Understanding the fear of cats

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29 April 2015
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As self-confessed cat lovers, we may not understand it but some people are deathly frightened of cats. Sophie Hall explores the reasons behind the phobia.As much as we may hate to admit it, everyone, inevitably, has that one greatest fear. Usually, these are things we can share: spiders, snakes, heights, the dark. But human nature is made up of so many nuances and niggles, sometimes that fear can be something that others might not expect. For example, octophobia is the fear of the number eight, bibilophobia is the fear of books and ailurophobia is the fear of cats.For many, it may seem unusual that an animal taken into the hearts of so many can be the root of deep anxiety for another. A study conducted last year showed that 19 per cent of UK households (around 8.5 million) championed a feline friend as a pet. Online, things are even bigger, with a

Statistic after statistic may beam a positive light on cats, but for some, it's not so simple. Turning back the pages of history, noted figures throughout the ages shared a fear of cats: Hitler, Napoleon and Julius Caesar to name a few. Although we couldn't exactly get in touch with these folks to ask them why, we did meet a few who could answer.

Phobia triggers

Twenty-five-year-old Lauren Passmore has suffered with an uneasiness of cats since she was a child. For Lauren, there was never anything that triggered the anxiety, just something that always seemed to crawl under the skin.

"I have always known that I have had a fear of cats," explains Lauren, from Eastbourne, East Sussex. "Although I didn't grow up with any pets or really around animals, my dad tells me that when I was a toddler he had a cat that I despised and never wanted to be in the same room as. I just didn't like it being around me."

As with any fear, the fear of cats is usually something that starts from a young age. Sometimes, like with Lauren, it can simply linger. Wanting to dig deeper into the peculiar phenomenon, we spoke to experts who deal with fears in different ways.

Dr Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, is the author of 'Overcoming Animal and Insect Phobias', co-written with Randi McCabe. The self-help book was put together after Martin noticed that there wasn't much literature out there for people who are fearful of animals.

"People develop their fears in different ways," he explains. "And many people with animal phobias don't recall how their fears began as they often start in early childhood. The underlying concern differs across cat phobic individuals. For some it is a fear of harm (for example, being attacked, scratched etc). For others, it may be more of a disgust reaction."

Lauren concurred that one of the chief foundations for her fear is one of getting hurt. "The main thing I would say about cats that scare me are their claws. I really don't like that they appear from nowhere."

Lauren isn't the only one. Chloe Rushworth, from Leeds, shares the same worries. However, unlike Lauren, she had an altercation with one particular cat that perhaps brewed up the phobia in the first place. "At three years old, I was scratched by a cat. After that, the rest was history - I've just kept the fear with me."

The way the fear gesticulates seems to have similar symptoms for both parties, with Chloe dubbing cats "mischievous and sly" and generally feeling nervous near them. For Lauren, she describes her reaction to cats akin to watching a horror movie: "When I am in the same room as a cat I immediately feel on edge; I feel hot, my hands become sweaty and my heart rate accelerates."

Tackling the fear

Experts on the matter have noticed certain patterns in people's behaviour when it comes to ailurophobia. Steven Tromans has been a hypnotherapist for 20 years, and is now the founder of Justbewell.com, a website that helps to treat people with any type of phobia using hypnotherapy and NLP (neurolinguistic programming).

"The one factor that tends to be common with most 'animal' phobias is the fear that whatever it is - a bird, mouse, or snake for example - it will move suddenly," Steven explains. "The movement or surprise element is common with this kind of phobia."

Lauren also says that cat fur sets her on edge. "I just find it unpleasant and if I do enter a house where a cat lives I often feel like I am breathing in cat hair - I even check cups and cutlery before I eat or drink anything."

As for finding a 'cure' for their phobia, the girls go about it quite differently. Whereas Chloe likes to get on with it - "My husband's parents have three cats so I've just had to learn to deal with the fear," she says - Lauren feels that hers is more gripping in day-to-day social ventures: "There have been a couple of occasions where it has put me off going to see a friend with an excitable kitten - I couldn't sit down because it kept jumping on my lap. It was clawing at my feet, which for me is just terrifying. It got to the point where I made my excuses and left."

For any person with a fear, the results can always be a bit upsetting, but for Lauren, Chloe and many others, there are ways to help. Interestingly, Steven's first ever patient was scared of cats. "Cat phobia operates in the neurology the same way any other phobia does." he explains. "The first patient I saw had a cat phobia. I can't recall specific things she said, but I know it took just one hour and by the end of it she was cuddling one of my cats!"

For perhaps such a little-known fear, do Chloe and Lauren's friends and family support them? "They just find it hilarious." Chloe admits.

Lauren agrees: "In general, friends and family seem to think my fear of cats is pretty amusing, which I can understand to a point, because I can admit it probably does look ridiculous - me jumping out of my skin at a small, fluffy animal!"

As is the case for most fears, both Steven and Martin seem to think the answer to a 'cure' can be exposure. Martin's advice to fight the fear is to get to know a cat, and lift the stigma. "The treatment for any animal phobia is to gradually confront the fear through exposure to the feared animal." he says.

"All fears are curable," adds Steven. So perhaps to fear something that to one person looks cute and cuddly, but to another can look like a death trap, is something that needs to be recognised more? "I can understand to a point," Lauren reasons, when it comes to other people's reactions to ailurophobia. "But everybody has fears of different things, and I wouldn't like to belittle somebody who has a fear of heights or confined spaces for example.

"My close friends understand that I really am scared and know that it's not something I am comfortable with at all. This interview has made me think that maybe I should do something more to confront my fear!"