Fear in animals generalizes easily, and that’s particularly true in cats. That means they can experience something scary in the kitchen, like a glass crashing to the floor, and later become afraid of all linoleum flooring. Or they can go from fearing a particular object to fearing the entire room or location where the object first scared them. For example, a cat with a normal fear of a noisy appliance like a dishwasher can become afraid of the entire kitchen.
Fear that has generalized can be challenging for cat caretakers to deal with because it’s hard to understand why their cat is afraid. It’s important to realize that problems with using the litter box, scratching and aggression, and even excessive licking and hair pulling, can be symptoms of fear or anxiety. They can also indicate medical problems. These cats are not simply “neurotic,” and they’re not being spiteful or difficult on purpose.
If your cat has become aggressive toward you, keep in mind that aggression is often motivated by fear and anxiety. However, the behavior can also come from a type of aggression called “redirected aggression.” For more information about redirected aggression toward people, please see our article, Aggression in Cats. To help you determine whether your cat’s behaviors are due to fear or something else, please review the following section on signs of fear and anxiety. As with any serious behavior problem in cats or dogs, don’t hesitate to consult with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) for help assessing your cat’s behavior and determining appropriate treatment. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these experts in your area.
Signs of Fear and Anxiety in Your Cat
Hiding and avoidance (by escaping and running away) are two main ways that cats react to places or things that scare them. In addition to hiding, your cat might flatten her ears to the side or back against her head. She might crouch or curl up her body, tuck her tail under her body and hold her head and body low to the ground, even as she’s fleeing. Typically a fearful or anxious cat doesn’t vocalize. Other signs of fear you might notice are dilated pupils, shaking, freezing, drooling, panting, shedding hair, footpad sweating and, in extreme states of fear, urination or defecation.
To most cat parents, hiding or avoidance is not too troublesome unless their cat is hiding so much of the time that they can’t enjoy her company and interaction. Fearfulness can also cause cat parents problems if it leads to avoidance of the litter box. For example, if your cat is afraid of other pets in your home, she might avoid rooms or areas where their scents are. Or if she fears the washing machine and you have her litter box in the laundry room, your cat might well decide to avoid her litter box and find a less scary place to eliminate. In fact, if your cat has litter box problems, one of the first things to consider is fear or anxiety about the location of her box. For more information on litter box issues and how to resolve them, please see our article Litter Box Problems.
Causes of Feline Fear
- Fearful behaviors are common in cats, in part because most of us don’t socialize them as well as we do dogs, and we don’t expect them to be as active a part of our families. They stay in our homes and don’t go walking, driving or traveling with us as dogs often do, so they don’t become accustomed to a variety of places, sights, sounds and objects. This lack of experience makes them much more likely to fear new places and things they might occasionally encounter.
- Cats can also become fearful as a result of a traumatic experience—for example, hearing fireworks, gun fire or thunder; discomfort and stress experienced at the veterinary clinic; or social conflicts within their human family or among other family pets in the household. An intensely unpleasant or frightening event can lead to the development of lasting and pervasive fear.
- Some cats are naturally more fearful than others because of their inherited temperament. However, even cats with more fearful temperaments can and should be helped with treatment (please see more information below) so that their quality of life is good (for example, they’re not perpetually hiding) and their health and welfare are not compromised by chronic stress and fear.
- A variety of medical problems can cause behavioral changes in your cat. Cats can freeze or hide if they’re ill or in pain, and they can stop using their litter box because of any number of physical ailments, including urinary tract disease, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, urinary crystals, diabetes mellitus, parasites, hyperthyroidism, and more. Your first step in treating your cat’s fear should be to take her for a thorough veterinary exam to first rule out possible medical conditions that could be contributing to or causing her fearful behavior.
