Trying to work out why your cat behaves in certain ways can be baffling. One of the strangest quirks to get to grips with has to be the feline fear of (seemingly) random things. To help you better understand what your pet is thinking, we’ve asked clinical animal behaviourist Rosie Bescoby to explain these phobias – and why they’re every bit as real and distressing as our own.
1. Their reflections
Have you ever witnessed a young cat walking past a mirror? Their reaction is usually one of fight or flight. ‘This is thought to be because your pet is descended from the African wildcat,’ Rosie says.
‘The wildcat is a territorial species, and so reacts by becoming aggressive (fight) or fleeing (fright) if another cat invades its space.
‘Since very few animals have the “theory of mind&rdguo; that humans and primates do, your cat won’t be able to recognise that she’s only seeing herself in the mirror. Instead, she’ll assume that she’s come across an intruder to her territory and she’ll react accordingly.’
While there’s not much you can do to prevent your pet from experiencing this fear, she will eventually get used to the fact that a strange cat appears every time she’s in that area. Although, you can also expect her to have a good look around and behind the mirror – just to make sure the invader isn’t hiding!
In 2015, YouTube videos of cats’ frightened reactions to cucumbers were spread across the internet. Owners placed a cucumber behind their cat when they were least expecting it – such as during mealtimes – and then watched as their cat quite literally jumped with fright.
One theory for this extreme reaction was that the poor, unsuspecting cats mistook the cucumber for a snake – but, says Rosie, this isn’t necessarily the case. ‘Cats actually hunt snakes, so there is no evidence for a genetic predisposition to be fearful of them,’ she explains. ‘Rather, cats see their feeding areas, or any other familiar spots in your home, as safe spaces where they don’t have to be on their guard. So when any unexpected object (not just a cucumber) is positioned behind them without their knowledge, they’re likely to be startled.’
While it might be funny to see cats leap about in response to something that seems harmless, it can be genuinely distressing for them – not least because they feel threatened in a place they were previously at ease. To prevent trust issues from creeping up, discourage anyone from ever making a game out of frightening your (or their) cat.
While some cats don’t mind getting their paws wet, and breeds such as the Maine Coon are even known to enjoy the occasional swim, most thoroughly dislike water. ‘Again, this has to do with how cats have evolved,’ Rosie says. ‘Their ancestors would rarely have been exposed to large bodies of water, so they are genetically wired to mistrust the wet stuff.
‘And, having descended from desert-dwelling creatures, it’s understandable that cats like to be warm. Their fur absorbs water (instead of repelling it like a dog’s coat), meaning it takes them longer to dry out and heat up again. Cats also feel vulnerable when wet, because their coats are heavier, making it difficult to move quickly and climb to safety.’
So what to do about bath times? ‘An outdoor cat that has become especially dirty may need the occasional wash,’ Rosie says. ‘But you can avoid extremely fearful reactions by exposing your cat to water only when strictly necessary, and making sure to never directly spray her face or to suddenly dunk her. Then pat her dry with a clean towel and allow her to stay in a warm spot until her fur returns to normal.’
Feline phobia: an owner’s story
Marilyn Henricksen’s six-year-old cat Marley has a phobia of plastic bags.
‘If I shake one out when Marley is in earshot – not even in the same room – she’ll do a flip backwards out of fright,’ Marilyn says. ‘She’s even run into closed doors in an attempt to get away from the dreaded things.’
Marilyn adopted Marley four years ago from a rescue shelter and, while she’s a generally happy cat, she has always had this fear. But Rosie believes that she can overcome it: ‘As with any phobia, it’s a good idea to expose your pet to a small dose of the item she fears, and then give a treat so that positive associations are formed.
‘In Marley’s case, Marilyn could start with a bag that’s scrunched up in her pocket and quietly rustle it. She should immediately follow with a treat, so that Marley can begin to realise she has nothing to fear. Over the course of the next week or so, Marilyn can then gradually increase the rustling and even start to expose a bit of the bag from her pocket.
‘However, it’s vital to stay patient and take your cues from your cat. Marilyn should ensure Marley is happy and relaxed throughout, and go at a pace she seems comfortable with.’