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Thursday, November 16, 2006

All About Fearful Behavior In Cats

When cats feel threatened, they usually respond in three ways to
the object, person or situation they perceive as a threat: fight,
flee or freeze. Some cats become so frightened they lose control
of their bladder or bowels and eliminate right where they are.
Each cat has his/her preferred way of dealing with a crisis.

You’ll notice that your cat probably tends to try one option
first, and if that doesn’t work, she’s forced to try a different
option. For instance, if your cat is afraid of dogs and a friend
brings his dog to your home to visit, you might notice the
following: first, your cat puffs out her fur to make herself look
big, then hisses and spits at the dog. If the dog doesn’t
retreat, your cat may flee the situation, find a hiding spot, and
freeze until she deems the situation safe.

Your Cat May Show The Following Behaviors When She Is Fearful

Aggression (spitting, hissing, growling, piloerection, swatting,
biting, scratching)

Loss of control over bladder and/or bowels

Freezing in place

It’s normal for you to want to help and comfort your cat when
she’s frightened. However, this isn’t necessarily the best thing
to do from your cat’s point of view. It’s normal for a cat to
feel insecure or frightened in a new environment. Often, your new
cat will hide for a day or two when you first bring her home.
Sometimes a traumatic experience like a visit to the
veterinarian, or introducing a new animal into the household, can
disrupt her routine and send her under the bed for a few days.

What Causes Fearful Behavior?

You’ll need to closely observe your cat to determine the trigger
for her fearful behavior. Keep in mind that just because you know
that the person or animal approaching your cat has good
intentions, doesn’t mean that she feels safe. The trigger for her
fearful behavior could be anything. Some common triggers are:

A particular person

A stranger

Another animal

A child

Loud noises

What You Can Do

Take the following steps to reduce your cat’s anxiety and help
her become more confident:

First, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for a
thorough physical examination to rule out any medical reasons for
your cat’s fearful behavior. Cats don’t always act sick, even
when they are. Any sudden behavior change could mean that your
cat is ill and should be taken seriously. Some common symptoms
that your cat may be ill are aggressiveness, hiding and
eliminating outside of the litter box.

If your cat is healthy, but hiding, leave her alone. She’ll come
out when she’s ready. To force her out of her hiding spot will
only make her more fearful. Make sure she has easy access to
food, water and her litter box from her hiding place. Clean the
litter box and change the food and water every day so you know
whether she is eating and drinking.

Keep any contact with the fear stimulus to a minimum.

Keep your cat’s routine as regular as possible. Cats feel more
confident if they know when to expect daily feeding, playing,
cuddling and grooming.

Try to desensitize your cat to the fear stimulus:

Determine what distance your cat can be from the fear stimulus
without responding fearfully.

Introduce the fear stimulus at this distance while you’re feeding
your cat tasty treats and praising her.

Slowly move the fear stimulus closer as you continue to praise
your cat and offer her treats.

If at any time during this process your cat shows fearful
behavior, you’ve proceeded too quickly and will need to start
over from the beginning. This is the most common mistake people
make when desensitizing an animal, and it can be avoided by
working in short sessions, paying careful attention to your cat
so that you don’t progress too rapidly for her.

You may need help from a professional animal behavior specialist
with the desensitization process.

A Note About Aggression in Cats

If your cat is threatening you, another person or an animal, you
should seek help from a professional animal behavior specialist.
To keep everyone safe in the meantime, confine your cat to an
area of the house where all interactions with her are kept to a
minimum and are supervised by a responsible person.

What Not To Do

Don’t punish your cat for her fearful behavior. Animals associate
punishment with what they’re doing at the time they’re punished,
so your cat is likely to associate any punishment you give her
with you. This will only cause her to become fearful of you and
she still won’t understand why she’s being punished.

Don’t force her to experience the object or situation that is
causing her fear. For example, if she is afraid of a certain
person, don’t let that person try to pick her up and hold her.
This will only make her more frightened of that person.

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