Feline Fear of Inanimate Stimuli
The prevalence of fear of inanimate objects and stimuli in cats is unknown. Cats that have a fear of loud noises, such as fireworks or thunder, may hide whilst outside the home so that their behaviour goes unobserved. At home, cats may hide or become inhibited when frightened by loud noises, and do not show the overt signs of distress observed in dogs (pacing, whining, etc). Clients often misinterpret this apparent passivity as a lack of fear, especially when the cat engages in self-maintenance behaviour, such as grooming, that are associated with being relaxed or settled. Increased grooming can be a form of displacement activity or an attempt at self-appeasement that is an indicator of stress.
Fear of inanimate visual stimuli may develop as a result of associations with noise stimuli e.g. light flashes that resemble lightning before the sound of thunder. A minority of cats, usually coming from an inappropriate rearing environment, do suffer from specific fears and phobias of visual stimuli. Cases include fear of flapping or flying objects such as kites and polythene bags. Cats will also show increased fear of visual stimuli that startle the cat while it is in the presence of another stimulus that it fears, or when it is in an unfamiliar environment. This can create negative associations with almost any kind of stimulus, so that it evokes fear in the future.
Fear responses of cats can be quite context specific. They may react fearfully to otherwise familiar stimuli when they are encountered in an unfamiliar context, or when the cat encounters the stimulus when it is outside its own familiar territorial boundaries. This may be because a significant part of the cat’s emotional self-control is based on its ability to rapidly engage avoidance behaviour and also to discriminate the level of threat likely in a given environment according to the scent marks that have previously been left there.
- Owners should be advised to avoid taking kittens that come from aggressive or fearful parents, or are reared in a barren or impoverished "non-domestic" environment.
- Fear of inanimate objects and stimuli can be prevented through proper habituation to a wide range of events and stimuli during the sensitive period before 7 weeks of age.
- Exposure to sound stimuli may be provided using recordings, but kittens should not be habituated to traffic sounds.
- After the end of the sensitive period, novel or potentially fear-evoking stimuli should be introduced carefully so that fear is not induced.
- Use of F3 pheromone diffusers may help to enable adult cats to adjust to a new environment after re-homing, noise (e.g. a party) and other potentially frightening situations.
Key aspects include:
- Information about rearing history and parental temperament.
- Observation of a typical pattern of avoidance behaviour and fearful body language that will be seen in the presence of the fearful stimulus.
- Identification of the complete range of stimuli that elicit a fear response in the affected individual.
- History of development of the problem (e.g. information about changes in the range and type of stimuli the cat reacts to over time).
- Assessment of the suitability of the environment (presence of escape and avoidance opportunities, as well as general proviso of accessible resources).
With inanimate objects or sounds it is not always obvious to the owner what the cat is reacting to, and it may be necessary to explain signs of fear to the owner and ask them to monitor the cat for a few days to identify what the cat is reacting to.
Often, fear of inanimate objects or sounds is not presented as a problem in itself, but is an underlying factor in other behavioural problems that the owner is concerned about (such as inappropriate elimination). Given that cats tend to become inhibited in situations where they cannot mount a proper escape response, the owner may not be aware of low-level fear reactions. Only when the full range of stimulus types and variations the cat is fearful of has been identified, is it then possible to manage and treat the problem. If the cat is afraid of a range of stimuli, they should be listed in order of the level of fearful reaction they elicit, so that a programme of graded controlled exposure (desensitisation and/or counter conditioning) can be designed. However, it is important that owners do not deliberately set up challenge tests to determine the cat's reaction.
Before beginning specific behavioural therapy for a fear problem, it is important to make sure that the cat’s home environment satisfies its needs:
- Free access to resources such as food, water, latrine sites.
- Environmental enrichment, such as interactive toys, activity feeders and cat furniture that permits climbing, scratching and exploratory behaviours.
- Opportunities to avoid and escape from situations or stimuli that are stressful.
- Reducing underlying problems of stress, particularly related to social stress (conflict with other cats or mishandling by the owner).
Presentation of Stimuli
Stimuli must be presented systematically while the cat is relaxed, so that fear is never elicited. For each stimulus, the threshold of stimulus intensity to elicit fear should be identified, based on controllable stimulus characteristics such as loudness, proximity, size, movement, etc. The intensity threshold should be identified from historical information, rather than testing (which might cause distress). Then a means of reliably presenting the stimulus in an attenuated form must be identified. For example, sounds can be recorded and replayed at lower volume, and objects can be partially obscured or covered. Once a method of controlling the intensity of the stimulus has been found, then behavioural therapy using desensitisation and counterconditioning can be carried out. Inanimate stimuli are generally more amenable to desensitisation and counterconditioning than people or other animals.
It is important not to exceed the threshold to elicit fear during training, as the cat may associate the training context with fearful experiences, and subsequently develop situational anxiety. This will undermine the cat’s security and could cause it to refuse to enter the certain rooms or the home. It is also important to exclude other animals and children from the environment during training, as their presence could increase arousal and stress, and could interfere with the cat's ability to avoid or escape from a stressor.
Training sessions involving controlled exposure to stimuli should only be undertaken when the cat is already voluntarily in the environment where training is to take place. Cats should not be carried to the place where training is to take place, because any accidental negative associations made in that situation may also affect the cat’s attitude towards handling, resulting in fear of or aggression towards the owner.
