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Ailurophobia, an extreme and irrational fear of cats, is a type of animal phobia that is not as well-known as other animal phobias, such as a fear of snakes or spiders, and is often not considered to be a serious phobia. However, a fear of cats can have a profoundly negative effect on someone’s life, well-being and mental and physical health, particularly if their phobia is severe and prevents them from engaging in social activities or spending time outside their home.
Today, we are going to look at ailurophobia in more detail, including the common causes, triggers, symptoms and treatments.
What is ailurophobia?
Ailurophobia is an extreme, overwhelming and irrational fear of cats. Sometimes referred to as elurophobia, gatophobia or felinophobia, ailurophobia can result in extreme fear, anxiety or panic when someone sees, touches, hears or smells a cat (or something that reminds them of cats) or when they think about or talk about cats.
Ailurophobia is a type of specific phobia characterised by an enduring, overwhelming and irrational fear of a specific object, situation, place or person; in this case, an extreme fear of cats. It is also frequently classified as a type of animal phobia. Someone with ailurophobia may experience negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours in relation to all types of cats or only specific cats. Some people with ailurophobia only experience fear and anxiety about household cats, whereas other people experience fear and anxiety in relation to all cats, including big cats such as lions, tigers, leopards and cougars. Some people also only experience symptoms when faced with stray cats or particular breeds or colours of cats.
In the majority of cases, ailurophobia is triggered by a traumatic, negative or scary experience involving a cat. Although many people view cats in a positive way, as being cute or cuddly animals, other people focus on their unpredictability and their aloofness and view cats as being unfriendly and threatening.
Some people also view cats as evil or as carriers of evil. They are frequently associated with dark magic and negative figures, such as witches and Satan, and this can make them appear frightening.
Because ailurophobia is an individualised phobia, it can manifest in many different ways.
Different people who have this phobia may experience different fears concerning cats, for example:
- The fear of being bitten or scratched by a cat
Cats are unpredictable animals and although they don’t pose a significant threat to humans, they will often bite or scratch a human, to show their displeasure or as part of a game. Cats’ teeth and claws are sharp, and although they may not cause significant damage, a bite or scratch can be painful, and in some cases may become infected. Some people become scared of cats following a previous scratch or bite or after seeing another person’s injuries following an encounter with a cat.
- The fear of a cat transmitting a disease or infection
This is a common cause of phobias, including ailurophobia. Diseases, bacteria and infections, such as Campylobacteriosis, cat scratch disease and rabies, can spread from cats to humans through their faeces, saliva or from a cat scratch or bite. Although transmission from cats to humans isn’t common, the possibility that this could happen can cause someone to develop a phobia of cats.
- The fear that cats are evil
There are many superstitions attached to cats and they are frequently associated with the spooky season of Halloween. Cats are also associated with witches, with stories claiming them as the pets of witches or as witches themselves. Some people also associate cats with Satan, with this superstition even being perpetuated by the Catholic Church as early as the 13th century. The association between cats and dark magic or evil can cause someone to develop a phobia of all cats, or of specific cats, such as black cats.
- The fear of a cat hissing at you
There are multiple reasons why someone can be afraid of a cat’s hissing. It could be that they find the sound threatening and think that the cat is going to attack them. Some people also associate a cat’s hissing with the hissing noise made by a snake. Because ophidiophobia, an extreme fear of snakes, is an evolutionary fear that humans are predisposed to, the association between the sounds made by cats and snakes can result in someone developing a phobia of cats.
- The fear that a cat is dirty
Some people consider animals, including cats, to be dirty. They may dislike cats coming close to them or touching them or refuse to enter someone’s house who has a cat because they fear the cat may have fleas or ticks or dirty fur. The fact that cats kill and often eat other animals that are considered to be dirty or commonly have diseases, such as mice, rats and pigeons, is another reason why some people think that cats are dirty and unhygienic.
Animal phobias are common, and many people experience a type of animal phobia. However, this does not mean that every person who dislikes cats has ailurophobia.
Although there are some situations where it is normal to feel some fear or anxiety, someone with ailurophobia may experience negative thoughts or feelings, such as anxiety, fear or panic, even in situations where cats don’t pose a risk to them or when anticipating an encounter with a cat. Because phobias are irrational and the fear is disproportionate to the true risk, a phobia of cats can significantly impact your everyday life and result in you experiencing fear, anxiety and panic even in situations where there is no risk or danger.