Managing Your Cat’s Fear
Management involves controlling your cat’s environment so that she’s not exposed to the thing or place she’s afraid of. You simply avoid letting her encounter the thing or place she fears. If she’s afraid of a room, just keep her out of it. If she’s afraid of other pets, you’ll need to keep your companion animals separated from each other temporarily. It’s also crucial during management and treatment that you don’t make your cat’s fears worse by punishment. Imagine if you were afraid of something and your family got mad at you and yelled at you because of your fear. Your fear would certainly not get better, and you would only feel more miserable!
Reducing or Resolving Your Cat’s Fear
Regardless of the original cause of your cat’s fears, your goal is to retrain your cat to feel comfortable around the things or places she fears. One of the most common treatments for fears and phobias in animals is desensitization combined with counterconditioning (DSCC). For more information about these effective but complex treatments and guidelines for their successful use, please see our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning. In a nutshell, desensitization means to gradually reduce your pet’s sensitivity to the object or location she fears, and counterconditioning means to teach her a new, pleasant association to replace the old, unpleasant association she already has.
Below are sample steps for treating a fictional cat who’s afraid of the basement. Please keep in mind that this is a sample protocol only. To be effective, treatment steps must be tailored to your cat, her environment and her particular fears. Because treatment must progress and change according to your pet’s reactions, and because these reactions can be difficult to read and interpret, systematic desensitization and counterconditioning are most effective under the guidance of trained professionals, such as Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs or ACAABs) or veterinary behaviorists (Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behavior, Dip ACVB).
Sample DSCC Treatment Steps
- Try to identify what’s making your cat afraid. Let’s say it’s the basement where your clothes washer and dryer are. You talk with your family, and one of your children reminds you that your cat was in the basement once when the hose broke in the middle of the wash cycle. There was a loud noise as the hose popped out, and water shot everywhere. You recall that your cat’s fear of the basement started soon after that incident.
Now you’re ready to identify your starting point for treatment exercises. Where exactly does your cat begin to show fear: once she’s already in the basement, when she’s midway down the steps, or when she’s at the doorway to the stairs to the basement? Let’s say her fear begins at the doorway. Start your treatment one foot outside of the doorway, in a spot where she shows no stress or fear.
- Encourage or call your cat to come to the spot one foot away from the door, and feed her several special treats when she gets there. Talk softly to her and pet her, then feed her several more treats. The treats should be food she loves and rarely gets, like bits of tuna, chicken or hamburger. If she’s a playful cat, you might try playing with her with her favorite toy instead of treating her on that spot. Give treats or play, whichever you think will make her feel happiest.
- After a few minutes of treats or play, move away from the basement and stop treating or playing with your cat. Just ignore her. (Whichever treats or toys you choose for this treatment, be sure to use them only for this special treatment, not in any other context or at any other time.)
- Continue with these steps of (a) treating or playing with your cat near the basement door, and (b) stopping the treats and play as soon as she moves away. Practice them at least once or twice a day at unpredictable times (for example, sometimes midday, sometimes in the early morning or sometimes right after work). Keep this up for several days or weeks until she comes readily when you call her to that special spot in anticipation of the fun times she’s learned to associate with this spot.
- Now call your cat to a spot a right inside the doorway and treat or play with her there. Keep up these exercises until again she comes eagerly when you call or encourage her there and enjoys her treats or play in this new spot. Over a period of weeks of doing these exercises once or twice daily, keep moving very gradually in baby steps further down the stairs and into the basement, making sure never to provoke her fear. Only after several days of treatment sessions, when she’s clearly comfortable and happy in a certain spot, should you move closer to the basement.
- Once she comes readily when called all the way down into the basement, start very gradually moving closer to the washer. Over time, once your cat has become quite comfortable being near the washer when it’s not running, you can gradually introduce the running washer to your cat again. Restart the exercises from the doorway, but this time have the washer running as you play with or treat your cat in the doorway to the basement, then later on the stairway, and finally in the basement itself.
