Help for Cats with Fears & Phobias

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.

©Anna Avdeeva | Getty Images

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.”

©CasarsaGuru | Getty Images

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:

  1. 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.

$12.99 coonoe Pet Snuffle Mat for Cats; amazon.com

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

$30 Downloadable album. Cat Calming, specialized music from Through a Cat’s Ear; icalmpet.com

  1. 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.

$29.99 Feliway Classic 30-Day Starter Kit Calming Diffuser for Cats; chewy.com

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.

$29.95 Vetoquinol Zylkene Behavior Support Capsules, 30 small dog and cat supplement, 75 mg.; chewy.com

  1. 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.

$199 S or XS Calmer Canine Anxiety Treatment System: Device and Vest; calmerk9.com

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.

  1. 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.”

$79 Mau’s Vevo Double Cat Bed (doubles in height to make a comfy hiding space); maupets.com

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.

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