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Cat developing fears and anxieties
Posted: Mon Sep 30, 2019 5:18 pm
Hello! I have two cats, and one of them is a large male cat named Ditto. We have had him for 2 years now and he has been such a sweet, loving boy the entire time we have had him. He has had no behavior problems with scratching, hiding, spraying, or being temperamental. This past summer, we had some plumbing issues and needed to have several plumbers in the house to fix some pipes and subsequently redo our floor. Ever since then, Ditto has been terrified of hearing noises from outside the house. He gets scared and jumpy when he hears the neighbors moving around outside, which never used to set him off. The doorbell is worse; when he hears a doorbell he flattens himself against the ground and runs to the nearest hiding place, and most times he won't come out for hours. He has always been a cuddler, but recently I can't keep him off of me. Every time I sit down, he gets on my lap or chest and holds on as though he is terrified of every little noise. He even scratched a hole in the back of the couch to hide inside it. Any ideas for how to help ease Ditto's fears? Thank you!
Re: Cat developing fears and anxieties
Posted: Tue Oct 01, 2019 3:24 am
Oh poor chap. I'd just give him time and let him do his own thing. And talk to him, telling him what a good boy he is. But time and calmness is the remedy - good luck and all the best
Re: Cat developing fears and anxieties
Posted: Tue Oct 01, 2019 5:59 am
My sympathies - and welcome to the forum. I have an equally nervous girl but she brought her fears with her and they were deep rooted.
The trouble with cats (I have learned a lot in the past 6 years) is that they reinforce their own fears so they can be very persistent, and aversion therapy does not work. Running and hiding from a perceived threat and nothing bad happening to them sets the idea in their mind that the only reason nothing bad happened is because they ran and hid. So they carry on and this allows smaller and smaller triggers to throw them into this survival mode. The cycle has to be broken, but forcing them to face the 'danger' only throws them into deeper panic.
It sounds like you already have a strong trustng bond with Ditto and that is your route to helping him through this. Firstly, he is likely to pick up your emotions like a sponge so your calmness is critical. If you are anxious for him or feel sorry for him, he won't understand what your anxiety is but that will reinforce his fear, the logic being if you're anxious too then his anxiety must be justfied and the threat real. So whatever mind tricks keep you completely calm, use them. As an example of just how much they can pick up - if I am sitting next to my girl and she is relaxed and I am not touching her, if I start to actively focus my mind on her without moving or looking at her or touching her, she starts to purr. It's not coincidence, it happens far too reliably. Try it, it's very humbling! Or from the far side of the room try calling his name in your head and see if he turns an ear towards you.
Next, get into his reality to hold his figurative paw to help him back to real reality. When the doorbell goes, take time to make sure he is securely hidden before you go to the door. Talk encouragingly - Go on then Ditto, good boy, it's ok, are you safely hidden now, ok I'll go see who it is, etc - in your best calm reassuring voice. And once he is there, ignore completely, you are playing along with his pretending not to be there. As soon as the door is closed and it's just you and him again, encourage him out and praise him. He will see that you understand his fear and are not just dismissing it. If possible use his feet, if there is anything material he is scared of and not just noises, let him investigate and sniff. The experience of checking out the dangerous item for himself and finding it to be totally harmless will start to regrow his confidence. Using his feet? Yes, hold the offending item just a little distance away so that he has to crane his neck and take just one small step forward (this one is a horse trick!) and the act of stepping forward puts the brain into a more controlled and curious place and calm the run impulse. Noises are harder of course. My girl had not long been with me when she got scared of the sofa one night or something under it. I spent the whole evening step by step turning it on its back and letting her explore behind, underneath and even inside it, cleaning and spraying catnip to show it was all safe. If he hides when the mail comes, let him sniff the letters.
Always make sure he has free access to his safe places, I'm sure everyone here knows never to block a cat's access to its safe hiding holes. And to call him out, don't get close - you might give away his location to something dangerous! but call him from a distance as if you didn't know where he is. Good boy, you see it's all right there's nothing dangerous here. I'm not a fan of food rewards but lots of praise, encouragement and affection. But never, ever reassure him that something is safe when it isn't, for example that the doorbell is harmless, because it's likely to be followed up with something even scarier like a stranger's voice or noisy people coming in. He needs to know he can trust you to tell the difference.
When he gets more hesitant about running you can start trying to use distraction, like a toy. If he will play this will keep his mind focused off the danger, though he is likely to stop and listen often at first. Acknowledge that you have heard the noise too and reassure him that it's ok and as soon as you see him relax slightly, move the toy again to bring him back.
I like to think the best measure of my way of handling fear is that I have never had a cat scared of fireworks, possibly the ultimate in scary things in a cat's world. They either sleep through, carry on as if they weren't there, sit and watch, or in one case even tear the door down to get out into the garden to watch the display in next door's garden. But that last one wasn't a confident cat, we suspect the injury he had when he walked into our home was from an encounter with a bin lorry, because as soon as he heard it turn into the road he would be gone upstairs hiding. I let him do that, because it was probably from real experience. But even that gradually got better and in a few years he would walk casually up the stairs instead of bolting as if he was pursued by a pack of hungry dogs.