Someone with ailurophobia may experience difficulties functioning normally or concentrating in certain places or situations, because of the fear that they could encounter cats. They may become consumed with the thought of cats and find themselves constantly checking that there are no cats around them.
The fear, anxiety and panic that they feel can have a significant impact on their mental and emotional well-being and their behaviour.
A phobia of cats can occur on a spectrum, with some people experiencing more severe fear, panic and anxiety than others. Because it is an individualised phobia, you may find that your symptoms are more easily triggered, whereas other people with ailurophobia can function normally in places and situations where they could encounter cats.
To be classed as ailurophobia, your fear of cats will include:
- Feelings of intense fear, panic or anxiety that are difficult to manage.
- Fear or anxiety that is out of proportion to the true risk.
- A fear of cats that lasts for at least six months.
- Engaging in avoidance behaviours to prevent encounters with cats.
- A fear of cats that interferes with your day-to-day life, overall well-being or sense of safety.
The fear and anxiety that someone feels at the prospect of being close to a cat can result in avoidance behaviours. They may go to extreme lengths to prevent any encounters with cats by avoiding certain places or situations. For example, they may refuse to visit other people’s homes in case they have a pet cat.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to avoid cats entirely, as many pet cats are allowed out of their homes on their own and are often found freely roaming the streets. Some people with ailurophobia experience fear, anxiety and panic that is so extreme that they are unable to leave their homes because of their fear of seeing a cat or a cat coming close to them. They may even be unable to spend time in their own garden or look out of their windows in case they see a cat.
Avoidance behaviours can make it difficult for you to perform everyday tasks or function normally in society. Although avoidance behaviours are designed to help you avoid cats and prevent you from experiencing negative thoughts and feelings and adverse symptoms, they can actually have a paradoxical effect instead.
Instead of helping you to manage or reduce your symptoms, avoiding cats can actually have the opposite effect and instead reinforce your fear and result in more severe symptoms in the future. Avoidance behaviours can also negatively impact your social life and professional life, your relationships and your ability to function normally.
If you have ailurophobia, you may also have difficulties concentrating or functioning normally in certain situations. For example, if you are in a work meeting and see a cat sitting on the windowsill, you may begin to panic and find it difficult to concentrate on the meeting.
Even if you have ailurophobia, you may be aware that your fear of cats is irrational and that the risks associated with cats are low. However, you may still find that you are unable to control your fear or anxiety and are unable to manage or prevent your physiological, psychological or behavioural responses to cats.
Ailurophobia is often connected to and occurs in conjunction with other phobias, such as:
- Zoophobia: An extreme fear of animals.
- Cynophobia: An extreme fear of dogs.
- Trichophobia: An extreme fear of hair (or fur), particularly of seeing or feeling loose hairs on your body or clothing.
- Daknophobia: An extreme fear of being bitten.
- Amychophobia: An extreme fear of being scratched, clawed or lacerated.
How common is ailurophobia?
A fear of animals is one of the most common types of specific phobias. However, cats are not one of the most commonly feared animals, with the most common animal phobias being ophidiophobia (snakes), arachnophobia (spiders), entomophobia (insects) and galeophobia (sharks).
Because ailurophobia is a type of specific phobia, any diagnosis of this condition will fall under the specific phobia umbrella. This means that there are no individual statistics available regarding how many people experience a phobia of cats.
Although approximately 5 million people in the UK are diagnosed with a type of specific phobia, these figures are thought to be under-representative of true statistics. Similarly to other phobias, a phobia of cats is thought to be more common than statistics suggest.
There are multiple reasons why ailurophobia may be underdiagnosed, such as:
- Many people have not heard of ailurophobia so may not realise they are experiencing a diagnosable medical condition.
- Many people are not aware that effective treatments are available for phobias.
- Specific phobias often develop during childhood and the child may be expected to grow out of their fear.
- Someone with ailurophobia may not discuss their fear and anxiety with others so may not realise their thoughts and feelings are irrational.
- Avoidance behaviours may reduce the individual’s contact with cats, making their phobia seem more manageable.
- Someone with ailurophobia may be aware that their fear is irrational and may be embarrassed.
