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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.”
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.