. Yes, I've got almost 5 grand invested in a kitten that showed up on my back porch. Not to reduce Scout down to a dollar value, but with $5,000 invested in saving a kitten's life, I would like to be able to provide her a happy home. Unfortunately, she never appears to be happy. Perhaps it's because she's the only female in a house of all male cats.

It has been 14 weeks since the two kittens, IO and Juno, were born. During their entire nurturing, all of my boys, though curious, treated the new family with care and affection, never once threatening any of them.

Why do I share all these details? In the last two weeks, the entire dynamic has changed in my household. 2 weeks ago, for reasons I cannot figure out, Sydney and Skylar started stalking Scout and attacking her. She's a third their size.

These are cats that all used to sit next to each other for hours on end and look out the window or out my storm door looking out on the woods behind my house. Never a problem, never an altercation or fight—totally peaceful household. They had totally adopted Scout, IO, and Juno. As a matter of fact, IO and Juno routinely wrestle with Sydney and Skylar, who are 3 times their size. Scout, on the other hand, who's always been temperamental (sometimes letting me pet her, other times growling, scratching, and even biting me if I attempt to pet her), has very, very rarely engaged in play (other than occasionally playfully wrestling with her kittens—and yet, at other times visciously attacks them). It's not play! She's irritated by them. Sometimes if they even get close to her, she'll pounce on them and really attack them, hissing and growling at them. And yet again, at other times they all sleep together, though that's becoming less and less.

I have a very happy home. ALL MY CATS WALK WITH THEIR TAILS UP, are playful, affectionate, will let you pick them up, love on them, kiss on them, cuddle with them ... and then there's Scout. Now, I can hardly even touch her. She's become terrified of Sydney and Skylar, literally with a look of complete terror if they approach her and, god forbid, corner her.

See, Scout hasn't grown one iota since giving birth. Her kittens at 14 weeks are as big as her now. My vet said because she was soooooo malnourished when I got her, there's a good chance she'll never get any bigger. Perhaps this is why she's disinclined to play with them, as they are always 110 mph and balls of schizophrenic energy. They wear me out just watching them.

The other thing that's changed is that Scout will no longer drink out of a water bowl. I consistently find her drinking out of my toilet, a totally new behavior. When I present her with a bowl of fresh water, she won't even look at it."

Big size differences between your cats can contribute to low self-confidence.

Big size differences between your cats can contribute to low self-confidence.

"What could be a positive in this rather descriptive story is my vet did suggest I purchase and place in my house a plug-in feline facial pheromone diffuser. In what can only be described as a miracle, this morning Skylar (who only 2 hours earlier had cornered Scout and was ready to pounce on her til I intervened), snuggled right up against Scout and slept with her. Then later, I watched him lick her head and bathe her. What the ...?

Here's my theory ... I honestly believe Skylar and Sydney have only ever always just wanted to play with Scout, but clearly something has happened. I travel for my career 2–4 days a week, so I'm not there to always play referee. The sheer look of terror on her face anytime either of them approaches tells me something very negative happened when I was out of town. I have never had any concerns about the safety of any of my cats until now. And I can't even really say now. I still don't believe Sydney or Skyler would ever viciously attack her but I can see how they would definitely be inclined to demonstrate their dominance because she is always so irritable.

I am hoping you can offer suggestions on how I can integrate Scout into the family, which otherwise appears to be very happy. Toby, Sydney, and Skylar, love IO and Juno. The only issue is Scout. I would love to just see her play once in a while. I would love to see her tail up instead of always down. And certainly, I want her to feel safe. My diagnosis? PTSD from everything she's survived.

Now, how do we heal her and help her overcome it?" —David

There are many ways to boost a cat's self-confidence.

There are many ways to boost a cat's self-confidence.

How to Help a Cat With Low Self-Confidence

It sounds like the Feliway is doing exactly what it is supposed to do for your other cats, but the problem is mostly with Scout now. Either because of her size or her previous medical issues, she sounds like a cat with very low self-confidence.

Cats that have been attacked by housemates sometimes never get over the stress and will have secondary behavioral problems even after the problem is resolved.

How to Boost Your Cat's Confidence

There are several changes that are suggested to increase a cats self-confidence:

  • If she will accept treats, use them whenever she is sitting quietly with the other cats (positive reinforcement).
  • Continue using Feliway.
  • Provide hunting toys and spend more time playing with the anxious cat.
  • Make sure that she has a window perch so that she can get away from the other cats.
  • Stay calm and quiet around her.
  • Spend more time grooming her than the other cats.
  • Provide a water fountain and several alternative places to drink from.
  • Keep several litter boxes around the house so that she has an alternative area to use.

Building up confidence in a cat with behavioral changes may or may not be not successful. I am not sure that those behavioral changes around the house are going to be enough, but they are certainly worth attempting.

Consider Medication

If increasing her self-confidence with those changes does not work, you are going to have to treat her like you would an anxious cat. Antidepressants (like amitriptyline) might seem like a big step, but they may be her only chance.

Besides helping her mood around the other cats and making her less nervous (not drinking enough, hiding from the other cats) the mood-altering drugs can help prevent secondary effects of aggression like self-induced hair loss (1), urinating outside the litter box, and aggression toward humans and other pets.

Keep Your Cats Separated at All Times

There is also the possibility that she is so scared at this point that the antidepressant will have no effect. Aggression can develop, and some cats will start attacking the owner or other pets. In those cases, the only solution (for the best interest of the cat) is to keep them separated at all times.

If all else fails, you may need to consider finding a new home for Scout where she can be the only feline member of the family.

It looks from your question that you have already been through a lot with her, so I want to emphasize that this is only a final alternative. Try the behavioral changes I listed first, then the drugs, and only after you have thought about keeping them separate should you consider rehoming.

Source

(1) Sawyer LS, Moon-Fanelli AA, Dodman NH. Psychogenic alopecia in cats: 11 cases (1993-1996). J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1999 Jan 1;214(1):71-4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9887943/

This article is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from your veterinarian. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2022 Mark dos Anjos DVM