It is also important to bear in mind that not everyone who is nervous around or dislikes cats is experiencing a phobia. Negative thoughts and feelings in relation to cats usually occur on a spectrum, ranging from mild fear and anxiety or anxiety in specific situations (such as if a cat hisses at you), to severe fear, panic and anxiety that occurs even if there is no real threat of danger, and can impact your day-to-day life, affect your decision-making and result in changes in your behaviour.
Who is at risk of ailurophobia?
Although anyone can develop ailurophobia, there are certain risk factors that can increase the likelihood of you developing a fear of cats.
- Having a previous traumatic, scary, negative or painful experience involving a cat.
- Having a previous traumatic, scary, negative or painful experience involving another animal.
- Having little day-to-day contact with cats or never previously having a pet.
- Having another animal phobia.
- Having another related phobia, such as daknophobia or amychophobia.
- Being exposed to a fear of cats during childhood or adolescence.
- Having a close family member, for example, a parent or sibling, with ailurophobia.
- Having a close family member, for example, a parent or sibling, with another phobia.
- Being an intrinsically more anxious or nervous person.
- Having an allergy to cats or cat fur.
- Having a history of anxiety disorders or other mental health difficulties.
- Going through a significant life stressor, having higher than usual stress levels or being in a heightened mental state (particularly if you are exposed to the fear of cats or have a negative experience involving a cat during this time).
- Having a substance use disorder, such as an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
However, it is important to note that although the above risk factors can increase the chance that you will develop ailurophobia, they do not guarantee this. Someone with none of the above risk factors can develop a phobia of cats unexpectedly, whereas someone with several of the above risk factors may never develop ailurophobia and may enjoy spending time with cats throughout their life.
Although ailurophobia can manifest at any age, as with other phobias, you are more likely to develop a phobia of cats during childhood or adolescence, particularly if you have a negative experience involving a cat when you are young.
This is because children are less capable of managing fear and trauma. Trauma can also cause feelings of fear and anxiety that children are less able to cope with or negative thoughts that children are unable to understand or rationalise. This can make them more likely to develop a phobia, compared to adults.
How to deal with ailurophobia
Medical interventions and official treatments are not always required, and some people with phobias are able to effectively deal with their fear themselves. There are certain coping strategies and calming strategies that can be combined with positive lifestyle changes to help alleviate your symptoms and reduce the impact your phobia has on your day-to-day life and overall well-being.
Some of these coping and calming strategies should be implemented long term, which means you engage in them on a regular, long-term basis. They can help to reduce the frequency and severity of your phobia symptoms over time and reduce the likelihood that encountering a trigger will result in a negative response.
Other strategies are designed to work on a short-term basis and should be implemented if you are faced with a cat or another trigger. Short-term strategies can minimise or prevent any physiological, psychological or behavioural symptoms and prevent an anxiety-inducing situation from escalating.
Some of the long-term and short-term coping and calming strategies you can implement to help you deal with your phobia of cats include:
- Create a fear ladder
A fear ladder can help you to analyse and understand your fear of cats and can also help you to identify which of your triggers creates more severe fear, anxiety and panic than others. When creating your fear ladder, your triggers will be organised from least severe to most severe. Because phobias are highly individualised, everyone’s fear ladder is different. Although your fear ladder may look different, an example is shown below:
– 1 = A cat sitting on your lap.
– 2 = Stroking a cat.
– 3 = Being in the same room as a cat.
– 4 = Finding cat hair on your clothing.
– 5 = Seeing a cat in your garden.
– 6 = Hearing a cat meowing close to you.
Once you have created your fear ladder, you can then confront your fears one at a time, starting at the bottom of the ladder (the trigger that results in the least phobic response). This can help you to build up your tolerance of your triggers gradually and reduce your fear of cats long term.
- Visualising overcoming your fear
You can utilise visualisation techniques to help you overcome your phobia of cats by imagining yourself successfully confronting and overcoming your fear and anxiety. You can do this by visualising situations that you find triggering, such as entering a room with a cat in it and imagining how you would successfully overcome your anxiety. Visualising an encounter with a cat in a positive way can help to reassure your brain that everything is okay. Your brain often cannot differentiate between imagination and thoughts and reality, so by visualising positive encounters with cats, you can reassure your brain that cats do not pose a threat to you.
