Cats and kittens may exhibit fearful behavior for a number of reasons. For some, the tendency to be anxious and fearful is inherited, especially from the father. Others may exhibit fear because of insufficient social or environmental experience. Even though cats are domestic animals, they need frequent and pleasant social handling from people during the early weeks of life to be comfortable with humans. Lack of environmental experience during the early months can also cause problems. Kittens that are raised in a rural environment may have difficulty adjusting to the hustle and bustle of city life. Traumatic experiences such as rough handling, punishment, or scary events may also cause fearful behavior. Some cats become more anxious when moved to a new home or when there are changes in the home. And last, pain or chronic discomfort can affect a cat’s temperament and lead to fear and avoidance behaviors. For that reason it is important to take a fearful cat, especially a newly fearful cat, to the veterinarian for a checkup before beginning behavior modification.
No matter what the cause, the goal is to change the negative association with unfamiliar people and fearful situations to one that is positive. This can be accomplished by repeatedly introducing your cat to a person—from a distance—when he is relaxed and gradually decreasing the distance between him and the person. This process of repeated exposure that results in less anxiety is called desensitization. By combing introductions with something the pet likes, such as food or play, you can change the emotional response; this is known as counter-conditioning.
You must go slowly and not make the mistake of pushing your at into uncomfortable situations. For example, allowing people to come up and reach for a pet that is nervous and distressed will usually make matters worse. Some cats may even become aggressive when frightened.
Anything you do that your cat construes as unpleasant may worsen this fear and anxiety. Do not raise your voice, act anxious, or use punishment of any type. During the training period, your pet should be protected from any overwhelming situations. For example, you might confine your cat to a quiet room during noisy social gatherings or when active children are in the home. Keep in mind that most cats adapt more quickly to social situations if they have some freedom and control, and holding pets tightly when someone approaches usually makes them more nervous. However, make sure visitors are safe by confining your cat if he appears aggressive.
Pay attention to what makes your pet most anxious. Cats hide, vocalize, arch their back, hiss, and hold their ears back when anxious, so when you see these reactions try to identify the cause. Once you recognize things that make your cat anxious, avoid them in your initial training sessions. Your goal is to slowly raise your cat’s tolerance to people and situations that currently make him nervous and fearful.
The first thing you can do to make your cat more comfortable with unfamiliar people is to instruct visitors how to act around him. The less threatening a person appears to your pet, the better. Ask visitors to sit or squat low to the floor, making little or no eye contact. They should speak quietly, move slowly, avoid initiating touch, and allow your cat to approach when ready.
You may have noticed that certain things about a person make your pet exceptionally anxious, such as gender, facial hair, eyeglasses, hats, tone of voice, or simply the proximity to your cat. Avoid those characteristics during your initial training sessions. For example, if your cat is more afraid of men, begin counter-conditioning sessions with women. If your cat dislikes children, start with adults. Slowly add accessories such as hats, large purses, sunglasses, and backpacks. Over time, introduce your cat to stronger stimuli, including more eye contact, faster movement, various tones of voice, and closer distances.
To lessen your pet’s anxiety, you need to associate something exceptionally special with the presence of people. The aim is to replace your pet’s feelings of fear with a happy anticipation of good things. Special food treats can be very helpful. Be sure to select treats or bits of food that your cat thinks are absolutely fabulous—small pieces of chicken, meat, tuna, cheese, shrimp, and freeze-dried fish are good choices. To fully enhance the association, these treats should be given only during conditioning sessions. At first, give the treats when your cat enters the room with the visitor there. Next, have the visitor calmly flip treats to your pet with minimum hand movement. Gradually have the visitor flip them closer so your cat has to approach the person to retrieve the treat. Without reaching toward your pet, the visitor can allow your cat to come up and sniff or take food from an open hand. For cats who really enjoy playing, toys may be another alternative for making a positive association with a stranger.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning also can be helpful for reducing fear of inanimate things, such as objects and noises. For example, if your kitten becomes frightened when a kitchen timer beeps, cover the timer with a towel to produce a sound so quiet that your pet looks toward it without fear. Then toss your pet a treat. Repeat this again and again, uncovering the timer little by little. Eventually your cat will look forward to the noise because he ahs become conditioned to expect something good after hearing it.
A similar approach can be taken with a pet that becomes afraid when you carry objects, such as large garbage bags. Take several bags that are so small they do not make the cat anxious and place them in locations around the home next to containers of tasty treats. Whenever you walk by, pick up a bad and toss a treat to your cat. When you can tell that your cat gets excited whenever you pick up a bag, increase the size of the bags and repeat.
Commercial pheromone products are safe and may effectively help relieve anxiety in some cats. For severe cases, anti-anxiety medication can be helpful. You may want to discuss these options with your veterinarian.
Some fearful cats will display intense aggression instead of avoidance. If this is the case with your pet, your veterinarian may suggest referral to a specialist who can develop a treatment plan for these more serious problems.
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