Max's House

Desensitization And   Counterconditioning For Fear In Cats


This approach is useful for training cats to handle situations that they find fearful. In simple terms, your cat must be exposed to the fearful stimulus until it sees that there is nothing to fear and settles down. If the association with the stimulus can be turned into one that is positive, your cat should gradually develop a positive attitude when exposed to the stimulus.

Desensitization is used in combination with counterconditioning to change a pet’s attitude or ‘feeling’ about the stimulus from one that is negative to one that is positive.  Desensitization involves controlled exposure to situations or stimuli that might cause fear at levels that are minimal enough that your cat will adapt.  Counterconditioning is then used to change the cat’s response to the stimulus (e.g., person, other animal, etc.) by associating the cat’s favored rewards with a mild form of the stimulus.  The cat is then gradually introduced to similar but progressively more intense stimuli paired together with the presentation of the favored reward.

Response substitution is used to train the cat to perform or display an acceptable response (play, food acquisition) each time it is exposed to the stimulus. Rather than attempting to overcome an intense response, the training should be set up to expose the cat to stimuli of reduced intensity to ensure a successful outcome.   Desirable responses should be reinforced while attempts at escape should be prevented and any fearful response should be interrupted (e.g., with a leash and harness or a disruption device such as compressed air). If the cat’s attention can be successfully diverted, the appropriate response can then be rewarded.

Owner responses such as anxiety, fear, a raised voice, or any form of punishment will only serve to heighten the pet’s fear or anxiety. Similarly a fear or anxiety-inducing stimulus presented to your cat will further aggravate anxiety; be certain to retrain only with calm, controlled stimuli.  The goal of training is to reinforce appropriate, desirable responses. Therefore, it is critical that rewards are not given while the cat is displaying an inappropriate response. In addition, neither your cat nor the stimulus should be removed until the cat is settled.  Of course, if there is any chance of injury then quickly and safely removing the cat from the situation will have to take priority.


  1. Safety first: because a fearful cat can quickly become aggressive, precautions must be taken before beginning a treatment program for fear aggressive cats. Ideally, exposure to stimuli should be sufficiently positive and gradual so that no fear is exhibited. The cat should be entirely separated from the fearful stimulus except during retraining sessions. If necessary, a restraint device such as a leash and harness works well for some cats so that they can be interrupted from a distance and moved into a separate room until they calm down. Other options include using a large blanket to cover and wrap the cat and carrying it to a separate room until it calms down. Some cats may be successfully interrupted with a spray from a water rifle, citronella product, canister of compressed air, or with a noise device.

  2. Stimulus identification: each and every fear-eliciting stimulus must be identified, including people or animals, and in what situations fear is likely to arise.   For some cats, fear may be generalized so that all strangers or other animals lead to fear and anxiety, while for some cats the fear may be only to specific stimuli such as a particular family member or other pet in the home.

  3. Stimulus control: some method of controlling exposure to the stimulus must then be devised, so that a safe and effective desensitization program can be implemented.  Avoiding interactions with the stimulus is the safest approach, but improvement cannot be made without exposure to the stimulus. Using a leash and harness, a crate or separation across a doorway can be used to initiate exposure exercises with animate stimuli (e.g., people, other cats) while videos or audiotapes might be useful for auditory stimuli.

  4. Stimulus gradient: each stimulus will need to be presented along a gradient from low (least fear evoking) to high (most fear evoking). To develop a gradient you will need to determine which situations, people, places, or animals are most likely to evoke fear, as well as how to minimize and control these stimuli for retraining. For example, a cat that is fearful of strangers may be most fearful of the approach of young children, and least fearful of adult visitors that ignore the cat.

  5. Reinforcer selection and assessment: for most cats, special food or treats are likely to be of highest appeal, so that these reinforcers should be identified and saved exclusively for desensitization, counterconditioning, and reward training. By depriving your cat of these rewards until the training session, the reward may then be a strong enough motivator to overcome low levels of fear when exposed to the stimulus. Favored toys, catnip, and even short periods of affection may also be effective for counterconditioning, if they are saved exclusively for the exposure sessions.

  6. Pretraining: using a ‘learn to earn’ type program, many cats can be trained to have a positive and predictable response to commands or phrases. In this program, prior to giving the cat any reward or anything of value, the cat must first exhibit an appropriate response. A few basic phrases or commands, such as ‘come’ or ‘feeding,’ ‘play time’ or ‘go to your room,’ could be learned by the cat if the commands are always followed by a reward. In addition, a positive association needs to be made with any new control technique. If the cat is to wear a harness or be locked into a new confinement area, food, treats, or play should be provided.

  7. Other techniques for reducing anxiety: the use of pheromones and drug therapy may also be useful at reducing anxiety so that the behavioral retraining program can have faster or better results.

    Desensitize and countercondition.