- Learn about your phobia
Learning about your phobia involves working to understand what initially caused you to fear cats and the lead-up to you developing this phobia. Having a deeper understanding of your phobia allows you to deal with the root cause of your fear and any negative thoughts, emotions and behaviours that are connected to it. By rationalising and understanding your phobia, you can reduce your automatic fear response, and reduce the frequency and severity of your symptoms.
Desensitisation draws on some of the concepts explored during exposure therapy. It involves gradually and repeatedly exposing yourself to things that trigger a fear or anxiety response. Over time, your reaction to your triggers will be less intense until you can eventually be around cats without experiencing a fear response. Being less triggered by cats can reduce the impact your phobia has on your everyday life and your well-being. Ensure desensitisation happens gradually, as this is most effective.
- Attend a support group
Attending a support group with other people who have had similar experiences to you can be extremely beneficial. It can help to validate your thoughts and feelings and allow you to receive advice, reassurance and empathy from other people who understand your experience. You could attend an in-person or online support group with other people with phobias or anxiety disorders.
- Challenge negative thoughts and feelings
Someone with ailurophobia can experience increasing distress or anxiety when thinking or talking about cats or remembering a previous encounter with a cat. If you find yourself thinking about cats negatively or experiencing negative emotions, try to disrupt your thoughts and feelings to prevent your fear from escalating. Remind yourself that cats don’t pose a risk to you and that your fear is unfounded. If you begin to experience negative symptoms, remind yourself that the feelings will soon pass and that your fear is disproportionate.
- Avoid negative superstitions or depictions of cats
Negative superstitions and depictions of cats can reinforce any negative connotations you have already associated with cats and any connected negative thoughts and feelings you have. Negative superstitions can also result in you becoming hyperaware or paranoid that cats are around you and can result in fear or panic if you see certain cats, for example, black cats. This can exacerbate your phobia and result in more severe phobic symptoms. Try to avoid any triggering portrayals or superstitions about cats to prevent your phobia from escalating.
- Practise mindfulness
Mindfulness can be beneficial in treating a variety of anxiety disorders, including phobias. It can help you to focus your breathing and attention and reduce the likelihood of you experiencing a panic attack. Mindfulness can also help to reduce the symptoms of ailurophobia. It can help you to manage stress and anxiety and be more in control of the connection between your mind and body.
- Practise yoga or meditation
Both yoga and meditation are anxiety-reducing practices that can help to reduce or eliminate your anxiety and fear responses. If you have ailurophobia, encountering a cat will likely trigger a fight-or-flight response and will also trigger the release of stress hormones. Yoga and meditation teach your brain to achieve a highly relaxed state and decrease your stress levels, which can counteract the fight-or-flight response. Yoga and meditation can also teach you how to control your breathing and manage your body’s negative response to your triggers, helping you to feel more in control and calm. They can reduce the negative thoughts, feelings and responses you may have when faced with cats in the future. Practising them every day can help to improve the symptoms of your phobia over time and reduce the impact your phobia has on your life.
- Learn deep breathing exercises
Deep breathing exercises can help you to manage the symptoms of your phobia if you encounter a trigger by prompting your brain to relax and calm down and helping you to manage your anxiety. You can also practise deep breathing in the long term. If you engage in deep breathing exercises every day, this can help you to effectively reduce your stress levels, relieve tension in your body and reduce your anxiety long term.
- Make lifestyle changes
Lifestyle factors such as lack of sleep, high levels of stress and a poor diet can exacerbate the symptoms of your phobia and increase your anxiety. By making lifestyle changes, you can reduce the impact your phobia of cats has on your life. Some lifestyle changes you can make include:
– Implement a successful sleep routine.
– Reduce your daily stress.
– Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
– Implement an exercise routine.
– Avoid caffeine, sugar and other stimulants.
What triggers ailurophobia?
Because ailurophobia is an individualised phobia that can manifest differently in different people, there are many potential triggers. The triggers can vary from person to person, with some people having only one trigger and other people having many different triggers.
The types of triggers and the number of triggers experienced by different people can vary depending on what initially caused their phobia of cats to develop, their perception of the potential risk, the severity of their symptoms and their current mindset and mental health.
The most common triggers for ailurophobia are:
- Feeling a cat’s fur on your skin.
