Combating Fear In Older Cats

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Kichigin/iStock/Thinkstock
Kichigin/iStock/Thinkstock
Amy Martin

Senior cats can be fearful for a variety of reasons. Thankfully, there are techniques that you can learn to help your scared senior cat. But first, we need to understand the facts of fear.

Understanding Fear In Cats

Fear is a natural, primal emotion. In the wild, fear serves as a protective mechanism that allows an animal to avoid predators or other perceived threats. In our homes, cats can still experience this primal fear, even though it can come from many different sources. Older cats, for example, may become fearful as they age because their senses are not as sharp as they used to be.

“As cats age, particularly after 15 years of age, their eyesight and hearing aren’t as good as they once were,” says Dr. Elizabeth Arguelles, DVM, of Just Cats Clinic in Reston, Virginia. “This can certainly cause them to be easily startled.”

The 4 Fs

Fear triggers several split-second changes in the body. When cats are experiencing fear, they typically will try to reduce the feeling of fear by one of four actions: fleeing, freezing, fiddling about or fighting.

  1. Fleeing is usually a cat’s first choice in response to fear. Most cats will try to escape from whatever is scaring them.
  2. Freezing is an opportunity for the cat to try to employ another response.
  3. Fiddling is when the cat engages in a displacement behavior — a type of self-appeasement or self-distraction. For example, rather than running away, your cat may begin to groom. Grooming during a scary situation is a type of self-soothing.
  4. Fighting is just another way of trying to escape. If a cat is unable to leave the fearful situation, fighting may be their only option.

The choice to flee, freeze, fiddle or fight depends on the situation, but a cat’s tendency to choose one option over another will vary based on a variety of factors.

What You Can Do

Changes in your senior cat’s behavior could indicate an underlying medical condition. Contact your veterinarian right away to rule out any medical reasons for your cat’s fearful behavior.

If your senior cat’s fearfulness is not stemming from an underlying medical condition, you can try the following techniques to help your cat feel more safe and secure.

1. Make accommodations for senior living.

Adjusting the environment and/or your actions to meet your senior cat’s changing needs can help your golden oldie be less afraid.

For example, Dr. Arguelles recommends using night lights to help your cat navigate at night. Your senior cat’s eye sight might be diminishing, so this will help her get around better and be less stressed out.

Arguelles also recommends touching the surface that the cat is sleeping on prior to touching the cat so they can feel the movement around them, prior to being touched. Your cat’s hearing might be worsening, and this will help not to startle her.

Both of these recommendations have been very helpful with our eldest cat!

2. Comfort your cat.

You might’ve heard that comforting a fearful cat will only serve to reinforce the fear. Not so. Comforting your senior cat when he is afraid doesn’t serve to reward bad behavior or reinforce his fear. Science shows us that fear is an emotion, not a behavior. When we comfort a fearful cat, we are addressing the emotion, not the behavior, so comforting your senior cat does not make her more afraid or reinforce fear (unless this is the only interaction your cat ever receives).

3. Desensitize your cat to the scary thing.

Whatever your senior cat is sensitive to (what causes her to run and hide, or hiss and swat!) can be helped with systematic desensitization. Desensitization means to make less sensitive. This is a structured process that gradually exposes a cat to the thing that frightens her, but at a much less intense level (without provoking one of the 4Fs). As your senior cat adjusts to a low level of exposure to the Scary Thing (animal, person, object, place, noise, touch, etc.), the level of exposure is gradually increased. Slow desensitizing allows a cat to learn at her own pace that the Scary Thing really isn’t so scary.

Tip: Never force your cat to confront her fears by making her face the thing that frightens her. This is called “flooding.” It can be very traumatic and make the issue much worse.

4. Work on counterconditioning.

A trigger is something your senior cat perceives as a threat. Triggers follow a pattern: Something happens in your cat’s environment. It triggers fear in your cat. Your cat responds with one of the 4Fs. Sometimes there are multiple triggers the cat sees, or it’s something your cat hears or smells. To effectively determine what’s triggering your cat’s behavior, you need to create a detailed history of each episode. This will show a pattern of triggers and your cat’s responses to them.

Your goal is to teach your senior cat to see the trigger in new light. This is done through counterconditioning (and no, I’m not referring to a hair conditioner). Counterconditioning is a technique used on people and pets to treat fears, phobias, anxieties and aggression.

What are your senior cat’s triggers? Is it a person, place, sound, sight, smell, object or situation? Conversely, what does your senior cat find irresistible? Slowly pair the trigger (at a low level) with the irresistible goodie. This is how you begin to create new, positive associations with whatever triggers your cat into a fearful response (one of the 4 Fs).

To counter means to change. To condition means to teach. Counterconditioning re-teaches your cat to have a good feeling and positive reaction toward something that he once feared or disliked. In turn, the cat behaves differently (better) in the presence of what he used to dislike. For example, a cat cannot attack (or hide from) another person or animal in your home, and at the same time greet them in a friendly, calm manner. Once you successfully link something that creates a good feeling (yummy treats) with something (a trigger) that elicits a negative emotion (fear), you change how your cat feels about the perceived threat. Your cat’s behavior changes as well.

Tip: Desensitization works best when combined with counterconditioning.

When desensitizing and counterconditioning your cat, be sure your cat stays “under threshold.” The threshold is the moment when your cat is unable to cope with a trigger. If there are any signs of fear, your cat has gone “over threshold.” Your goal is to make sure your cat feels comfortable; not run away, hide, hiss, growl, retreat or show any reaction that signals fear.

The best way to avoid going over threshold is to learn how to read your cat’s body language. Cats give subtle signals when they are afraid. The position of a cat’s whiskers, tail, and ears all give us clear indications when they are anxious or afraid. If you see any stress or fear signals, take a break. Then take a few steps back. You may have gone too far too fast.

5. Seek professional help.

If you aren’t seeing progress, find a qualified cat behaviorist. Professionals can evaluate your cat’s issues, pinpoint exactly what triggers her fear response, design a protocol to help work through the issues, and give you positive feedback and support.

Slow And Steady Sees Success

There’s no need to rush the process. Cats do things on their time, not ours. Any kind of behavior modification needs to be in slow, gradual steps. When working with a shy, fearful cat of any age, we need to remember that we are not trying to win a race. We are setting them and ourselves up for success — for life!

Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Cats

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