    (a) You must begin with safe and effective control of both your cat as well as the fearful stimuli. For fear toward a particular person, the person should be situated at sufficient distance to avoid further aggravation of the fear, but with fear toward another cat, additional control mechanisms may be required for each cat. Although sufficient distance and counterconditioning with highly motivating rewards may be successful, it may be necessary toimplement better physical restraint to ensure success. This can be accomplished with a body harness and leash or a crate for one or both cats. Sometimes your cat and the stimulus (other cat, people) can be separated by confinement behind a common solid door (until the cat adapts to the odor and sounds of the stimulus) or across a glass or screen door, which would allow for safe visual exposure as well.

    (b) The next step would be to gradually reduce the distance when the cat is calm and takes the rewards in the presence of a minimized stimulus. If barriers have been used, the goal is to gradually get the cat into the same room with the stimulus (person, pet) at sufficient distance that the cat will take the food or treat.

    (c) If the cat exhibits any fear at any step in the desensitization program, you are progressing too quickly. Go back to the step that was successful and repeat it a few times before progressing again. Always end on a positive note.

    (d) Habituation and flooding: if the cat is restrained (e.g., leash and harness) or in a crate and shows mild fear but cannot escape, it may be possible to continue low-level exposure to the stimulus (e.g., the person or other cat ignores the cat). Food treats can be intermittently offered when the cat is sufficiently settled (habituates) or is sufficiently distracted to take the treat.

Fear of people: desensitization and counterconditioning

  1. Remember that the goal of training is for the cat to learn to make positive associations with the stimulus. Therefore each step should end on a positive note, with the cat receiving a reward before proceeding to the next level. Conversely, there should be no negative interactions so that if there is any need for interrupting an undesirable behavior (e.g., getting the cat off a counter), this should only be done by a person the cat is already comfortable with using a disruption device (and not verbal or physical punishment).

  2. Start by exposing the cat to the person at sufficient enough distance that there is no fear and your cat eats the food or treats. Another alternative is to keep your cat on a leash and halter, in a crate, or across a doorway (preferably glass or screened) in an adjacent room, with constant low-level exposure to the person and when the cat habituates (shows no fear) offer it a favored treat or food reward. If the cat is fearful of a particular person or type of person (unfamiliar child), the training can begin with milder stimuli, such as a calm teenager or a familiar child that causes no fear.

  3. The stimulus intensity is gradually increased.  The person may move a little closer at this or at future training sessions, but do not progress further until your cat takes the reward and is calm. Next, the goal will be for the person to give or offer the reward to the cat, or to throw it near the cat so that it approaches to take the reward. It might be helpful to think of the cat that cautiously approaches a child in a high chair (and therefore cannot approach the cat) because food is being dropped on the floor. Each further exposure should always be positive.

Fear of other cats: desensitization and counterconditioning

  1. 1. Introduction of a new cat into the household or reintroducing a cat in the home to one that it fears must be done slowly and cautiously so that each association with the other cat has a positive outcome.

  2. To begin, the cats must be safely controlled so that no setbacks or injuries can occur. Using distance, a body harness on one or both cats, crates for one or both cats, or the cats on opposite sides of a common doorway, the fearful cat (or cats) must eat and be calm before progressing.  On rare occasions, if the odor of one cat is sufficient to incite fear in the other cat, it may be helpful to offer food or treats while grooming each cat with a brush or towel that has been used on the other cat.

  3. At this point, if both cats have been in crates, the more fearful cat may be allowed out, and the food, treats, toys, or catnip should be given progressively closer to the other cat’s crate.  If the cats have been eating on opposite sides of a solid door, a screen or glass door could be used next, or the door kept ajar about 2 cm during feeding.  When both cats can be placed out of the crates in the same room together while eating at a sufficient distance to avoid fear, a leash and harness on one or both cats may be necessary to avoid injury and setbacks. If one or both cats do not eat, separate them and do not give any food until the next feeding session. If the cats eat at that time, repeat the same distance at the next feeding. If things go well the next time, the dishes can be moved a little closer together.

  4. Progress slowly! Allowing either cat to interact in a fearful or aggressive manner sets the program back.  The cats must remain separated except for times such as feeding when the cats are distracted, occupied, and engaged in an enjoyable act. In other words, good things are associated with the presence of the other cat. Another technique that may help is to rub the cats with towels and switch from one cat to the other to mix their scents.

  5. If the boldness or aggression of one cat is leading to the fear of another, then placing a bell on the aggressor, supervising and inhibiting any inappropriate behavior of the aggressor, or drugs for the aggressor may be useful. Once the desensitization and counterconditioning progresses to a state where the two cats are completely reintroduced, providing sufficient climbing and perching areas, or a cat door that can only be accessed by the fearful cat, may further improve the long-term outcome.

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