Scaredy Cats: Fear of the Animate
Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, DACVB
President & CEO | Center for Canine Behavior Studies
There are some cats that seem to be frightened of almost everything unfamiliar, including people and other cats. They hide when people come over, especially tradesmen, shy away from other cats, and in general are much better when sequestered with the few people or other cats that they have accepted into their inner sanctum. According to one scientific classification of feline personalities, such cats would be deemed as having “low sociability” – i.e. they don’t get on well with other living things. The question arises, why would a cat become so fearful? The answer, as usual, is because of a synergy between their nature and their nurture. Some cats are set up to become fearful by virtue of their genetic makeup. One or other parents or grandparent was likely excessively fearful and the transfer of “fear-sensitizing” genes to the offspring leads to an increased tendency to develop excessive fearfulness. This said, the genetic component does not appear to play such an important role as the dominating influence of early environmental experiences where fears are concerned. Even a cat that is genetically prone to excessive fearfulness may not develop fears of problematic proportions if it is properly managed. Conversely, if a genetically sound cat is improperly raised, under socialized, and exposed to aversive encounters with people or other cats during a critical phase of development, it can become so fearful as to be dysfunctional.
The all-important role of learning
The sensitive period for learning in cats is between 2 – 7 weeks of age. During this early period of life, cats learn their social Ps and Qs and can develop lifelong acceptances of people, other cats, dogs, birds, mice, almost whatever, as long as the circumstances are engineered to be pleasant and non-threatening. It is as if they open their young eyes and see the world as it will be and accept it. During the latter part of the sensitive period kittens start to develop natural and necessary apprehension about things with which they are not familiar. Without fear they would be at great risk from all of life’s dangers so this component of learning is just as important as the seemingly more positive aspects. To circumvent the development of unnecessary and subsequently problematic animate fears the trick is to get people (strangers) and other animals in under the rapidly closing wire of the socialization phase.
How fearfulness appears
When a cat is frightened of someone it has one of several ways in which it can respond to that fear-inducing person (or cat). The cat may either:
Press itself against a wall (thigmotaxic behavior)
[Cats do not have the canine attribute of being able to signal appeasement to defuse a stressful or fear-inducing encounter.]
Because catecholamines are released during fearfulness, affected cat’s pupils dilate, their heart rates and blood pressure increase and their hair stands on end (piloerection). The latter can create a larger-than-life appearance and the notorious big bushy tail.
A brain region called the amygdala is the central repository for learned fearfulness and seems to function like a camera, retaining images of fearful cues. One or two regions within the amygdala are involved in memorization of visual images, e.g. angry face, while another is more closely linked to fear of noises. The amygdala activates the hypothalamus and brain stem regions involved in manifestations of the specific signs of fear. A brain region, the locus coeruleus, is also activated during fearfulness in freely moving cats. Glutamatergic and noradrenergic pathways are intimately involved in transmission of impulses governing cats’ fearful responses.
Prevention is better than cure. Raise all kittens ensuring frequent (daily) handling and optimal social exposure, especially during the first 7 weeks of life.
Counterconditioning. Arrange for strangers to come bearing gifts for the fearful cat. Delicious food works well for a hungry cat. The way to a cat’s heart is through its stomach. The more strangers that feed the cat the less frightened of them it will be.
Desensitization. If a cat is too frightened to take even dropped or tossed food treats from a stranger, the next step is to engage a desensitization program. This entails:
Shielding the cat from any uncontrolled exposure to people of which it is frightened
Introducing strangers at a distance so that they are less threatening (it may be necessary to use a harness or cat carrier to ensure that the cat stays within eyesight)
Encouraging the cat to eat or play in the person’s presence
Gradually, stepwise, reducing the distance between the stranger and the cat
Medication. In advanced or refractory cases, it is helpful to alter a cat’s perception of the subject of which it is fearful. This can be achieved using either the anxiety-reducing drug BuSpar (buspirone) or a mood stabilizing anti-depressant. Clomicalm (clomipramine) or Prozac (fluoxetine) are probably best. BuSpar seems to make cats less anxious, more confident, more outgoing, friendlier, and more playful. It is extremely safe, virtually non-toxic, but side effects include an occasional “paradoxical” response of increased activity. Prozac is indicated for the treatment of “social phobia” in people and it seems to work just as well for social phobia in cats.
Fear is a natural and functional response to a fear-inducing stimulus. If we, or our cats, were frightened of nothing, we would soon wind up in deep water. When we talk about fearfulness as a behavior problem, we are referring to excessive fearfulness, or what our medical colleagues would refer to as a phobia. A phobia is an excessive and seemingly irrational fear – one that is unnecessary and dysfunctional not, in reality, protective. When a cat is extremely frightened by visitors, whether people or other cats, it is not always the owner’s problem because the cat simply hides. It is, however, a problem for the cat if there is any number of visitors. Cowering upstairs under a bed for hours at a time is no way to enjoy life. These anti-social, nervous Nellies of cats are often created by our ignorance of their needs and education. The condition of excessive fearfulness, however, once fully developed, can to some extent be undone. Eliminating challenging exposure to fear-inducing circumstances and working on desensitization, with or without counterconditioning, can go a long way toward relieving some of these cats’ misapprehensions. For the refractory few there’s always medication, which on its own can be quite effective in reducing fears through a process known as pharmacological desensitization. The idea is that modern medications do not affect memory so if a cat is allowed to face its nemesis on numerous occasions without feeling threatened (and without adverse consequences) it will learn not to be scared. This theory often pans out well and many a scaredy cat has been rehabilitated through this process. One last point is that fearfulness, once learned, is never unlearned though it can be buried under the weight of new learning. However, if the original fear-inducing stimulus presents itself at full intensity or in association with aversive consequences, the whole card house of new learning falls down. Keeping fears in check can be a precarious business.