Feline Fears and Phobias

  Cats do not present for fearful behaviors nearly as frequently as dogs, although as a species they are probably every bit as fearful.  However, when faced with a fear-inducing stimulus the cat’s natural tendency is to flee, and hide.  In this way they tend to deal with their fears, and not lay them at their owner’s feet as dogs do.

  Fear is a normal adaptive behavior, and is marked by apprehension associated with the presence or proximity of a particular object, individual or social situation.  It is mediated via noradrenergic, serotonergic and GABA-ergic neurotransmitter systems, and there is also evidence of dopaminergic involvement.  Whether fear is normal or abnormal depends upon the context.  Fears are mostly learned behaviors, and can, with appropriate exposure gradually be unlearned.  Phobias are profound fears that do not extinguish with gradual exposure or over time.  An intact amygdala is needed to learn fears, and a forebrain to unlearn them.  It is postulated that fears result from a chronically switched-on amygdala, which doesn’t turn off after the threat has passed.


Animate fears - fear of people:

  This is probably the most common fear for which cats will be presented.  The cat is generally afraid of its family, or certain members of the family.  Inadequate socialization in early life, particularly as seen in feral cats, is more frequently the cause than abuse, although owners are more likely to suspect the latter.  As for all fears, the goals of treatment are to prevent further fear inducing experiences, desensitize the cat to its fear and build the cat’s confidence. 

  In the case of fear of people, the desensitization technique has to be habituation.  The cat has to desensitize itself to the feared person, and gradually approach him.  In order for the cat to treat itself, it has to be rewarded for the approach.  Highly palatable food is usually the best motivator, although in some cases toys provide a greater inducement.  If food is to be used, the cat should not be fed for several hours prior to treatment sessions.  Owners or other people of whom the cat is afraid, armed with bags of treats - something to read during what is likely to be a tedious operation may also be an advantage - enter the room in which the cat has comfortably hidden itself, and close the door.  They should sit as far away from the cat as physically possible given the room’s layout.  Food treats are lobbed to lie just outside the cat’s hideout.  Owners may find that it may be days or weeks before a really fearful cat will even put out a paw to hook a food treat, but patience is the name of the game.  Once the cat is picking up the closest treats, throw some to land a little further out, so the cat must partially emerge to snag them.  Treats will gradually be dropped closer and closer to the people.  Behavior tends to change plateau fashion.  When my colleague’s wife brought home a presumably feral cat and one of its kittens, it took about a week before they got the first response.  After a month, the cat was confidently coming out and taking food dropped on the floor.  After another month she’d jump onto the couch and take food from her owners’ hands, and after another month was climbing into their laps for petting.  After further sessions introducing her to strangers in similar fashion, this cat is now fairly well adjusted, and does not flee at the entry of her owners or strangers.  She will come when called and sit on command for food.  Her daughter was initially very comfortable with her new owners and strangers, but gradually became more fearful.  In retrospect, her owner feels he should have started behavior modification with her at the first signs of a problem.  When attempted later, the behavior modification technique had limited success.  It is impossible to tell at this point whether her behavior was learned from observing her mother or resulted from failure to encounter humans during the critical period from the second to eighth week of life.  Many shelters will not accept older kittens taken from the wild, because they are notoriously difficult to socialize.  During this period, particularly during the latter half, any adverse experience will have a particularly profound effect, but fear of the unknown seems hard wired.  Whenever possible the cat runs away from what it fears.  If it cannot run, it shows signs of fear or redirected aggression.  This is necessary behavior for survival in the wild.  Given an experienced owner with infinite patience, first generation feral cats can be rehabilitated after the critical learning period.  Buspirone given while the cat is being rehabilitated can be very helpful.  Gradual withdrawal of the drug, once new behavior patterns have been established, does not lead to loss of the newfound sociability.

  Fear of the veterinarian is a very common problem.  In many cases, the cat has every reason to be fearful.  I recommend owners start well kitten socialization early.  Accustom the cat to its carrier and car travel, praise, play and give treats in the carrier and car for good behavior.  Dropping by the vet’s office when things are quiet so the staff can play and make a fuss of the kitten will make subsequent visits for shots and less pleasurable procedures more acceptable.  Cats fitted with harnesses and leashes may enjoy walks and new environments with their owners, provided things don’t get too exciting in the form of encounters with dogs, humans and large motorized vehicles.