- A cat being close to you.
- Hearing a cat purring or hissing.
- Seeing a cat from a distance (for example, out of a window).
- Seeing a cat bed, toys or litter or other objects that suggest a cat lives in the home.
- Hearing a noise you typically associate with cats, such as the ringing of a bell on a collar.
- Seeing cat fur on your clothing or on the floor.
- Smelling something you typically associate with a cat, such as cat litter or cat food.
- Watching a video or seeing a picture of a cat.
- Thinking about cats or remembering a previous encounter with cats.
- Knowing that you are in close proximity to a cat, even if you cannot see it or it cannot come close to you.
- Seeing a toy or teddy cat or a cat figurine or ornament.
- Walking down the pet aisle in the supermarket.
What are the symptoms of ailurophobia?
The symptoms of ailurophobia can occur at any time, including if you see, hear, touch or smell a cat, you encounter another trigger, when you anticipate seeing a cat or when you think about or talk about cats.
Because phobias are individualised, the type of symptoms people experience and the frequency and severity of their symptoms can differ and often occur on a spectrum, with some people experiencing much more severe symptoms than others. In fact, some people’s phobias of cats are so severe that they can experience panic attacks if they encounter a cat. Differences in the manifestation, frequency and severity of symptoms can occur for multiple reasons, for example, how acute your phobia is, what initially caused your phobia to develop, your perception of the potential risk or threat of danger and your current mental and emotional well-being.
The symptoms of ailurophobia can occur at any time, including when you are close to a cat or when you are not close to a cat. The symptoms of phobias are usually automatic and uncontrollable. It may feel like you are unable to control or manage your thoughts or feelings and that your phobia is taking over your body.
Although different people experience different symptoms, the most common symptoms of ailurophobia are:
Psychological symptoms refer to the mental and cognitive features of your phobia that occur as a direct result of your phobia.
The most common psychological symptoms of ailurophobia are:
- Intense, overwhelming, persistent, excessive and unreasonable fear, anxiety or panic when faced with cats or if you touch, smell or hear a cat.
- Feelings of fear, anxiety or panic that are out of proportion to the risks.
- Being unable to control your fear, anxiety or panic even if you are aware that they are out of proportion to the risk.
- Feeling unusually agitated.
- Anticipatory anxiety in the lead-up to encountering cats.
- Feeling immobilised or frozen by your fear.
- Feeling like you are not in control or are about to lose control.
- Difficulties concentrating or functioning normally around cats.
- Feeling defenceless or vulnerable.
- Experiencing frequent or distressing nightmares about cats.
- Feeling like you are in danger or having an impending sense of doom.
- Feeling like you are losing control or fearing losing control.
- Feeling like you are going to die.
Ailurophobia can cause a variety of behavioural symptoms, characterised by unusual, negative or damaging behaviours or changes in your normal behaviour.
The most common behavioural symptoms of ailurophobia are:
- Avoiding cats or any place or situation where you could encounter cats.
- Refusing to go outside, in case you see a cat.
- Refusing to spend time in your garden in case you see a cat.
- Being unable to eat or having a lack of appetite during or in the lead-up to triggering situations.
- Difficulties sleeping or insomnia in the lead-up to triggering situations.
- Refusing to talk about or think about cats.
- Refusing to watch a TV show or film that features a cat.
- Feeling like you want to run away or hide if you see a cat.
- Becoming socially withdrawn.
Physiological symptoms are the physical symptoms that occur in your body as a result of your phobia. Not everyone with a phobia will experience physiological symptoms. They occur because the anxiety, fear or panic you are feeling triggers the fight-or-flight response in your body, which is designed to prepare you to either defend yourself from a threat or run away from the potential threat of danger. The fight-or-flight response triggers your sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.
This can then result in physical symptoms, such as:
- Tightness in your chest or chest pains.
- Unusual or excessive sweating or clamminess.
- Feelings of dizziness or light-headedness.
- Feeling confused or disoriented.
- Difficulties breathing, such as shortness of breath, rapid breathing, hyperventilating or feeling like you can’t catch your breath.
- Experiencing a choking sensation, finding it difficult to swallow or feeling like something is stuck in your throat.
- Heart palpitations, increased heart rate or feeling like your heart is pounding.
- Increased blood pressure.
- Shaking or trembling.
