Cat Behavior Problems: Fears and Phobias

By Ellen Lindell, VDM, DACVB; Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM.

Why is my cat afraid of people and/or other animals?

Cats may become fearful for many reasons. A cat’s genetics, the behavior and health of their mother, and their experiences from birth onward all affect a cat’s behavior and level of fear. Your cat may have had limited exposure to people and other animals when she was young.

Early positive exposure to people and other animals, known as socialization, is important for healthy behavioral development. Research studies indicate that cats that are handled frequently and regularly during the first few weeks of life are generally more exploratory and social.

Cats gain the most benefit from positive social experiences when they are between two and nine weeks of age. This sensitive period for socialization ends earlier in kittens than in puppies, so a kitten’s early environment and social interactions are very important. Cats can develop fear-based behaviors when they do not have plenty of opportunities for positive interactions with people, other animals, and new situations.

"In some cases, one traumatic event can cause a generalized fear response, resulting in a cat that exhibits fear or anxiety in many unrelated situations."

Cats can also become fearful if they are exposed to frightening or unpleasant experiences. Even a single unpleasant experience that was intense or traumatic can produce lasting fear of the trigger situation. This effect is known as “one-trial learning”. In some cases, one traumatic event can cause a generalized fear response, resulting in a cat that exhibits fear or anxiety in many unrelated situations.

An example of a fear-inducing trigger might be a child suddenly chasing a cat while it was resting quietly. The cat might become afraid of all children as a result of this scary situation.

Can I prevent fears from developing in my cat?

Early, frequent, and pleasant encounters with people of all ages and types can help prevent later fears. Socialization is most helpful when kittens are less than nine weeks old, so do not delay. As soon as your new kitten has adjusted to your home, begin to introduce her to people by inviting guests to visit. Do not allow people to pursue or reach for your cat – they should wait for your kitten to approach them. Have visitors offer toys and treats to build a positive association with social interactions.

Similarly, if you have friends with quiet, cat-friendly dogs or cats, you may invite them to visit. Use a barrier such as a leash or gate and let the animals approach each other at their own pace.

Expose your new kitten to a wide range of sounds. You may download recordings of a wide range of sounds, including noises of traffic and thunder. Bring your kitten to new environments, such as a quiet park, while she stays in a carrier. This will familiarize her with car travel and will provide her with exposure to many sights and scents. It can also be helpful to arrange visits to your friends’ homes and let your cat play and enjoy snacks from people. Do not allow other animals or people to approach your cat when she is confined.

"Do not allow other animals or people to approach your cat when she is confined."

Be sure to include some happy visits to your veterinarian’s office so that your cat gets familiar with her health care team. She can play with team members, get snacks from them, and perhaps even get a mock check-up, if a team member has time.

During any exposures to novel situations, watch your kitten closely for signs of fear. If she does not play with you or take a treat, or if she is hissing, cowering, or huddled tightly into a ball, she is frightened and needs a break. It is particularly important to watch for signs of fear in an older kitten or adult cat. You will need to proceed much more slowly, as older cats are less behaviorally flexible. Give your cat plenty of time to adjust to each situation; you may need multiple sessions with a quiet visitor before your cat is ready to approach them. Play environmental sounds very quietly at first, to be sure your cat is neutral, and use treats to assure your cat that all is well.

"Give your cat plenty of time to adjust to each situation; you may need multiple sessions with a quiet visitor before your cat is ready to approach them."

Some fearful behavior may already be built into your cat. It is a good sign if both parents are calm and friendly. In fact, the father’s genetics may have a strong effect on a kitten’s future behavior. You can also get some early indications of your cat’s temperament during your first meeting. A cat that is timid or that startles easily may remain cautious, whereas an outgoing, curious cat may remain confident.

What are the signs of fear?

When frightened, most cats try to escape or hide. If they cannot escape, they may instead freeze, often crouching and pinning their ears back as if trying to appear smaller. Other signs of fear can be a fluffy tail (pilo-erection), hissing, arching the back, and even swatting or biting, particularly if there is no chance to retreat.