  When fearful cats need veterinary treatment, desensitization is not a viable option.  Alprazolam works quickly, and is generally the drug of choice.  It can produce a paradoxical increase in aggression in some cats, however, and cats should be approached with care.  Feliway sprayed in the exam rooms or on beds and in cages may reduce cats’ fears and make them easier to handle.

Fear of other cats

  This frequently leads to intraspecies or redirected aggression - depending on the accessibility of the other cat - as well as spraying.  Care should be taken when introducing cats to each other.  The process is similar to that of introducing the cat to feared humans.  Cats should be able to see each other, but separated, and unable to fight.  In this situation, they should be fed, and played with.  Gradually, they should be brought closer together.  In the meantime, by rotating rooms, it should be possible to acclimate the cats to each other’s scent.  There should always be some means of escape available for the cat.  Medicating the fearful cat with buspirone may again be helpful.  It may also be beneficial to treat the dominant cat with fluoxetine.  Fear of dogs may also be overcome by gradual desensitization.

Inanimate fears

  Anything that a cat associates with a previously unpleasant experience or anything that is unfamiliar and potentially threatening can become an object of fear.  For the cat frightened of the vet, the cat carrier and the car, white coats and veterinary offices all become inanimate fears, before the vet is even introduced.  Desensitization is usually successful.  To this end feeding the cat in the carrier and/or car, can produce fairly speedy results.  Short trips down the drive and back and then around the block, rather than lengthy ones, should be attempted at first.  Just starting the car and turning it off, may be all a cat can handle initially. 

  I’ve never had a cat present for thunderstorm phobia, I expect they run and hide, although they might also be expected to mark or void if they are scared.  If they ever do present, I have found tapes of thunderstorms used for desensitization are rarely effective for dogs, probably because it is not just the sounds of the storm that are causing the problem.  Homeopathic treatments for the condition in dogs abound, and some owners resort to TCAs and SSRIs, but I do not feel it is generally appropriate to medicate an animal constantly to cope with a rare occurrence.  I have had considerable success in treating dogs with melatonin for thunderstorm phobia.  Surprisingly they do not sleep usually, but lay relaxed but aware through the storm.  I would certainly try the approach if presented with a cat that was afraid of thunderstorms or fireworks.  The hormone is very safe, and I have seen no side effects with my canine patients.  I use a canine dose of 3mg for an average sized dog, 1.5mg for anything under 25lbs, and may increase the dose to 6mg if they’re over 100lbs.  For a cat, I’d probably start with about 0.75mg.  Dose to be repeated as needed up to three times a day.  One effect that I am beginning to see, is that dogs can actually learn to overcome the effects of thunderstorm phobia on melatonin.  Dogs sometimes present which are fearful of surfaces (especially linoleum or polished wood) or stairs, but I have not seen such fears in a cat.

Situational fears

  Once again the vet’s office and the circumstances leading up to getting there, are the most frequently encountered problems.  Cat’s do have separation anxiety, but rarely are presented for this reason.  However, I suspect that this is the cause of a lot of marking behavior, whether scratching or inappropriate elimination.  Some cats are less discrete, like the cat that vomited on the white wall to wall carpet every time the owner left.  In that case, simply turning the radio on - the cat preferred country stations - was curative.  Confining the cat that exhibits inappropriate elimination or scratching during the owner’s absence may be helpful in managing the problem.  Desensitization is again the order of the day.  Habituate the cat to procedures associated with the owner leaving - putting on outdoor clothes, picking up the car keys etc.  Owners should then go out and come straight back in, gradually move farther, and stay out longer.  Cars should be started and switched off. Then gradually taken further afield etc.  Disorders of attachment are probably mediated via monoamine and opioid systems.  TCAs and SSRIs may be useful in speeding up the desensitization process.  Some cats are comforted by the radio or television in their owner’s absence, for other’s repeating tapes of owner activity and voices may be soothing.  For dogs, we often suggest the owner include commands for the dog, but in most cases this is probably not going to be helpful advice for the cat owner!  Leaving toys such as kibble stuffed into a hollow sterile bone, Kong toy or cardboard tube with some Cheez Whiz or something to hold it in place, may occupy cats attention during the owner’s absence.   The toy should be presented to the cat 10-20 minutes the owner leaves.

   Propranolol (2.5-5.0mg/cat PO q 8-12h) may help cats with mild situational fears, cats should respond within 60 minutes.  Urinary incontinence has been reported as a side effect.  For more severe fear, long-term treatment with buspirone may be attempted.