- Stomach pain, nausea, vomiting or feeling like you need to go to the toilet.
- Feeling like you have butterflies in your stomach.
- Unusual headaches or other pains.
- Pins and needles, particularly in your hands, feet, arms or legs.
- Feeling unusually tired or fatigued.
- Having a dry or sticky mouth.
- Muscle tension or stiff muscles.
- An unusual sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures.
- Having a panic attack.
- Pale or flushed skin, particularly in the face.
Some people only experience a few of the above symptoms, whereas others experience many different symptoms. You may experience symptoms from all three categories (psychological, behavioural and physiological) or may only experience symptoms from one or two of the categories; for example, you may only experience fear and anxiety when you see a cat, and no behavioural or physical symptoms.
It could also be that you experience different types of symptoms at different times, depending on the trigger. For example, you may experience physiological symptoms, such as a racing heart, shaking, breathing difficulties and panic attacks if a cat climbs on your knee but not if you see one from a distance.
What causes ailurophobia?
As mentioned earlier, ailurophobia is an individualised phobia, meaning there are many potential causes. Different people have different experiences of what caused their phobias to develop. Some people can pinpoint one clear cause of their fear of cats, whereas other people find that multiple factors contributed to their developing ailurophobia. In some cases, it can be difficult to pinpoint the initial cause of a phobia of cats, particularly if the fear developed gradually over time or first manifested a long time ago.
Determining the root cause of your phobia of cats and what initially caused your symptoms can be extremely helpful, as it can help you to address your initial trigger or triggers and any negative patterns of thought or negative feelings that are attached to the original onset of your phobia, which can make it easier for you to deal with your phobia and manage your symptoms.
The causes of ailurophobia can be environmental, psychological or genetic.
The most common causes are:
- A negative, scary, traumatic or painful experience involving a cat
This is the most common cause of ailurophobia and is also known as a direct learning experience or traumatic conditioning. The traumatic experience may or may not have involved real danger or risk. However, as long as the individual experiences significant fear, distress or trauma, this can lead to the development of a phobia. A traumatic experience involving a cat is more likely to lead to ailurophobia if the event happened during childhood. The event may be direct or indirect, meaning it happened to you or you witnessed it happening to someone else. For example, being scratched or bitten by a cat or seeing someone else be attacked or have injuries from a cat.Following the traumatic experience, you may begin to have intrusive and negative thoughts or memories of the trauma and begin to avoid trauma-related triggers, for example, by avoiding places and situations where you might see a cat. This can cause the fear or anxiety you felt at the time of the experience to linger or worsen and can lead to you developing a phobia.
- Multiple less severe negative experiences involving cats
In some cases, you can develop a fear of cats because of multiple negative experiences that all contributed to the development of a phobia. One or two of these experiences alone may not have resulted in ailurophobia and likely did not involve trauma, but combined with other negative experiences, they can result in a fear of cats. For example, a cat hissing at you, eating a dead mouse in front of you and you getting flea bites from a cat can be smaller events that result in you developing a phobia. Smaller negative events are more likely to contribute to a phobia if these negative experiences happen within a similar timeframe or if the individual is a child or adolescent at the time.
- Having an allergy to cats or cat hair
Pet allergies, specifically an allergy to cats and dogs, affect between 10% and 20% of the world’s population. The fear that being close to a cat will trigger an allergic reaction can cause someone to develop a phobia, particularly if they have a severe allergy that could result in an anaphylactic shock or if they are embarrassed by the symptoms of their allergy, such as red and puffy eyes. If your cat allergy has existed since childhood, you may have been repeatedly warned of the dangers of being close to cats and the connected avoidance behaviours could have caused you to develop ailurophobia.
- Fear rumination
This is a common cause of phobias and usually occurs following a negative encounter with a cat. Fear rumination involves engaging in repetitive negative thought processes and persistently and repeatedly recapping a traumatic, scary, negative or painful experience involving cats. Over time, these thoughts and memories can become increasingly upsetting and intrusive and can make you remember the event as being more negative or scary than it was in reality. Fear rumination reinforces your natural fear responses, creates additional anxiety and can result in you developing ailurophobia.
