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The Pet Project, Part Five - The Scaredy Cat

If you have not been following along, "The Pet Project" is my humourous yet somewhat serious project to help our cat, Victoria, to lose weight through a combination of exercise and diet. You can catch up on this by reading the posts in order:

Part One - "Our Cat is Fat"
Part Two - "Kitty is on a new Diet"
Part Three - "Cat Walking"
Part Four - "Conquering Failures"

Last week I talked about how I got a laser pointer and how I was going to use the laser pointer to tempt the cat into going outside in the hallway for walks.

Today I finally got the cat outside in the hallway, although not due to the laser pointer. I had to physically carry her out there, and then she immediately bolted back to the safety of our apartment. She is utterly terrified with going outside apparently, which is at odds with the fact her favourite hobby (ignoring sleeping and eating) is sitting at the window and watching the world outside.

So she is utterly fascinated by the world out there... but terrified of it too.

Which might make sense when you consider she is a rescue. We never learned all the details of what happened to her before the Toronto Humane Society rescued her, but our understanding is that she might have been abandoned on the streets by her previous owner.

Thus me picking her up and setting her down in the hallway might have been a traumatic reminder of the day she was abandoned, even though the safety of the apartment was right there, she had a leash on (although she doesn't understand the purpose of it - she thinks it is something to play with and bite), and I had zero intention of abandoning her. She immediately bolted back into the apartment, trying to get away from the dreaded hallway.

(It is also possible she smelled the scent of the neighbour's dog in the hallway, another cause for fear.)

Conquering fear isn't like conquering failures. You can't just solve it easily with ingenuity or some gadgetry.

For many people, not just cats, fear can be one of their biggest obstacles in life. Fear of failure. Fear of being embarrassed. It isn't so much the fear of death people are afraid of either.

Topping the list of phobias people have is the Fear of Public Speaking (glossophobia).

Many people would rather be operated on by a dentist while inside a pit of snakes that have to stand up and make a speech in front of lots of people.

Arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and Ophidiophobia (fear of snakes and serpents) are such common fears that many animals are likewise afraid of these creatures. Hence all the videos of cats jumping and running away at the sight of a cucumber - even cats that have never seen a snake (or cucumber) before still jump and run away at the sight of them because their DNA is wired to be afraid of snakes.

Many fears/phobias exist because they are for our own protection - fears of predators, fears of heights, fear of being trampled by large numbers of people, or fear of being trapped in a small space, fear of the unknown, etc.

However it is when those fears become irrational and interfere with our ability to live happy/normal lives that we have to start thinking of this on a therapeutic level.

A person who is afraid of open spaces (agoraphobia) is going to have issues with going jogging, cycling, mountain hiking, swimming and doing various sports. Treating that problem is the tricky problem...

Steps to Conquering Fear

#1. Get help from an anxiety coach - basically a specialist who helps people conquer their fears. However that isn't going to help Victoria, because she is a cat.

#2. Learn how to respond to a panic attack - basically learning to relax and realize you are not in any real danger. Breathing techniques that help you to relax is useful. Again, not useful for a cat. Learning to anticipate the panic attack and then not give into it is also part of this process.

#3. Increase exposure to the things which cause your panic attacks. This we can do with the cat fortunately, possibly by taking her to the vet, on car trips with us, outings, and eventually she will learn to relax after she is exposed to the Great Outdoors enough.

The purpose of exposure practice is not to enter into a feared situation, like a room full of snakes, and not have a panic attack. The point of the exposure is to have some experience with panic symptoms and learning how to control it slowly over time. You do it a step at a time, at a pace that's acceptable to you, but always aiming to practice with the panic. Thus a "room full of snakes" might be rather extreme. Looking at photos of snakes would be a better first step, followed by maybe seeing them in person, and slowly reaching a point where the person is no longer fainting at the sight of snakes.

#4. Don't just pretend to not be afraid. Learn to be completely unafraid. With enough exposure to something you eventually become utterly fearless of it. That doesn't mean you don't respect that the object of fear isn't dangerous however, you should still respect something that has the potential to harm you. That is basically how Steve Irwin died, he failed to properly respect the killing ability of a stingray. (This doesn't help our cat Victoria, but it may help people out there.)


#5. Understand and learn more about the nature of phobias. Learning how they work gives the person a better understanding of how best to treat themselves. As humans we grow up in a culture where people are taught not to be afraid of things, and chastised or mocked if we are afraid of such things, and as such nobody teaches us how to deal with panic attacks or anxiety.

The purpose of panic attacks is to ensure our survival, part of our "flight or fight" response that is coded into our DNA. However panic attacks are a bit like a fire alarm, warning us when there is danger, but the fire alarm itself is not actually dangerous. Having panic attacks over things that are not normally scary however is a bit like false alarms going off, it turns out to be harmless because there was no fire - but it is still psychologically damaging because it creates a sense of fear where there should not be... Which brings me to #6...

#6. Embrace other kinds of fear. Watch scary movies, try indoor rock climbing, take up public speaking, visit a snake farm or spider zoo, watch the movie "The Walk" (2015 film about a high wire walker who walks between the Twin Towers of the WTC), watch the classic film "Jaws", zombie movies, try skydiving, etc. How and what you do is up to the individual, but basically the idea here is to embrace new kinds of fear - and learn to fear them. How you handle your feelings of fear in those situations will allow your mind to better equip itself when dealing with your phobias.

In Victoria's case the solution for her is ultimately #3, Increased Exposure. I am confident that some day she will be able to go for walks outside. It will just take time and lots of effort on my part.

Note - Last week I forgot to weight Victoria. Today she weighed in at 11.9 lbs. Progress!

Classic Scene from Indiana Jones / Raiders of the Lost Ark

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