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Calm the Fears of Your Scaredy-Cat

By Brad Kloza

Calm the Fears of Your Scaredy-Cat

Certified cat behavior consultant Marilyn Krieger has helped many felines overcome their fears, so few things surprise her. When she heard about a cat that was terrified of a couple’s bedroom, however, she had to make a house call.

“They had a big dark ceiling fan and a white ceiling,” she recalls. “The ceiling fan was freaking out the cat. That fan, when it moved, was like a predator from above.”

According to Krieger, the scared cat hid under the sofa for days, which could have led to other problems. Dr. E’Lise Christensen, an animal behaviorist at NYC Veterinary Specialists, agrees. Says Christensen: “Some frightened cats may urinate or defecate outside of the box. Some can even become extremely aggressive when fearful.”

The Connection Between Fear and Aggression

A 2008 study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association looked at cat aggression. Fear, specifically from loud noises or interactions with other cats, was the most common motivator. The aggressive behavior was also often directed at the cat’s owners.

“If you note that your cat is skittish, fearful or hiding during certain events, it’s worth working on teaching it to be comfortable,” advises Christensen.

Cat Behavior Training

To ease her kitty client’s ceiling fan fears, Krieger painted the black fan blades white for less contrast and did desensitizing sessions. She coaxed the cat near the room with treats on the floor and moved the fan blades a little at a time. The cat slowly became used to the fan’s movement, which also was now linked with something pleasant (a treat). Over time, the fearful association went away.

While it’s a good idea to have a cat behavior expert involved in behavior modification training, Christensen says if you identify the fear trigger, then you can gradually teach the cat to be comfortable. “The key here is not to move too fast,” she says. “Don’t try to make the cat just ‘get over it.’”

New Environments, New Cats

If you move to a new home, Krieger recommends immediately making a safe room for your cat. It should have a cat box, a place to sleep, food, water and a window so the cat can start to feel secure. It also helps to set up hiding places, like boxes turned toward the wall, to prevent your cat from hiding under the bed or couch.

If you have kittens, this is the optimal time to set the stage for a long life free of fear.

“The window of socialization closes early for kittens,” says Christensen. “As soon as you get a kitten, make sure that it’s exposed to triggers that might be problematic in the future. Have it interact with children, go on car rides, see the veterinarian for a low-key, treat-laden handling session and hang out with other cats or animals that you anticipate having in the environment. Make sure all sessions are short and fun for the kitten.”

Veterinarian Visits

Visits to the doctor are filled with anxiety for even the coolest cats. Krieger has a system that gives you the best chance at a successful trip.

First, avoid having your cat associate its carrier with fear. You can do this by leaving the carrier out in the house, with the top off, and filling it with a soft blanket and treats or toys. “This way, it’s part of the cat’s world,” says Krieger.

When you leave the house, cover the carrier’s top with a blanket. Leave it covered in the waiting room. Also, face the carrier away from other animal patients or put yourself between the carrier and these animals.

Finally, when you’re in the exam room, it’s important that no one grab the cat and drag it out of its carrier. Be sure to ask the veterinarian or technician to go slowly and take the top off the carrier first. Similar to combating other cat fears, the trick is to gradually familiarize your smart cat with the situation, easing its mind about what’s to come.

Brad Kloza is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Discover. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Cat.


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Posted on February 27, 2011

jill says: Our 10 month old is afraid of everything! If you sniff, he runs! He looks from side to side constantly as if he is watching for a predator. He spends almost all of his time under the dining room table, naps under beds and runs and hides at every noise.

Posted on November 7, 2010

Allie says: Just recently it is started to turn really cold at night at my house. I have an outside cat who is around 6 months old. We want to move her to our garage where it is a lot warmer but it scares her half to death. Any ideas?

Posted on October 12, 2010

Debbie says: New stray cat goes after our 5yr old cat. Our cat cowers away sometimes. New cat likes our dog. 5yr old cat sometimes will go after kitten. How do I get them to be friends?

Posted on October 11, 2010

patti carter says: i just want to say i adopted a stray from our spca who hid under the bed for days growls at thunder and pouring rain she is loving in her own way but will not let me pick her up or hold her either shes been here for over a year

Posted on September 22, 2010

Jannette says: We have 4-cats; the first three are neutered males, oldest is approx. 6-yrs, 5-yrs, 3-yrs, & a spayed female little over 1-year. The two youner males are bullies toward the oldest male...how can we stop the bully stuff & live in coroperation?

Posted on September 12, 2010

zette says: I have a stray cat that I have been feeding since June. My husband said the cat spent the winter in her workshop so he has been around for a while. The cat will not let me touch it. He is OK with my dog (schnauzer) and they sniff each other. The cat actually sits at the patio door and looks inside and did come in today only to dart back out after it came in about 5 ft. within the room. Do I just need to give it more time? I would love to take the cat to the vet and have spayed, wormed, shots etc. but I do not want to traumatize it by traping it. What do you suggest?

Posted on September 11, 2010

zette says: I have a stray cat I have been feeding since June. It will get within arms distance but will not let me touch or reach for it. I have a dog and they touched noses to sniff and that was OK. It seems very interested in us and will come to the door and look inside. I would like to domesticate the cat and take it to the vet. What do you suggest?

Posted on August 27, 2010

Nicole says: i have a cat that is loving and has been in our home for 2 years but she still doesn't like to be picked up. there are no children in the home and she is very well adjusted otherwise. She even high-fives when she wants to be pet. she is a rescue that was found in a dumpster, but i thought she would have gotten over her fears by now.

Posted on March 24, 2011

kinsey says: I seriosly need help my cat is so scared of everything that she's even afraid of me. she means the world to me and i do not want her to be afraid. and even if i am her favorite she scrathes me when i hold her and runs when i come around. i don't want my baby to be so scared of me. help

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