Many of us will have suffered with or encountered someone suffering with a phobia. These are intense fears of something that persist over a long period of time and can have a debilitating effect on the person. In humans, phobias can occur due to a number of reasons and can be focused on anything we encounter or even know about. This range from spiders to thunderstorms to ice and much more. But can our cats have phobias?
Phobias come from an instinctual feeling of apprehension created by the specific stimulus – whether real or imaginary. You may be afraid of the ice because you have had a bad fall so a real event triggered the phobia, but not every patch of ice is going to cause a fall, yet you fear them all. The response created by the body comes from the autonomic nervous system and it is freeze, fight or flight. This response is a normal part of the instincts of both humans and cats and merely its context shows whether it is a normal or abnormal response. A normal response could be to be cornered by a vicious animal, an abnormal one could be when encountered a small, harmless spider.
In cats, phobias will often have a root within their experiences and are usually formed during kittenhood. A physical pain can cause anxiety and lead to the development of a phobia around the cause of the pain, for example. Changes in their bodies as they develop can also trigger the condition, as can an illness or injury. A traumatic experience is perhaps one of the most common causes of a phobia while kittens that haven’t had the right amount of socialisation at a young age can also be prone to such conditions. Being locked in a room or space can trigger phobias as can abandonment by parents and owners, having multiple homes.
Symptoms of a phobia
As with humans, phobias can have a range of quite debilitating effects on a cat, depending on the stimulus. General signs of fear can be seen in their body language including trembling, hiding, being withdrawn and unresponsive to their humans and being less active than normal. Signs of panic can include escape behaviour – trying to flee from a perceived threat as if it were potentially fatal. Running around, scratching and jumping can all be part of what is called out-of-context motor activity.
Signs that the sympathetic autonomous nervous system is active include diarrhoea, though this is also likely to be associated with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammation of the bowel and doesn’t exclusively point to a phobia. Anxiety related behaviours such as excessive licking or biting themselves may be seen.
Treating a phobia in a cat is more difficult than in a human in some ways – they can’t talk through their fears with someone or rationalise them away. Sometimes medication may be needed to help calm the cat but the main cause will involve removing the trigger as much as possible then with your vet, slowly re-learning them not to fear the stimulus, though this often works best when they are young. Never try to treat the phobia yourself without consultation with a vet as you may make the problem worse.