During desensitisation, the stimulus is repeatedly presented below the threshold that evokes fear. The intensity of the stimulus is gradually raised over a number of sessions. When a cat reacts fearfully to a range of different stimuli, desensitisation should begin with stimuli that evoke the least amount of fear and which can easily be modified so that they can be presented in an attenuated form for behavioural therapy. This allows the client to build up experience of the behaviour modification methods with minimal risk of making them worse through flooding. Sounds are played at low volume or with an adjusted frequency bandwidth (e.g. reduced bass frequencies), visual stimuli are presented at a distance, disguised or partially obscured. Once the cat becomes fully desensitised to a stimulus at a particular intensity, the stimulus is then made a little more intense. Gradually the intensity is raised over a number of sessions until it reaches a realistic intensity.
The stimulus is presented in association with a pleasant appetitive stimulus that elicits an unconditionally positive emotional response (play, food etc.). After repeated presentations, the previously fear-eliciting stimulus begins to elicit the same emotional state as the pleasant event now associated with it. For example, the sound of dogs barking might be played at low volume, starting just before the cat is enticed into a game or given a meal. The sounds continue during the play or feeding session, and end when it ends. In this way, the previously fear eliciting stimulus predicts the positive experience, and accompanies it. Over successive training sessions, the sound level is gradually increased until it reaches realistic levels.
Choice of appetitive stimulus is an essential component for success in counterconditioning; it must be something that the cat unconditionally enjoys. The previously fear-eliciting stimulus must be presented at an intensity at which the appetitive stimulus is more pleasurable than the fearful stimulus is aversive. Otherwise conditioning can be reversed, and the cat can become fearful of eating or play because these have come to be associated with an unpleasant experience. Clients should experiment with a wide range of toys and food before beginning counterconditioning. For cats, play is often a better counterconditioning stimulus because it produces an immediate emotional response. Unlike dogs, cats may be unresponsive to the use of food in counterconditioning, unless very high palatability food is used. In addition, ad lib feeding is normally part of environmental enrichment for cats.
The duration of counterconditioning sessions will be limited by the cats' tendency to habituate to toys very rapidly. A cat may also cease to react if the same toy is presented at each session, so a range of different toys will be needed to maintain the cat's interest; part of the counterconditioning stimulus is the novelty of the toy and the play. Sessions of 5-10 minutes are perfectly adequate and need to be repeated 2-3 times daily.
The F3 pheromone fraction (Feliway) can be used to increase the familiarity and security of the home environment which will indirectly alter the cat’s reaction to stimuli. Synthetic F3 might also be sprayed onto static environmental stimuli of which the cat is otherwise mildly fearful.
Possible indications for the use of psychoactive medication for the treatment of fears of inanimate stimuli include:
- Widely-generalised fears and phobias, especially if the range of fear-eliciting stimuli continues to expand.
- Longstanding cases where many fear-related associations have already formed.
- When welfare has been impacted: cats with significantly inhibited patterns of behaviour.
- Cats with cognitive impairment, such as due to senile dementia.
No psychoactive medication is specifically licensed for the treatment of fear problems of this kind in cats. Selegiline is licensed for the treatment of behavioural problems of an emotional origin in dogs, including specific fears and phobias. Under CASCADE, selegiline is therefore the first choice treatment for this problem in cats.
Selegiline is appropriate for fearful cats that also show a high degree of inhibition of normal behaviour, such as:
- Reduced self-maintenance behaviour (grooming, eating).
- Failure to utilise resources.
- Perpetual hiding and avoidance.
- Frequent freezing behaviour in even mildly fear-eliciting situations.
Apart from increasing exploratory behaviour and confidence and reducing apprehension, selegiline also increases the rewarding nature of reinforcers and improves cognitive function so that it may be of benefit in improving responses to counterconditioning procedures.
However, selegiline produces only weak anxiolytic effects; if a cat shows significant signs of anxiety or signs of panic reactions then a serotonergic drug would be indicated. Serotonergic drugs like clomipramine or fluoxetine are more suited to cases in which the cat shows chronic and generalised signs of anxiety in an environment that is generally devoid of specific fear-eliciting stimuli. These are cats that anticipate harm although no threat is actually present. They may be appropriate if there are signs of excessive self-appeasement or displacement behaviour such as overgrooming.
The onset of efficacy for all of these drugs is at least 4-6 weeks, and much longer in some cases. They are generally well tolerated but can cause lethargy, sedation and inappetance, which can interfere with counterconditioning procedures. Typical duration of treatment is 6-8 months, or until a period of 6-8 weeks without significant clinical signs has elapsed.
For stimuli that can easily be presented according to a strict plan of desensitisation and counterconditioning the prognosis is good. The prognosis is guarded if fearful stimuli are regularly encountered at fear-eliciting intensity during behavioural therapy, because this will undermine behavioural therapy. Prognosis is also guarded when cats react to a wide, and generalising, range of stimuli. Prognosis in such cases may be improved through the use of psychoactive medication.
This article has been written and expert reviewed by Jon Bowen BVetMed DipAS(CABC) MRCVS.
Date reviewed: August 28, 2014
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