Fear is a normal response for any animal to a fear-inducing stimulus or situation. Without a reasonable amount of fear neither cats nor humans would fare very well. As unpleasant as fear may be to experience, it keeps our animals and us safe by encouraging caution and by preparing us for fight or flight when danger threatens. Problems arise, however, if fears become so excessive and irrational that they disrupt normal functioning. At this stage, fear has crossed a definitional divide and is now better classed as phobia.
Excessive, irrational fears (or phobias) have three possible triggers:
Development of Fears/Phobias
Nature and nurture interact to produce excessive fearfulness. The natural component is the innate hard-wiring that acquires and processes fears. Specifically, it involves neural pathways in the brain to a structure called the amygdala, where fearful stimuli are processed and then relayed to emotion centers in the limbic system. The natural tendency to acquire fears can be exaggerated in individual cats, families of cats, or whole breeds of cats.
While nature provides the substrate necessary for fear, learning is key. Without learning, fears do not arise in the first place.
Fears can be acquired suddenly and cataclysmically when an extremely traumatic event polarizes a negative learning experience. This can be thought of as a variation on the post-traumatic shock theme. From the time of the negative experience onwards, the fear-inducing stimulus will be avoided or repulsed at all costs. Permanent learning of this type is facilitated by the release of a fight or flight neurotransmitter, called norephrenephrine.
Another way in which fears develop is more slowly over time. In such instances, fears are compounded by repeated exposure to the instigating cause. Over time, the fear gets worse.
Once acquired, fear learning will fade if not reinforced – but it never completely disappears and can be rekindled quickly when circumstances dictate. Fortunately, it is often possible to reduce fearful perceptions and fearful responding by superimposing new learning that masks an older negative association.
Learning What to Fear
The "sensitive period" of learning (about many lifelong perceptions) occurs between two and seven weeks of age in cats. During the early part of this period, fearless kittens bravely go where older cats fear to tread. But, as the sensitive period rolls on, a certain caution or tentativeness emerges in our young heroes. This is a necessary development if kittens are to stay out of harms way. The more driven a kitten becomes to explore his environment, the more essential a dose of apprehension and caution are to his continued safety.
It is adaptive for a growing kitten to associate fear with people who are yelling or gesturing wildly. It is good for the youngster to become frightened by the loud noise and commotion of a busy highway. And it is good for the kitten to learn to avoid experiences that cause him to feel pain or discomfort. It is not so good when these fears become exaggerated, generalized, or misdirected, so that, for example, all strangers generate a powerful fear response from the cat or all visits to the vet's office wind up nightmarish.
Avoidance of Excessive Fearfulness
Many fearful cats have fears that could have been avoided. The most critical time to guard against negative events is during the early part of a kitten's life, notably the latter part of the sensitive period. Throughout this stage, it is imperative for kittens to be raised in a warm, friendly environment and to be introduced to a variety of people and other animals without having any bad experiences, such as prolonged social deprivation or punishment. Conscientiously shielding a young kitten from adversity will ensure a confident well-adjusted adult.
A kitten raised without human contact or who has had bad interactions with people during the first seven weeks of his life will never be entirely comfortable around people and will most likely be afraid around strangers. Adverse experiences may also cause profound and long-lasting fears later in life, but the ante goes up. That is, it takes more of a challenge to produce the same long-lasting fearful result. The susceptibility of older cats to acquiring fear varies with their behavioral experience. A properly raised, fully socialized cat will be much less likely to interpret occasional unfortunate experiences as the "rule" and more likely to interpret such events as exceptions.
Common Expressions of Fear
Desensitization is the name of the game. Some golden rules of desensitization are:
Though the distance may vary in either direction between sessions, over time there should always be a progression (i.e. in the example above, the stranger is being accepted at progressively closer distances).
If a problem occurs at any stage of the program, return to an earlier stage of the retraining process, always finishing a training session on a positive note. The following day the session can be reinitiated at a low level of exposure, which is subsequently increased to, and finally through, the former upper limit of acceptance.
Training should preferably be conducted every day, however, training sessions 2 to 3 times weekly sometimes suffice.
Desensitization is usually performed in conjunction with counterconditioning (with cats, this almost always involves using delicious food to change the cat's perception and behavior at each stage of the reintroduction process).
The most difficult cats to treat are those with "global" fear, meaning simultaneous fear of multiple cues; animate, inanimate, and situational. Cats of this disposition are almost impossible to desensitize to the multiple stimuli that trigger their fear. They are the "Nervous Nellies" of the feline world and are probably best treated medically to alleviate the impact of negative experiences that pervade their world. Even these cats, that seemingly have nothing to fear except fear itself, can be brought around by means of judicious anti-anxiety medication and subsequent weaning of the medication over time. The latter process should be conducted only under the strict guidance of a veterinarian, perhaps with input from a veterinary behavioral specialist.
Many anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs have been employed to facilitate retraining – with varying degrees of success. The best are (in order):
If whatever frightens your cat can be consistently represented in an attenuated, non-threatening way, gradual reversal of the fear will result. The principle is similar to that involved in homeopathy – that of treating a condition by administering small carefully gauged quantities of things that excite the symptoms. Behavioral medicines can be helpful in ameliorating entrenched fears and fears that are "global" in proportions. Finally, there is a very good chance of rehabilitating cats with excessive fearfulness, especially if the fear can be clearly identified, is discrete, and can be easily isolated and controlled.