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Extreme Fear and Anxiety in Cats

6 min read



If your cat has extreme panic and separation anxiety and needs to be protected until medications can become effective, which can take from days to weeks, hospitalization may be the best choice. Otherwise, you will need to care for your cat at home, and will need to provide protection from self inflicted physical injury until the cat calms down. If you are unable to stay at home with your cat, you may need to arrange for day-care or cat-sitting.


Affected cats will respond to some degree to a combination of behavior modification and treatment with anti-anxiety medication. If there is a condition that causes itchiness and/or pain that is exacerbating the anxiety, it must be controlled. Your cat may need to live in a protected environment with as few social stressors as possible. These animals do not do well in competitive shows.


Behavior modification will be up to you. You will need to teach your cat to relax in a variety of environmental settings. Avoid reassuring the cat when it is in the midst of experiencing fear or panic; the cat may interpret this as a reward for its behavior and continue to repeat the behavior. Encourage calmness, but do not reinforce the fear reaction. Remember that not all cats will calm down when crated; some will panic when caged and will injure themselves if forced to be confined, biting or scratching at the cage until they have torn nails or broken teeth. Absolutely avoid punishment for behavior related to fear, phobia, or anxiety, as this will only increase the fear response.


Desensitization and counter-conditioning are most effective if the fear, phobia, or anxiety is treated early. The goal is to decrease the reaction to a specific stimulus (such as being left alone in the dark). Desensitization is the repeated, controlled exposure to the stimulus that usually causes a fearful or anxious response in such a way that the cat does not respond with the undesirable response. With repeated efforts, the goal is to decrease the cat's undesirable response.


Counter-conditioning involves training the cat to perform a positive behavior in place of the negative behavior (in this case, fear or anxiety). For example, teach your cat to sit and stay in the same place, and when your cat responds appropriately you can reward it appropriately with a small treat and a comforting pat. Then, when your cat is in a situation where it has previously shown the undesirable response, have it sit and stay. The signs involved in an oncoming anxiety attack are subtle; learn to recognize the physical signs associated with the fears, phobias, and anxieties and head the behavior off before it has a chance to take over your cat's behavior.




Expose your cat to a variety of social situations and environments when they are still young (up to the time they are 14 weeks of age) to decrease the likelihood of fearful behavior; kittens that are deprived of social and environmental exposure until 14 weeks of age may become habitually fearful, which can be avoided with only a little exposure during this formative time


Living and Management


As long as your cat is on medications, your veterinarian will want to follow-up by conducting occasional blood testing to make sure your cat's blood chemicals stay in balance. If behavior modification does not work over the long-term, your veterinarian may want to modify the approach. If left untreated, these disorders are likely to progress. Most treatment will be long-term, possibly years, with the treatment duration depending on the number and intensity of symptoms and how long the condition has been going on. Minimum treatment averages four to six months.



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