- A learned phobia
Also known as an observational learning experience, a learned phobia usually means you observed a fear of cats in another person and learned to be scared of them yourself. You could also learn to associate cats with pain or danger. You are more likely to learn a phobia if you are exposed to it during childhood or adolescence. For example, children who grow up with a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, with ailurophobia are more likely to develop the condition themselves. However, a learned phobia can also develop during adulthood.
- Superstitions and cultural beliefs
There are multiple well-known superstitions about cats that can contribute to someone developing a phobia of them. For example, black cats bring bad luck, black cats are witches in disguise and cats can raise the dead. There have also been many cultural beliefs that have been told for hundreds of years about cats being friends of witches or Satan. The negative representations and the negative connotations people learn about cats can cause them to think of them as being dangerous, evil, scary or bad luck. This can then develop into ailurophobia.
- An informational learning experience
You could develop ailurophobia if you are exposed to information about cats that scares you or makes you feel anxious. For example, hearing about diseases or infections that have spread from cats to humans can result in you disliking or fearing cats, which can then cause you to begin avoiding cats and result in you developing ailurophobia.
- Experiencing significant or higher than usual stress levels
Significant, long-term stress can result in a disproportionate fear response or an inability to manage intense situations. This can make it more likely that you will develop a phobia, such as ailurophobia, particularly if you have a negative experience involving cats or are exposed to the fear of cats while experiencing higher levels of stress. A stressful or distressing event, such as a death can also trigger a phobia, as you may be less able to manage your emotions and thought processes when experiencing grief, which can result in a disproportionate fear response.
- A traumatic experience involving another animal
It is possible to develop ailurophobia following a traumatic experience involving a different animal. If the experience involved significant trauma, stress, anxiety or pain, it can result in you developing a phobia of all animals, or animals that remind you of the original stressor. For example, a negative experience with a dog can cause a phobia of all pets or a negative experience with a snake can cause you to fear any animal that hisses.
How is ailurophobia diagnosed?
If you think you may have ailurophobia, the first step in seeking a diagnosis will be to visit your GP or primary healthcare provider. Your GP will likely refer you to a psychologist or another mental health professional who specialises in phobias. Both your GP and the phobia specialist will request more information about your fear of cats, your symptoms and how it is affecting your life.
They will likely ask questions centring on:
- The symptoms you experience, including what your symptoms are, how frequently they occur and how severe they are.
- The initial onset of your fear, including when your symptoms first began and what initially triggered your fear of cats.
- Your medical history, including whether you are currently or have previously had any anxiety disorders, panic disorders, phobias or other mental health conditions.
- Any medication or supplements you take (to ensure that your symptoms cannot be attributed to another source).
- Whether you have a family history of phobias.
- How much your fear interferes with your day-to-day life, your well-being and your behaviour.
- Whether your fear results in avoidance behaviours.
To ascertain whether you are experiencing a true phobia, the psychologist or other mental health professional will likely conduct a phobia questionnaire, which will allow them to gain more insight into your negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours surrounding cats. Because ailurophobia is a type of specific phobia, your symptoms will be compared to the diagnostic criteria for specific phobias.
Your symptoms will need to correspond with the seven key criteria listed below:
1. The fear must be persistent, excessive and unreasonable. It can occur either when the individual is close to cats or when they are not.
2. Exposure to cats or another trigger leads to an immediate anxiety response in the majority of situations.
3. The fear is excessive and disproportionate to the threat, and this is recognised by the individual.
4. The individual avoids places or situations where they could be exposed to cats. If they are exposed to a cat, they will experience extreme fear, anxiety or distress.
5. The anticipation of encountering a cat and the avoidance behaviours associated with avoiding cats can have a significant impact on the individual’s day-to-day life.
6. The fear has lasted for a minimum of six months.
7. The phobia is not associated with another disorder or mental health condition.
If your symptoms fit the above criteria, you will receive a diagnosis of a specific phobia, specifically ailurophobia. Depending on the severity of your phobia, you may be offered treatment.
How is ailurophobia treated?
Once you have been diagnosed with ailurophobia, you may be offered treatment. Although there are multiple effective treatment options for phobias, not everyone with a phobia requires treatment. You may not need formal treatment if your symptoms are mild, your phobia does not impact your everyday life or well-being, or if you have already implemented effective coping strategies. It is always advisable to consult your doctor before making any decisions regarding your treatment.
