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Intruders upset happy cat
Dear Dr. Spiegel, Last October, I "adopted" a healthy, friendly stray cat who showed up in my neighborhood about two months before. My vet told me he was approximately 10 months old and in excellent health. Since he was so friendly, my vet felt someone must have dropped him off. Before I took him in, the cat was being fed by about five of us in the neighborhood. He was very friendly to all the neighbors, and only had a slight fear of dogs. About two months after I adopted "TC," my mother came to stay with her dog for about two weeks. TC was miserable, refusing to eat and staying under my bed. He acted scared to death of anyone but me. TC made himself right at home when I adopted him. He is my 14 year old cat's best buddy, and he loves my dog. He adjusted quickly to being an in house cat. Recently I took him outside on my patio and my neighbor, who used to also feed TC, came over to see him. TC went into a panic, scratched my arm, and frantically ran back into my house. If the doorbell rings, TC disappears, and people don't think I even have a second cat. My question is: Why does a very sociable cat, while living outside, suddenly panic when people come into my home? It seems really STRANGE that he is so afraid now of the same people who used to feed him. He is only happy when he, his adopted "sister and brother," and I are the only ones around him. He plays constantly, loves watching people from my window and seems very happy and content. Why does he become another personality when someone comes to see me? Sincerely, K.M. Newark
Dear K.M., As an outside cat, TC's greatest desires were twofold. He wanted to get a meal and some affection. These motivations were primary and they drove his behaviors. He sought food and he sought some physical interaction and he got them both. Now that you've taken him in, these two primary desires are met on a regular basis. You provide him with regular meals, and he has learned that he has three trustworthy companions (you, your other cat, and your dog) to give him regular play and attention. His needs have been met and he leads a contented and satisfied existence in your home. Like many cats, anxiety is also a prominent component of TC's personality. As with any other trait, anxiety levels in individuals can fall on any part of the scale from in- apparent to all-consuming. And where it falls on this scale can vary within an individual by that individual's perceived sense of safety and security in a given situation. The disruption in your cat's home environment with the arrival of your mother and her dog was certainly enough of a commotion to increase his fear to a level where any desire to interact or eat were dwarfed by comparison. Given a sufficient amount of time, as his hunger and desire for social contact increased and the dust of your visitors' arrival settled (thereby diminishing his fear), he might likely have come out on his own. However, if your own worry and concern drove you to check on him and bring him food, you can be certain that he now had no reason to risk abandoning the security of his hiding place. The stress of that particular event, signaled by the "doorbell" and, I would expect, concurrently by the protective alerting of your dog's barking and all of the loud excited greeting and chatter that ensued, have for TC become associated with a feeling of uncertainty and marked anxiety. And for him, as with most animals, it is easily learned that the surest way to escape the terror of that feeling is to avoid the things which produce it.