Chris Kouwenhoven

Working with the fearful cat

Most cats can be successfully treated for fearful behavior if the cause of the fear can be determined, reduced and gradually presented to the cat during desensitization and counterconditioning exercises. Once the fear- nducing stimulus is identified, the cat can be exposed to it at a very low level at first, a level that does not produce anxiety, and in subsequent sessions, at progressively higher levels. The goal is for the cat to learn to associate pleasure, rather than fear, with the stimulus. This process is facilitated with highly palatable food treats given to the cat during each step of the retraining program. The key to success is patience, taking the necessary time to work with the cat without pushing him into stressful situations.

There are two ways of conducting a desensitization program: the active process of reexposure and the passive approach. The active approach is very effective with kittens under 12 weeks of age. It may involve sitting with the frightened kitten on your lap and tenderly stroking the top of its head until it relaxes. If the kitten is feral or if it poses a threat to the handler, then a towel can be gently wrapped around its body with only its head exposed. Speaking to the cat in a quiet, soothing voice will accelerate the process. It is crucial that the handler not put the kitten back in its cage or special room until there is a clear sign of relaxation, however small. If the session ends with the kitten hissing and spitting, then the kitten has only learned that persistence pays off. A delicious food treat or meal should always be the finale. The handler should stay near the kitten while it is eating.

No time can be lost when socializing a kitten, as the most sensitive period for socialization occurs during the kitten's first 4 to 7 weeks. This is the period when kittens most easily develop attachments with people as well with members of their own and other species. After this period, the ability to develop a trusting relationship with members of any species rapidly declines. If the kitten has had no human contact before it reaches 12 weeks of age, it is unlikely that the cat will ever live comfortably with people, though it may learn to trust its caretaker.

Another method that can be used while implementing the active approach, is to place the kitten or cat in a large wire cage when it is not being handled. The cage should be large enough to accommodate a litterbox on one end, food and water on the other end, and a bed in between. When first acclimating the cat or kitten to the home environment, the cage should be placed in a very quiet room. (For very stressed cats, a cloth can be draped over part of the cage; for kittens, a 3-sided box placed in the cage will provide a much-needed sense of security.) As the cat or kitten begins to relax and show some interest in its surroundings, the cage can be placed in rooms where there is more household activity. Cats that have been living outside have to adjust to living in a whole new world of sights, sounds, and smells. Their behavior repertoire consists of instinctive responses that will insure their survival. This means hissing and spitting with all of the defensive body language that goes along with it whenever something new or different presents itself.

The passive approach to desensitization, often referred to as "habituation", involves allowing the cat to approach the feared stimulus at its own speed. No physical restraint is used. This method is generally better suited to the adult cat. It takes longer, but there is less risk of injury to the individual working with the cat. In Dr. Nicholas Dodman's book, The Cat Who Cried for Help, he describes the slow, but eventually rewarding, process by which he and his wife reformed a deeply mistrustful and fearful cat named "Cinder".

"Basically, she never came out from under the furniture and was rarely seen unless she was scurrying from one hiding place to the next...Some days we could tell we had cats only by the fact that the food we put down disappeared and from the telltale signs in the litterbox."

Dr. Dodman relates how they spent time every evening in the room where Cinder hid, just sitting on a couch on the opposite side of the room reading, and occasionally tossing her a food treat. To insure her interest in the treats, they removed her food bowl a few hours earlier. During a period of months she gradually became bolder about retrieving the treats until she was finally taking food from their hands and sitting on their laps wanting to be petted.

Even after this was accomplished, she was still terrified when visitors came into the home. "The cure for this was along similar lines: gradual exposure and pleasant consequences. We never forced her to meet anyone she didn't want to and simply allowed her to make friends at her own pace, rewarding every step of the way."

Sometimes cat owners inadvertently contribute to fearful behaviors by trying to calm the cat when it is anxious. This generally results in only reinforcing the anxious response. Attempting to introduce a nervous pet to a visitor or another fearful stimulus by carrying it toward it, makes the cat feel trapped and increases its fear, sometimes injuring the handler in its attempts to get away. The memory of the bad feeling the cat experienced is then added to the original fearful stimulus.

When a cat's fear is unusually strong and exposure to the fearful stimulus cannot be controlled, anxiety-reducing drugs, such as Buspirone, are sometimes prescribed to help reduce the cat's fear to a point where behavior modification can take place.

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