However, for many people, seeking treatment is the best way to help them manage or eradicate their phobia. If your phobia is triggered easily or frequently, if it causes you to avoid certain places or situations, if your symptoms are severe, or if your phobia negatively impacts your day-to-day life or well-being, treatment could be beneficial. Ailurophobia is a highly treatable phobia, with multiple successful treatment options available.
Because there are multiple treatment options available, the mental health professional will create a personalised treatment plan that is designed to effectively treat the root cause of your phobia, your symptoms and any negative thought patterns, feelings and behaviours that are connected to your fear of cats.
They will consider several factors before deciding on the best treatment for you, such as:
- The severity of your symptoms.
- The frequency of your symptoms.
- The root cause of your phobia.
- How significantly your phobia impacts your life.
- Your overall health and well-being, including your mental health.
The most common treatment options for ailurophobia are:
Sometimes called systematic desensitisation, exposure therapy is one of the most successful treatment options for phobias. During the sessions, you will be exposed to your triggers gradually in a safe and controlled environment with the aim of desensitising you so that cats no longer trigger a negative response.
To successfully treat your fear, the exposure should take place over multiple sessions, with the number of sessions required depending on the severity of your phobia. You will be required to visualise and talk about your fear and experience your triggers in real life. Exposure will happen gradually, in escalating phases, starting with the triggers that are the least anxiety-provoking. Once you are comfortable with this level of exposure, you can move on to the next trigger. Your reactions, thoughts and feelings will be analysed and recorded throughout. With each exposure, you should experience progressively lower anxiety. You will gradually build up to the most anxiety-provoking situations, with the aim of being around cats without experiencing a negative response.
For example, your exposure therapy sessions could look like this:
1. Looking at pictures of cats.
2. Talking about cats.
3. Watching videos of cats.
4. Holding a toy cat.
5. Looking at a cat through a window.
6. Being in the same room as a cat in a cat carrier.
7. Feeding a cat.
8. Stroking a cat, with support from your therapist or close family members or friends.
Eventually, exposure therapy should eradicate the fear and anxiety responses you usually feel in relation to cats. Through exposure therapy, you can learn relaxation techniques, coping and calming strategies, and unlearn negative associations and patterns of thought regarding cats. Exposure therapy should help you to decrease your negative reactions and feelings towards cats long term.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT):
Another popular treatment option for phobias is CBT, which is a type of talk therapy. CBT aims to help you identify negative thought patterns and reframe them. It can help you to change the ways you view cats and how you think about and respond to certain situations and any exposure to cats. CBT aims to help you understand your phobia and any negative or damaging thoughts and patterns of behaviour that are contributing to or worsening your phobia.
During your sessions, you will:
- Discuss your triggers and symptoms.
- Explore what caused your fear of cats.
- Learn how to recognise your negative thoughts and change the way you are thinking.
- Learn coping strategies and calming strategies, such as deep breathing exercises, distraction techniques and coping statements.
CBT aims to help you to explore and understand what initially caused your fear of cats and deconstruct any negative thoughts surrounding cats into smaller fragments, which can then be addressed individually. This can help to reduce your negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours and reduce or eliminate any negative responses or symptoms you usually have around cats.
Clinical hypnotherapy aims to change the way you view cats and the way you respond to situations that trigger your phobia. The hypnotherapist will use a combination of guided relaxation techniques and focused attention to help change your thought processes and your overall perception of and response to cats.
Hypnotherapy can also help you identify and understand the underlying cause of your fear of cats. You can also focus on any unprocessed trauma you have surrounding cats or the initial cause of your phobia and any negative memories you have surrounding cats. You will also learn how to overcome any negative thoughts and feelings about cats, both long term and short term. To help you manage your phobia more effectively, you will also learn calming techniques.
Medication is not usually used as the sole treatment option for ailurophobia. However, it may be recommended if you are experiencing another mental health difficulty, such as generalised anxiety or depression, alongside your phobia. Medication may also be recommended if your phobia is severe and is having a significant impact on your life, for example, if you are unable to leave your home because of the fear of encountering a cat.
If medication is recommended as a treatment option, it will likely be offered alongside another type of treatment, such as CBT or exposure therapy.
Some types of medication which are often used to treat phobias and associated mental health conditions are:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
- Anti-anxiety medication.