Is there treatment to reduce my cat’s fear ?

In most cases, fearful cats should have both a physical examination and a behavioral consultation. An underlying medical condition may trigger the fear response, particularly if fear occurs in an adult cat or the onset is sudden. A veterinary behaviorist can assess the fear response and design an appropriate treatment program. Treatment will always include some behavior modification, management changes, and medication may also be recommended.

"For behavior modification to be successful, it is important to try to avoid exposure to the triggers as much as possible."

The first step in treatment is to identify triggers, when possible. Are there people, animals, noises, or situations that frighten your cat? Try to rate the intensity of your cat’s reaction to the different triggers from low to high. For behavior modification to be successful, it is important to try to avoid exposure to the triggers as much as possible. Sometimes that means putting your cat into a quiet room so she feels safe. For instance, if guests trigger fear, it is best to set up a cozy hideaway.

After I have identified the stimuli, what’s next?

The next step is to begin behavior modification. The specifics of your cat’s treatment plan depend on your cat’s triggers, as well as the level of fear.

For most fear-related behaviors, desensitization and counterconditioning is the treatment of choice. Desensitization and counterconditioning is a combined process in which you control the intensity the stimulus so that your cat is able to relax in its presence. The intensity must be sufficiently mild that it does not evoke fear.

"Use very high-value rewards for these sessions so the cat is highly motivated to get the reward."

There is some preparation involved. The first step is to teach your cat to relax by using treats. Most of the time, it is helpful to set up a soft fleece and to dab the fleece with some Feliway® pheromone. Feed your cat treats and/or try brushing your cat if your cat loves being brushed. Then, during a session, bring out your fleece and begin to deliver the reward as your cat rests quietly and calmly. Be sure to use very high-value rewards for these sessions so the cat is highly motivated to get the reward.

If your cat does not prefer to interact with you during sessions, you may try using a large crate instead of the mat. First, you make the crate a pleasant place – with a cozy bed, treats, and toys - so your cat enters and rests there readily. Then, try closing the crate door and giving extra special treats or even a meal. The crate can become a pleasant haven. Then, once the cat enjoys the crate, you may place your cat into the crate for the desensitization sessions. Crates are particularly helpful when cats are fearful of other household pets. It is important that you keep the fear triggers far from the crate so your cat does not feel threatened.

A variation of this process is useful for playful cats: use a favorite toy instead of the relaxation mat. While your cat is happily playing, present the scary stimulus at a very low level – low enough that your cat can still play without being afraid.

In all cases, start with several short sessions: 10–15 minutes at first. It is important to end the session while your cat is still calm. If there is a sign of fear, end the session and next time start with a lower-level stimulus. After two to three successful sessions, try increasing the intensity of the stimulus very slightly. That might mean making a sound louder or moving closer to a visitor.

What should I do if my cat encounters a fear stimulus when we are not in a training exercise?

Avoid exposure to fear triggers outside controlled sessions. An unexpected exposure will generate a full fear response, which could undo the positive learning that occurred during the desensitization and counterconditioning sessions. If there is an exposure, try to lure your cat to a quiet, safe place and give her time to relax. Do not try to soothe her or offer her treats until she is ready. Wait for her to approach, indicating that she is feeling better.

Are there any other treatment options?

Cats experiencing very high levels of fear may not respond adequately to behavior modification alone. Your veterinarian may recommend using medication that can reduce fear and anxiety. Some medications are given every day, while others are used just when a scary event is expected.

Environmental manipulation is also important. An effective enrichment program can reduce a cat’s overall level of stress. Provide your cat with plenty of interactive play time, create opportunities to search and explore, and rotate toys to keep them exciting. Be sure your fearful cat has access to many resting places at different levels, and that she has safe options for moving through the home without encountering a trigger.

Some cats respond to pheromones such as Feliway®. Pheromones may be sprayed onto your cat’s bedding or may be diffused into the room.

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