Sometimes it’s not possible to sufficiently control your cat’s exposure to something she fears to the degree that desensitization requires, ensuring that no fear is provoked as you progress gradually in baby steps. In these cases, counterconditioning alone, without desensitization, can be effective, especially with mild fears. For example, let’s say that you bring home a new piece of furniture or an object like an umbrella or wheelchair, and your cat takes one look and goes into hiding. Your first step might be to just give your cat some time. Cats investigate things more slowly than dogs. Whereas a dog would run up to the new object and investigate immediately, a cat might hide for awhile, then move back into sight where she can stare at the object for hours, and then finally approach to investigate and sniff around. So leave the new item out for hours or a few days, and teach your cat a pleasant association with it by leaving treats on or around it. Tuna juice rubbed right on a new object can go a long way toward convincing your cat that the new object is something to be enjoyed, not feared!
Fear of the Veterinary Clinic
Counterconditioning can also be used to help your cat feel more comfortable at the veterinarian’s office if she’s afraid there. Even if you can’t control her exposures to the vet’s office in such a gradual way that she never feels fear, you can still acclimate her while teaching her that vet visits are overall pleasant experiences because she gets delicious treats or fun games to play and enjoys attention from friendly people there. For no medical reason at all, but simply for socialization and counterconditioning, take your cat to your vet’s office a couple times a month and make sure she gets special treats or a favorite toy while visiting there, as well as attention and petting by the office staff and veterinary technicians. These nonmedical visits build a positive association in your cat’s mind and can go a long way toward helping her feel more comfortable during medical exams and treatments. If your cat doesn’t readily accept being transported in a crate, please see our article, Teaching Your Cat to Ride in a Carrier, for more information.
Using medication to ease your cat’s fear and speed up your treatment exercises may be advisable in certain situations, such as when you can’t control or prevent your cat’s exposure to something she fears intensely and so you can’t even start your first step in desensitization or counterconditioning. Drugs that veterinarians prescribe for fears and phobias include anti-anxiety drugs (such as alprazolam or buspirone), antidepressants (such as clomipramine or fluoxetine), or a combination of these. For additional information on medications for cats, please see our article Behavioral Medications for Cats. You’ll need to consult with a veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) who can work closely with your regular veterinarian to determine an appropriate medication and dose. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these professionals in your area.
Preventing Fears of Objects and Places
Cats tend to react to new things—or familiar things in a new location—as if they’re quite startling. However, if a cat has been exposed to that thing in the past, she’ll be more likely recover from her concern quickly—before it develops into a fear or phobia. Many fears can be prevented or minimized through exposure to many other animals, a variety of people, places, situations, objects and noises when a cat is young. This exposure is known as socialization. A cat’s sensitive period of socialization, however, occurs when she’s quite young, from two to seven weeks of age. During this period, pleasant exposure to things has a strong and long-lasting impact, making cats feel comfortable and relaxed on into adulthood about the things they had pleasant experiences with when they were young. Most cat guardians don’t get their kittens that young, though. Still, cats can and should continue to be socialized after this period, but progress will be slower and more limited.
What NOT to Do
- Avoid a “See, it won’t hurt you” approach to resolving your cat’s fears. This technique, known as flooding, is only useful for very mild fears. It involves exposing your cat to the thing or place she fears—by keeping her near the object or in the room she fears—until her fearful reaction dissipates and she relaxes. For anything more than the mildest fears, however, flooding causes enormous stress and often backfires, making the cat’s fears even worse.
- Avoid punishing your cat for being afraid, even if she shows her fear through threatening or aggressive behaviors like hissing, growling, swatting, scratching or biting. Punishment will only heighten her fear and anxiety and can provoke more serious aggression.
- Avoid trying to pet or touch your fearful cat to reassure her. In a state of fear, many cats become defensive and even aggressive. They could bite anyone who tries to touch them. Your cat will feel better if you just allow her to avoid the situation or hide rather than if you try to reassure her.