There are many reasons that cats can develop such fears. There may have been limited exposure to people and other animals when the cat was young. Socialisation is an important aspect of raising a kitten. Without adequate, continuous and positive interactions with people and other animals, cats may develop fears. Because the socialisation period in cats begins and ends earlier than it does in dogs, the early environment of the kitten is most important. Cats can also learn through the effect of even just one unpleasant experience (“one trial learning”) that was intense or traumatic. This learning may then generalise to similar situations. For example, a bad experience with a small child could result in a cat that is fearful of all small children. Sometimes a number of unpleasant events “paired” or associated with a person or animal can lead to increasing fear. For example, if a pet is punished or some disturbing event occurs in the presence of a particular person or other animal, it may begin to pair the stimulus (the person or other animal) with the unpleasant consequence (punishment). Genetics is another important contributing factor to the development of fear. There are some cats that are inherently timid and fearful. These may never become outgoing and highly sociable.
Early, frequent and pleasant encounters with people of all ages and types can help prevent later fears. Genetics plays a role in the development of fears, therefore select kittens that are non-fearful and sociable. Assessing and observing the kitten’s parents will give some insight into the personality that a kitten may develop when it grows up.
When frightened a cat may hide, try to appear smaller, place its ears back and be immobile. In addition, a cat may show signs of agitation or aggression such as dilated pupils, arched back, piloerection (hair standing on end) and hissing. (See our Handout # 10 on Fears, phobias and anxieties for a detailed description.)
A behavioural consultation is needed for cats that are showing extreme fears and/or aggression. If the fears are mild, then owner intervention may help to prevent them from progressing. First identify the fearful stimulus. This is not always easy and needs to be very exact. Which persons or animals are the cat afraid of and where does the fearful behaviour occur? Often there are certain situations, people and places, that provoke the behaviour more than others.
For treatment to be most successful, it is important to be able to place the fearful stimuli along a gradient from low to high. Identify those situations, people, places and animals that are least likely as well as most likely to cause the fear.
Next, examine what factors may be reinforcing the behaviour. Some owners reward the fearful behaviour by reassuring their pets with vocal intonations or body contact. Aggressive displays are a successful way of getting the fearful stimulus to leave and thus also reinforce the behaviour. Any ongoing interactions that provoke fear need to be identified and removed. This could be teasing behaviour, painful interactions, and punishment or overwhelming stimuli.
Before a behaviour modification program can begin you must be able to control your cat. This can be accomplished with a figure eight harness and leash, or if needed a cage. Next, teach your cat to pair a non-fearful situation with food rewards. The goal of this training is to allow the cat to assume a relaxed and happy body posture and facial expression in the presence of the stimulus.
For mild fears, cats may settle down with constant (flooding) exposure to the fearful situation, provided there are no consequences that aggravate the fear. For example, cats kept in a cage for a few days in a boarding facility will often get used to the situation and settle down, provided there are no events that add to the fear.
For most cats a program of counter-conditioning and desensitisation will be the most successful way to acclimatise the cat to the stimuli that cause the fearful response. Do this slowly. Start by exposing the cat to very low levels of the stimulus that do not evoke fear. Reward the cat for sitting quietly and calmly. Save all favoured rewards for these retraining sessions so that the cat is highly motivated to get the reward. The cat soon learns to expect rewards when placed in the cage and exposed to the stimulus. Gradually the stimulus intensity is increased. (See our Handout #6 on Counter-conditioning and Desensitisation). If the cat acts afraid during training it should be stopped. Set up the cat to succeed. Over time, the stimulus can be presented at closer distance, or in a louder or more animated manner. The situation may then need to be changed to advance the training. For example, if your cat is fearful of a particular person, once the person can sit beside the cage while your cat eats, the person could then attempt to feed the cat favoured treats through the bars of the cage. Next, the cat might eat and take rewards while out of the cage wearing a leash and harness if necessary, but go back to an increased distance to ensure success and safety. Over time the person can move closer at feeding times until he or she can give the cat its food. Cats that are fearful of other cats might be fed in two different cages in the same room. Once the cats will eat with the cages next to each other during feeding times, you could begin to keep one cat in the cage during feeding with one out, and alternate at future feedings. Next, both cats could be fed while out of the cages at a distance with one or both on halters and then progress to having the cats side-by-side at feedings. (Also see our Handout #42 on Territorial Aggression). This can then advance to play sessions, catnip and treat times, and other times when the cats could “enjoy” themselves in each other’s company.
Each time the cat experiences the fearful stimulus and reacts with fear, the behaviour is reinforced. Try and avoid the fear-producing stimulus, if possible. This may mean confining the cat when children visit, or the house is full of strangers. Drug therapy can also be useful to reduce fears and anxieties during times when the stimulus cannot be avoided.