Don't be a Fraidy Cat! - Taming pet anxiety

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Don't be a Fraidy Cat! - Taming pet anxiety

Ailurophobia is the fear of cats. As strange as it may seem, some people are actually afraid of those sweet, cuddly little fur-balls. Napoleon, who conquered half of Europe, couldn't bear to be in the room with one and Julius Caesar was said to shy from a whiskered face as well. I've known people who believed having a black cat cross your path was unlucky (or a white one depending on which part of the world from which you hale). And, my Grandmother always told me that finding a cat's whisker was good luck.

I've always been fascinated by what my cats fear as well. Of course, there are the typical primal fears that many cats and dogs have of loud noises, storms, water, or larger animals. But, my cats have a set of phobias that would set Sigmund Freud to task. Lothario (Lo for short), my big yellow tabby, is afraid of vacuum cleaners and loud noises—indeed, what cat isn't? But, he also shrinks from all metals, hats with brims, and the color white. His greatest nightmare is someone carrying metal while wearing a white hat. White hats will send him scurrying under the bed for many an hour. Lo may have learned this fear in association with my Father who often comes to my house to repair things (i.e. loud noises), but I've never seen my Father wearing a white hat. Lo's fear of metal is frankly a mystery. The size of the metal is meaningless. Lo will run from a toy soldier as quickly as he will from a piece of sheet metal.

Nonny, our wild-eyed Siamese, fears thunder quite understandably. But, she also fears brooms. No one has ever shaken a broom at Nonny. She's never seen the broom do anything more sinister than sweep dead leaves off the deck. But, she fears them with a passion. Nonny has actually been known to stage attacks on the broom, her ancient enemy, only to veer off in a panic at the last moment. Nonny also likes to chew on sweaters and hide toy mice in visitors' shoes, so perhaps, for a quirky little Siamese cat, fear of brooms is not so strange.

Tig, our fluffy Maine Coon princess, fears only one thing—Harry Potter Acid Pops. Her fear is actually not that odd since she had the unfortunate experience of licking an Acid Pop. Like many Maine Coons, Tig will raid any food left unguarded. Spying an unprotected Acid Pop, she leapt to the ready only to discover that Acid Pops are named "Acid Pops" for a reason. Now the sight of an Acid Pop (or an Acid Pop wrapper) will cause Tig to cringe and shut her eyes. As a kitten, Lo used to have the same reaction to the plant mister when he was sprayed accidentally while lurking in a clump of lemon balm. He grew out of his mister-phobia, but I'm hoping Tig's fear of Acid Pops will last for a while since holding an Acid Pop out to her is the only way to keep her off the counters.

Now, Mooshie, our little black cat, fears nothing. She is a dog-friend. She will move if you nudge her with the vacuum cleaner, but only grudgingly, and she's fascinated by storms. Perhaps, as a black cat and the object of so many human superstitions and fears, she feels she needs to set a certain image.

None of my cats' fears are debilitating to them. Generally, when confronted with the object of their fear (metal, Acid Pops, or brooms), they flee under my bed or into their cat-beds. Fear, in itself, is actually a good thing. It's a primal protective mechanism. Cats and dogs fear storms, fire, larger animals, and loud noises because these things tend to be dangerous to them. Animals learn to fear things over time as well. Many cats are reluctant to enter their carriers since they associate them with trips to the vet. My dog was afraid of the vet for sometime after she was treated for ACL tears, since he had to manipulate her injured leg on a weekly basis. Likewise, many cats learn to fear particular people or objects (such as Lo's fear for the plant mister) due to bad personal experiences.

For fears that are unreasonable or manifest themselves in unhealthy ways, there are several remedies. Pheromonal treatments (such as Comfort Zone or Feliway) are useful to calm cats and dogs with extreme anxieties. Cats and dogs who are moved to a new house or confronted with a new person or pet sometimes manifest their fears in unpleasant ways, such as inappropriate elimination, spraying, digging, chewing, scratching, and hostility towards other people and pets.

Over the counter herbal remedies are also available for cats and dogs. Of course, as always, you need to check with your veterinarian before giving your pet any medication, even an all-natural one. Most of these powders (and sometimes sprays) contain lavender and lemon balm—which both act in a calming way on animals and people. Heating pads sometimes calm cats as well. My Siamese cat, Pepper, was always ready to face the world after a half-hour on her kitty heating pad. For severe cases of anxiety, your veterinarian can prescribe anti-depressants—but as with many long-term medications there are side effects to consider.

You can also try to desenthesize your pet to the object(s) of his fear. If your cat fears a person or another pet, you can introduce them to each other slowly and in neutral circumstances. It often helps to place the new pet in a carrier and allow the frightened pet to view him on his own time. You can allay your pet's fears by showing him that brooms and Acid Pops aren't really dangerous to him. By presenting these objects in a passive state (broom lying on its side or Acid Pop in their wrapper), your pet may come to realize over time that these things can't harm him. Desenthesizing your pets to objects they fear often takes a long time and a lot of patience. My dog, Lady, has been afraid of storms all her life, and, although she is less afraid now due to my constant reassurance and the big pile of blankets she retreats to when it's lightening, she is still unwilling to venture out in the mildest of rains for a walk.

We all are afraid of something—whether we want to admit it or not. And, I'm sure that many of our fears must seem silly to our pets. Fear is a part of humans and animals, and, on the whole, it is a useful thing. Fear keeps us from sticking our hands in fire or diving recklessly off cliffs. A little fear is a good thing. Tig's fear of Acid Pops is proving very handy, and Lo's fear of metal doesn't really cause him any problems. Remember, your pets have little foibles just like you! Since Lo doesn't laugh at my fear of spiders, I guess I shouldn't make fun of his fear of the color white.

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