Tuesday 17 January 2023

The cure for a fear of cats is slow desensitisation (familiarization)

A fear of cats, as you might know is called 'ailurophobia' (eye-lure-o-PHO-bia). A fear of cats is not uncommon. I'm told that nearly 22.2% of individuals living in the USA are frightened of animals of different kinds. I don't know the percentage for cats but it won't be insignificant. It might be to do with the fact that they are very competent predators with sharp claws and long canine teeth!

The cure for a fear of cats is slow desensitisation (familiarization)
The cure for a fear of cats is slow desensitisation (familiarization). Image: MikeB

The cure for ailurophobia is straightforward enough and it concerns desensitising the individual. This is distressing for the patient. It requires a step-by-step process in which the first step is presenting to the individual things that are only remotely feline. They just need the merest impression that something associated with cats is near them such as a photograph of cats or kittens or toy animals.

After a while a kitten can be placed in a small secure cage and left about 10 or 12 paces away from the patient on the far side of a room. The phobic person is gently reassured to tell them that the cat cannot get near them.

Then gradually the kitten or cat in the cage is moved towards the patient over a period of days. The phobia can be reduced in intensity in this way until eventually the victim can actually hold a kitten.

At this point the sufferer can spend a lot more time with a kitten or cat and the longer they do so the better. It's important that there are no sudden unexpected moves. This would suggest that the cat playing the role in this process should be very placid and guaranteed not to undo the process by, for example, scratching the patient. That would probably terminate the whole process and call it off.

After a few months of therapy, it is usual for even the most intense forms of cat phobia to disappear.

The whole process, as mentioned, is about desensitising the individual or familiarising them to the fact that they need not be frightened of cats.

Ailurophobia might start with an unfortunate childhood trauma, a sudden unpleasant shock involving a cat or kitten. For a very small child, a kitten might look like a fluffy toy. They might squeeze the kitten too tightly whereupon the fluffy toy produces needle sharp claws and inflicts pain and injury on that vulnerable child.

Such an action is so unexpected that in some cases the child might suffer a mental scar and this traumatic memory can then develop into a full-blown phobia in adult life.

There is an old wife's tale about cats smothering newly arrived babies by sitting on top of them. Perhaps a cat sits next to a child while they are in bed in their crib and the mother comes charging in believing that the child's life is in danger. She shrieks and yells at the cat to leave the room. The child believes that the cat is genuinely dangerous. That memory carries forward into adulthood.

It is that kind of way in which children can develop ailurophobia but as mentioned it can be removed with a great deal of patience.


I feel compelled to briefly mention declawing. Clearly, cat owners who declaw their cats are frightened of claws and teeth. In fact, some people even de-tooth cats. Can you believe it? But this fear of claws is irrational in my view. It is possible, using intelligence and learning about cat behaviour to totally eliminate the possibility of being scratched by claws. And also, it is possible to protect furniture from damage through scratching.

Knowing this, it is clearly immoral to mutilate a cat. Cat owners who want to declaw their cat need to be educated on how to live with a domestic cat and if they are phobic about claws, they can be desensitised as mentioned in this article.

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