Fear can be Learned just Once

Question:
New Mexico Animal Friends has a spayed female foster cat, Twyla, a young tortoiseshell shorthair, who has become difficult at adoption clinics. We think she may have had a bad experience. She snarls and swats at people and acts as if she is “guarding” her cage. At the end of clinic day, she gladly waltzes right in and then attacks our hands when we close the door. Her behavior at home is exemplary. We want to keep bringing her to adoptions so she will eventually get adopted, but at this rate, it seems pretty unlikely.

Dr. Nichol:
You may be correct that Twyla was badly frightened at an adoption event. In an active environment with noisy people and dogs and their funky foreign scents this confined kitty panics. She’s wigged-out when people approach and leer at her but when a big fleshy mitt barges into her crate to grab her by the neck, she’s terrorized. Twyla would love to get farther away but she‘s trapped. This may have occurred only once but it’s all about self-preservation now. The kitty associates the crate with defensive-aggression.

It’s a common misconception that repeating a fear trigger will reduce a pet’s desperate attempts to drive-off “scary monsters”. Twyla’s reactions have become self-rewarding. Every time she snarls and swats, the invading hand gets farther away. You can remove the top half of the crate instead but Twyla would feel even better if she were never again exposed to an adoption event.

Our cats grow close to us but many are even more bonded to their territory than they are to their people. Twyla has gotten accustomed to living at your house. Taking her away from home to be ogled and handled by strangers is stressful for her. Permanently moving her in with different people, at a new house, with “alien” pets would set her up to freak-out and fail.

This is not what you wanted to hear; you kindly fostered Twyla in order to find her a permanent home. She thinks she’s already found it. Your house is loving and caring. It’s the best place for Twyla to live out her life.

Each week Dr. Jeff Nichol makes a short video, blog, or podcast to help bring out the best in pets. Sign up at no charge at drjeffnichol.com. Dr. Nichol treats behavior disorders at the Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Centers in Albuquerque and Santa Fe (505-792-5131). You can post pet behavioral or physical questions at facebook.com/drjeffnichol or by US Post to 4000 Montgomery Blvd. NE, Albuq, NM 87109.