Scaredy Cats: Addressing Fear in Cats

Dr. Laci Schaible

Frightened Cat
Some people don’t realize that the independent and smugly superior feline is indeed susceptible to developing fears and phobia. Common fears of domestic housecats include: a fear of other pets or people (especially children); loud, sudden noises; situations such as vet visits; and separation anxiety. Common signs of fear are retreating, hiding, curling up to appear small, raised hair on arched back, ears pinned back, enlarged pupils, inappropriate elimination, hissing, over-grooming, loud crying, anorexia, and aggression.

Why cats develop fears

Limited exposure to potentially fear-inducing stimuli when young is a common reason fears and phobias develop in cats. Cats that are handled frequently and regularly during the socialization period (weeks 3-9) are generally more exploratory and more social. Cats can also develop fear through the effect of even just one unpleasant experience that was intense or traumatic, such as a negative experience with a young child. A bad experience at the vet’s office after a car ride could result in a cat that is fearful of all car trips. Genetics do play a role, however, and some cats will intrinsically be more timid than others.

Working through the fear

Treating your cat begins with identifying the root of the problem. Knowing your cat better than anyone else, you should identify changes in normal activities to pinpoint the source of your cat’s fears. A behavioral consultation is needed for cats that are showing extreme fears and/or aggression. If the fears are mild, then owner intervention through behavior modification may help to prevent them from progressing.

Before a behavior modification program can begin, you must master some basic training with your cat. This can be accomplished with a harness and leash or a crate. Cats can be trained to respond to basic commands for rewards (e.g. sit, come, give a paw). This takes time and repetition combined with food rewards.

Most cats will benefit from a gradual program of counter-conditioning and desensitization. Start by exposing the cat to a stimulus that is sufficiently mild and does not evoke fear. Using the cat’s preferred treats, reward the cat for sitting quietly and calmly and obeying your command. The cat soon learns to expect rewards when placed in the cage or on a leash and exposed to the stimulus. If the cat acts afraid during training, the stimulus is too intense and should be stopped.

Over time, slowly introduce the fearful stimulus to your cat in small increments, rewarding your cat when calm. Continue the process, bringing the fear closer and exposing the cat more often. Such a process takes a lot of time and patience on your part, but works the best to reduce fears. Work on one fear at a time for optimum results.

Sometimes a cat may have multiple fears, which complicates matters. In such cases, or when behavior modification does not work, you can work closely with your veterinarian in order to get your cat in a calmer state. Speak to your vet about anti-anxiety medication therapy where you can eventually wean your cat off the drugs. Several medications are available and your veterinarian can discuss the best option for your cat’s particular needs.

Prevention

Socialization isn’t just important for puppies. Early, frequent, and pleasant encounters with different pets and people of all ages and types can help prevent the development of fears and phobias. The socialization period in cats begins and ends earlier (generally between 3-9 weeks) than it does in dogs, making the early weeks crucial. Genetics plays a role in the development of fears; therefore, select kittens or cats that are non-fearful and sociable if you have the option.

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