Sunday 4 July 2010

Treatment of Overly Fearful Cats

I am not sure that there is a truly successful treatment for overly fearful cats. Overly fearful cats are those that are extremely timid and who either freeze, run or fight when presented with a "stimulus" that elicits fear. The typical trigger to run for many cats is the entrance of a stranger (to the cat) into their territory (the house usually). The person may even be a certain type of person. This is certainly the case with my old lady cat. She is very sweet and a bit timid but has a fear of noisy men, usually workmen and even the lorries or vans that they arrive in!

She runs to a secure bolt hole. At the moment, in the dry weather, that happens to be outside under dense undergrowth, where even I had difficulty seeing her. When the stranger has gone, I call her and in her own time (a long time) she turns up as if nothing had happened.

There are many other types of stimuli that prompt fear responses. Of course, a natural part of any animal's make up is fear. It is a useful emotion in respect of survival. But overdone it can present problems to some people but not the cat lets remind ourselves. The cat feels comfortable running. That is fine with me. I can accept that and indeed I accommodate it, but I don't encourage or reinforce it.

If a person wants to moderate or gradually try and eliminate a disruptive fear response to low level stimuli, the way forward is by desensitising your cat to the stimulus.

This is done by introducing a similar stimulus to the one that elicits the overeaction but at a low level, at which the cat shows no fear. In showing no fear the cat is rewarded with a food treat. Provided the stimulus is within the cat's comfort zone it can be gradually increased and more treats given. Following this path, in the end the cat will be desensitized to the original stimulus and not freeze, run or fight.

That is the theory. I would have thought that this retraining would be necessary in only the most extreme cases of timidity as the usual flight/fight response is not only natural (and it must vary from cat to cat) it is also of little consequence to us most if not all of the time. To try and retrain would therefore bring little reward to us and definitely not much to the cat.

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