Mind of the Cat: 07/05

How Does Your Cat Handle Fear? A scary experience can trigger an aggressive reaction serious enough to warrant professional help.

I recently learned of a cat that, upon seeing a visiting dog in the house, ran for cover and refused to come out for months. Fortunately, this cat did not exhibit aggressive behavior. However, it is not uncommon for a cat, when frightened, to respond by attacking rather than by fleeing.

How can this be? Clearly, once the dog had left, the home was again safe. Still, some cats, those fearful by nature, cannot recognize that the trigger is gone. Once startled, a fearful cat may associate any person, animal or item that happens to be nearby with the feeling of fear. Instead of relating the actual trigger with the fear, the cat behaves as though he has taken a snapshot of the area. If you are in the picture, then you may inadvertently be seen as the cause of this frightening experience.

Some cats respond to fear by hiding. From his shelter, a cat may now and again poke his head out to scan for any danger. But since he does not really understand what caused him to flee in the first place, off he goes again. So the empty room itself may now trigger fear, and the cat only feels safe when he is back under the bed. Thus, the act of fleeing brings relief – Phew, I am safe now.

If a person or pet – or even an umbrella – happens to be nearby when the cat is frightened, the cat may venture out into the home only to flee should the person, pet or item in question appear. (Guilty until proven otherwise.)

When a cat is both fearful and aggressive, he may choose to attack rather than  flee. An innocent bystander may be injured. This behavior is called redirected aggression. Eventually, this bystanders presence alone may trigger fear. We now have the potential for fear-based aggression. In such a case, the bystander person or pet enters the room, the cat experiences genuine fear, and the cat lunges aggressively. Very dangerous!

Why should this happen? After all, isnt it clear to the cat that the dog has left? Well, no.

To use environmental information to reach a conclusion requires some cognitive processing. The cat may be able to see, smell and hear – but cannot use this information to learn about the relative safety of the environment. Neither people nor animals can learn when they are frightened.

This is one reason why we sometimes reach for anxiety-reducing medication following traumatic events. Sometimes, once a drug is in place, a cat can begin to think clearly.

The decision to medicate a frightened cat cannot be taken lightly, however. Some medications actually interfere with learning. Others encourage aggression. That is, the cat that would run away may now feel bold enough to confront his enemy. Before using any medication, it is important to ensure that the cat does not have any underlying medical condition that might interfere with his ability to metabolize the drug.

How to Handle Your Cat
What is the best way to handle a frightened cat? Rule number one: Never handle a frightened cat. To do so runs the risk that the cat may redirect his aggression toward you. Furthermore, thrusting yourself into the scene may make you a new, lasting trigger for a fear response.

The best thing to do? Try to stand back. Close a door to keep the cat safe. Many frightened cats will relax in a matter of hours. Some may take a few days. Keep the room dark and quiet, and just slip some food and water into the room. (Of course, supply a litter box as well.) And be sure that the dishes are being emptied; cats can develop fatal liver disease when they do not receive adequate nutrition. Should the cat refuse to eat, intervention may be necessary – even at the risk of exacerbating the behavioral concern.

If you open the door to slide a food dish inside and the cat is at the door chirping cheerfully, then you are probably safe to allow the cat back into his world.

When to seek professional help? The earlier the better. It will be helpful to establish progress goals that reflect your own cats personality. In any case, if there is no substantial progress by the fifth day, it is time to discuss the situation with your veterinarian or a behaviorist.

Remember, be careful. Slow and steady is the way to go.