by Nomi Berger
Like people, pets deal with stress in their own particular way. Fear can turn any cat into a fraidy cat, instinctively triggering the fight, flight or freeze response in them. And while some fear-induced behaviors are acceptable and manageable, OVERLY anxious cats require assistance from their caring cat guardians in the form of training, patience, and, above all, love.
The signs that your cat is afraid include: running away, hiding, freezing in place, aggression (spitting, hissing, growling, swatting, biting, scratching, puffing fur and tail, arching back, swishing tail and flattening ears), losing control of her bladder or bowels, and refusing to use the litter box.
To reduce your frightened feline’s anxiety and to help her become more confident, begin by observing your kitty closely to determine the specific trigger(s) for her fearful behavior. Some of the most common triggers are the approach of a certain person or stranger, an active child or another animal, a new environment and loud noises.
Next, bring your cat to the vet for a thorough physical examination to rule out any medical causes for her behavior. Cats don’t always “act” ill, even when they are, and any sudden behavioral changes may signal that your cat is, in fact, sick. These changes can include hiding, eliminating outside the litter box, and aggressiveness.
If your cat is, thankfully, healthy but still hiding, simply leave her alone. She’ll come out of her hiding place when she’s ready, whereas forcing her to come out will have the reverse effect, and make her even more fearful. Ensure that she has easy access to her bowls of food and water, and her litter box. Change the food and water, and clean the litter box every day to ascertain whether or not she’s eating, drinking and eliminating.
Keep all contact with her specific “fear stimulus” to a minimum while keeping her routine as consistent as possible. Cats feel more confident if they know when to expect their daily feeding and playing, cuddling and grooming.
Then work to de-sensitize your cat to the object of her fear by following these steps:
* Determine the distance between your cat and that negative stimulus (be it a person or another pet) at which she seems most comfortable, without responding fearfully.
* Introduce the two at precisely this distance while feeding your cat tasty treats and lavishing her with praise.
* Slowly narrow the gap between you, while continuing to praise your cat and to offer her treats.
* If, at any time, your cat exhibits some fearful behavior, you’ve proceeded too quickly and must begin again – from the beginning.
* To avoid this, work in short sessions only, paying close attention to your cat’s signals, and, essentially, following her lead.
Whatever else you do, do NOT punish your cat for her fearful behavior. Because animals associate punishment with what they’re doing AT THE TIME they’re being punished, your cat is likely to associate the punishment with YOU. The result? She will become fearful of YOU without ever understanding WHY she’s being punished.
Never force your cat to “experience” the source of her fear. Example? If she’s afraid of a particular person, don’t let that person attempt to pick her up and hold her. This will only make your cat MORE afraid of that person.
And, most importantly, take care when handling your cat when she’s frightened. She may accidentally direct her aggression toward you.
Should you find yourself growing frustrated at the slow pace of your progress, don’t hesitate to seek help from an animal-behavior specialist.