When we think of fears and phobias, we mostly think about ourselves or dogs, but don’t leave cats out of the mix.
“Cats often deal with fears or phobias very differently than we do or than dogs, so their fears and phobias often go underappreciated,” says Dr. Meghan Herron, veterinary behaviorist and a co-editor of the book Decoding Your Cat.
What causes the fear in the first place? Dr. Amy Pike, a veterinary behaviorist in Fairfax, Virginia, and contributor to Decoding Your Cat says fear “is simply being afraid, and there are various levels of fear. The explanation for that fear may or may not be apparent to us.” A phobia, she says, is more severe and pathological. “When a cat is truly phobic it’s almost always no one’s fault. Genetics may play a role; we don’t really know.”
Two of the most common fears and phobias in cats are thought of as primarily dog problems, and they are. However, separation anxiety and thunderstorm anxiety absolutely occur in cats.
Oh-so-common separation anxiety
Dr. Herron says separation anxiety in cats often goes undetected. Dogs may be identified with the problem when neighbors complain about incessant barking in the owners’ absence or when household items are chewed on and/or urinated on, among other behaviors that leave their mark.
While it would be quite extraordinary for cats to bark their distress, they do sometimes cry out — but there’s no one there to hear. Cats may urinate outside the box, often on the cat parents’ bed or something soft with a reassuring scent. The problem is that people may not put the puzzle pieces together and never make the connection that this behavior only occurs when kitty is home alone.
Use a home camera to see what your cat is doing when you’re not there. But keep in mind that, among cats, even this may be misleading. For example, cats (even more so than many dogs) may snooze when we leave the house. It’s the way the cat is sleeping and where the cat is sleeping that tells the story.
- A cat who is sleeping in what might be best described as a hiding place, such as the back of the coat closet or under a bed, may be anxious.
- A cat who is sleeping on his or her side is likely comfortable. But a cat who is napping stiffly, looking like an Egyptian sphinx is not comfortable and may be in pain and/or fearful.
The dreaded thunderstorm
Some cats are also phobic about thunderstorms. Both Drs. Pike and Herron agree that a fearful or phobic cat wants a safe and quiet place to retreat. If the noise is from outside (such as fireworks or thunderstorms), close the windows and pull down the shades. “It’s been shown that classical music can be calming,” Dr. Herron says. “But not the 1812 Overture.”
How to help
There is good news. Today, we’re all a bit better at recognizing fearful and phobic cats, and because we do, there are finally great tools to help. Try one or all six of these tools:
- If the fear is mild to moderate, you have a good chance to distract the cat from the loud storm noises — and sometimes even cats with separation anxiety — to the fact that no one is home. “Using food like Bonita Flakes, or hiding favorite treats in a puzzle toy or snuffle mat can switch a cat’s brain from fear to prey drive in an instant,” Dr. Herron says.
- When noises are predictable, such as fireworks or a vacuum — it’s easier to implement behavior modification (because you know exactly when the stressor is going to happen). Behavior modification techniques called desensitization (exposing the cat to what scares him starting at a very low intensity) and counterconditioning (changing the cat’s automatic response to something he is afraid of to something he likes, typically using treats) may help. A veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, veterinary technician boarded in behavior or a certified cat behavior consultant can walk clients through these techniques.
- Researchers at Louisiana State University published research in February 2019 in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery on the effects of cat-specific music on behavior and physiological stress response of domestic cats in a veterinary clinic. The research concluded that music created particularly for felines “may benefit cats by decreasing the stress levels.” Want to try this at home with your cat? Through a Cats Ear and iCalmPet is music produced specifically to calm cats.
- If the fear is more intense or we’re talking a downright phobia, distraction and/or the products listed here may not work. Dr. Pike says, “When a cat is too highly aroused, it’s impossible to learn; you need some sort of intervention to adjust the brain chemistry which is likely to be a psychopharmaceutical. The goal is not to sedate, it’s to decrease the fear and anxiety so new learning can take place where we can implement behavior modification and other products.”
Both veterinary behaviorists are fans of Feliway (a pheromone product that helps cats feel more comfortable in their environments). Nutraceuticals can also help. Solliquin and ANXITANE both contain L-theanine, an amino acid found naturally in green tea that directly stimulates the production of alpha brain waves, which helps to calm anxious animals while maintaining alertness. However, at this time, products containing L-theanine may be hard to get.
Drs. Herron and Pike very much like Zylkene because, like the L-theanine products, there’s science to support effectiveness. Zylkene contains hydrolyzed milk protein, which has calming properties. Also, Zylkene is quite palatable for most cats.
- What the behaviorists get asked about more than anything else, though, is CBD (cannabidiol), but research on its effects on cats is still new compared to research on CBD and humans and regulations vary from state to state.
Assisi Animal Health’s Calmer Canine is labeled for dogs, but Dr. Pike has had success using this product for very anxious cats, particularly cats with separation anxiety. The Calmer Canine device delivers targeted pulsed electromagnetic field (tPEMF) signals to the area of the brain responsible for causing anxiety. It effectively returns the anxious brain to a more balanced emotional state with long-lasting effects. Unlike drugs, there are no known side effects.
Catster reached out to Chief Business Officer Dr. Judy Korman who confirmed that Assisi Animal Health has had anecdotal reports of Calming Canine helping cats with a variety of anxiety-related issues including, separation anxiety; reactivity to stray cats; overgrooming and fear/aggression in cats sharing a household.
- While cats are efficient hunting machines, they are also natural scaredy-cats. When survival mode kicks in, they are hardwired to seek a place to hide or, as Dr. Herron, who is also senior director of Behavioral Medicine, Education and Outreach at Gigi’s Rescue in Columbus, Ohio, says, “finding a safe and comfortable refuge.”
There are a number of cubby holes and cat caves available to buy, like Mau’s Vevo double cat bed — a comfy, hand-woven basket that doubles in height when the sides are up, or Armarkat’s pumpkin-shaped covered plush bed. Providing your cat with a soft, warm place — one that smells like his favorite people, which is all the more comforting and therefore reassuring — is the No. 1 thing you can do to help your fearful kitty.
3 thoughts on “Help for Cats with Fears & Phobias”
I recently re homed a 6 month old kitty that was accustomed to roaming outside all day and coming back to the family’s garage at night. From her first moment out of the carrier, she has been hiding all over my house(apartment). Her latest hiding spot was behind my stove(which I coaxed her out and reinforced ways that she could no longer get back there).
Bought feliway diffuser, new bed, dishes, the works. It’s been over a month… I don’t know how or what to do to make her anymore comfortable here… HELP😢!!! We just want to love her ❤️
I wonder how I can help my bengal female (3 years old) to get rid of the extremely fear and aggression she feels when she see other cats around, on the street or through the windows inside their own houses. She goes crazy, screams, jumps to attack them. We take walks with leash and this is so stressful for us and I suffer with her. There’s a risk to get hurt myself if I try to comfort her, it has happened. I know that she had issues with other cats in her early life with her first family, I committed to adopt her and love her with all my heart, but this is not easy. I think this is a fobia behavior. Thank you for this article.
I will tell my hubby to try some of these. Our Snoopy who is a 2 year old female that we have had since she was around 6 weeks old was bottle fed by her carers. Her and her siblings mother cat was possibly hit by a car trying to find food for her babies. She is very attached to my husband and she is very fearful of everything. I think because she was separated from her birth mom so soon after she was born