Building Confidence in Fearful Cats

Helping "Scaredy Cats" Overcome Their Fear

Cat in Paper Bag
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Working with fearful cats can be a challenge because people often confuse their behavior with aggression. Does your cat hiss at strangers? Dive under the bed when the doorbell rings? Attack other pets (or humans)? While a normal dose of caution keeps cats from becoming coyote kibble, extreme fear makes cats miserable and disrupts theirs and your happy home.

Fearful Cats Can Be Scared Sick

While a hiding cat may not bother you, constant anxiety increases stress that can make cats sick. For instance, stress can aggravate bladder inflammation (cystitis), which in turn prompts hit-or-miss bathroom behaviors. Even when the bladder doesn’t hurt, anxious cats use potty deposits or will increase scratching behavior as a way to calm themselves—sort of the way nervous humans bite their fingernails.

Fearful Cats Invite Aggression

Fearful cats also can be targeted by other cats. Felines that act like a victim may as well wear a “kick me” sign. The other cats obligingly turn the shrinking violet kitty into a punching bag. If a scared cat can’t get away from a perceived threat, she’ll use aggression to defend herself.

Brain Freeze?

Cats don’t behave “badly” on purpose. In fact, fear shuts down the brain so that the cat literally can’t think. When overwhelmed by a panic attack, cats either react by hiding, or they strike out with claws and teeth. In order to work successfully with fearful cats, the kitty must first be able to think.

Drug Therapy Isn’t a Cure

Behavior medications prescribed by the veterinarian can help calm the storm, but they are not a magic wand. They won’t turn your terrified tabby into a social butterfly. But drugs can get Sheba in the right frame of mind to learn, by helping to normalize brain chemistry gone haywire.

Not every behavior drug works for each situation. A veterinarian must match the drug to the specific diagnosis and individual cat. Drugs also can have side effects. Be sure to discuss all the pros and cons with your veterinarian so you know what to expect and can make an informed decision about your cat’s health.

Have you tried to medicate your cat? How did she react? Pilling cats, especially fearful felines, can make their anxiety worse and leave you a bloody mess. Most drugs can be compounded into tasty treats, or turned into salves you can smear on the cat’s ear to be absorbed through the skin. Some medications may take several days or weeks before you’ll notice any improvement, so be patient.

Common Behavior Drugs and What to Expect

Medications are complicated, but owners don’t have to worry about getting it right since only the veterinarian can prescribe behavior drugs. Since you live with your cat and are at the front lines observing poor behavior—and any improvement—it’s helpful to know what to expect. The drugs sound familiar because many are human medicines used “off-label” in pets and haven’t been officially approved for veterinary use.

  • The most popular class of veterinary behavior drugs is the benzodiazepines. These drugs produce a rapid calming and sedative effect. Examples include Valium and Xanax. They’re helpful with social anxiety situations such as cat-to-cat aggression. They work pretty quickly but can cause some initial lethargy.
  • Antidepressants like Elavil and Sinequan affect the way specialized hormones and chemicals work in the brain. They also have antihistamine properties so they can calm inflammation—that can be helpful with anxiety-provoked cystitis mentioned above. Potential side effects include weight gain, sedation, and upset digestion.
  • If your upset cat has been baptizing the house with urine, Clomacalm works particularly well to control anxiety-prompted urine spraying. Clomacalm, a veterinary drug approved for canine separation anxiety, can also help cats with this problem.
  • Zoloft, Paxyl and Prozac help manage general anxiety, depression, and aggression. They have fewer potential side effects for aging pets and may be safer for cats with liver or kidney disease. BuSpar may be used to ease the fear of social interactions (meeting other cats or people), as well as panic attacks. 

    Drug therapy generally isn’t used forever. You can ask your general practice veterinarian for a recommendation about behavior drugs, or work with a veterinary behaviorist. Drugs work best when paired with behavior modification, counter conditioning and desensitization techniques that teach the cat better ways to deal with her fears. There are several simple step-by-step techniques you can use at home to help fearful cats.  to be discussed in a future article.