Does your cat run from the vacuum, hiss at the new kitten, try to bite when you trim their nails, or have some other overreaction to a harmless thing? What’s up with that? You know that the vacuum isn’t a monster, that the kitten is just trying to play, and that nail trims are not actually torture. Why can’t your cat see that? When will they just get over being scared or fighting you?
“Getting Over” Fear
So often it can seem like your cat is irrationally scared. After all, as humans we can see when a situation clearly isn’t dangerous. It can help to take a moment to think about it from your cat’s point of view. They are much smaller than us and many things can seem large and intimidating. Just like you might be extra cautious when in a foreign country, adult animals tend to be wary of new situations. Finally, cats often have little control over their lives and homes which can make them feel vulnerable.
It feels like your cat should just “get over” their fear once they’ve experienced something and seen that they didn’t get hurt. Unfortunately this theory typically doesn’t hold up. If your cat feels fearful in the presence of something or someone that feeling is what they will remember. Try this: imagine you are fearful of snakes and see one while walking on a trail. Maybe you stop and hold your breath while the snake moves away. Or you turn and run in the opposite direction. Did this situation make you less afraid of snakes? Or do you just feel lucky that nothing bad happened? And you will probably be on high alert for the rest of your walk. You might even stop using that trail in the future, now that you know snakes live there.
Rather than continuing to expose your cat to something that frightens them and hoping they will give up their fear, it’s better to give them a reason to feel safe. This process involves managing the scary situation so your cat only has to deal with a tiny bit at a time, at a level that isn’t scary. If your cat is scared of their carrier, the first step might be to leave it open in a room where the cat spends time but where they don’t have to go too close.
To further build up their new positive feelings about the situation, pair it with something extra fun or delicious. In the above example, you would sprinkle your cat’s favorite treats around the carrier. The key is to always keep the “scary” thing at a non-scary level. Slowly your cat can learn to connect a new emotion to the carrier. It can be a tricky process to get right with experienced help but you can read more about it here.
“Giving In” to Handling
Fighting against handling like nail trims is another area where it can help to look at it through your cat’s eyes. Imagine someone grabbed you, held you tight enough that you couldn’t move, and gave you a haircut. Even if that person was a friend and the haircut didn’t hurt, you’d probably be extremely upset. If this happened every month, would you start feeling better about it? Or would you start avoiding that person or even getting violent toward them?
Having choice and control over our bodies is just as important to us as being able to get food and water when we need it. The same goes for cats. As (presumably well-adjusted adult) humans we have learned to tolerate awkward, uncomfortable, or even painful situations because we can control when they happen. And, like the above discussion about fear, we’ve learned to associate positive emotions and outcomes with those situations.
Cats can learn to voluntarily take part in handling as well. By working in small steps, at their comfort level, and pairing the activity with positives like treats, your cat can become a relaxed and willing participant. Forcing the issue and hoping they will “get over it” is more likely to lead to bigger struggles in the future, and bites and scratches.
A Cat Being A Cat
At the end of the day, there are some things your cat will never get over. Seeking food, avoiding stressful or scary things, and wanting choice and control over their day are natural behaviors and needs for most (all?) living creatures. When it comes to decisions around these things, your cat won’t just “get over” their behavior unless they learn another way to get what they need.
On top of that, cats also have needs about their territory and how they share space with other animals, especially other cats. Waiting for your cat to stop caring about these things is a losing battle and can lead to more behavior problems and even health issues in the future. It is important to address your cat’s needs and improve their home environment as a first step to helping their behavior.
Don’t think of your cat as needing to “get over” a fear or “give up” their resistance. Instead you can help them “recover” from fear and “learn” to accept and enjoy things. From there both you and your cat are on your way to a happier, healthier life.
If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.