You may have picked up from my previous posts that I work in what is primarily a housecall practice. I see a lot of cats, especially those that are absolutely terrified of veterinary visits. I wish I could say that my patients all remain perfectly calm during my visits, but in truth some do figure out that I’m "after them" and get nervous or defensive.
Still, their experience with a veterinarian, if not completely positive, is at least less negative than it might have otherwise been.
Some of these clients tell me that their cats are more or less afraid of everything new, and they often wonder why. Experience or a lack thereof are the most common explanations.
Many owners leap to the "my cat must have been abused before I got her" conclusion when they see a new pet acting fearfully. While abuse certainly can lead to fear, I don’t think it is as common a culprit as we often think. Negative experiences not rising to the level of abuse that occur during a kitten’s critical socialization period (between the ages of five and eight weeks, when most kittens are not yet in their "forever" homes) can do the same thing.
What do I mean by a negative experience? It could be anything that elicits a fearful reaction. The example I usually give is the vacuum cleaner. The noise, lights, "gusts" of wind, etc., can be absolutely terrifying to a kitten. Vacuuming is obviously not abusive, but the experience of being near a vacuum cleaner could elicit such a fearful response that it permanently changes a kitten’s developing brain.
On the other hand, a lack of experience can also elicit fear. Again, I’ll turn to the vacuum example. If during a kitten’s socialization period, she is exposed to a vacuum cleaner in a positive way, she should not be scared of the machines as an adult. For example, first the vacuum is left out so she can investigate on her own terms. Later, the vacuum is turned on far away from her so she can get used to the noise, and only later is the vacuum running and moved closer to her. A cat that has not had positive or neutral experiences with a vacuum cleaner in the past will understandably be cautious around them.
In many cases, some combination of experience and a lack thereof are to blame. My own cat Vicky is the perfect example. Before she came to me, she was a feral kitty on the mean streets of Washington, D.C. I doubt she was abused per se, but I’m sure that during her socialization period she was scared by any number of things and had limited, if any, positive experiences with people. As a result, she basically lived in my closet (her idea, not mine) for the first six months after I adopted her. Every noise or movement sent her streaking back to the safety she found behind my clothes. Very gradually, over the course of many years, she became less fearful. Today, she’ll even come out of hiding to greet new house guests — what a brave little girl!
So, if you are taking care of kittens during their socialization period (five to eight weeks of age), do your best to expose them, in a positive way, to all varieties of experiences that they might encounter as adults. Patience and compassion (never punishment) is the best way to help older cats overcome their fears. In severe cases, your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist can help by developing a behavioral modification protocol specific to your cat’s needs, and prescribing anti-anxiety medications when necessary.
Dr. Jennifer Coates