With their mysterious and unpredictable natures, cats have long evoked fear and superstition in many people.
Cats have inspired awe, respect, and fear in various cultures throughout history.
Ancient Egyptians believed cats to be divine, magical creatures who brought good luck to those who housed them. In contrast, people living in the Middle Ages deeply feared cats, which were often seen as witches’ helpers or even witches themselves.
Today, cats still invoke terror in some people. A person with cat phobia, or ailurophobia, may fear being attacked by a cat or may hold the superstitious belief that cats are evil.
Ailurophobia (EYE-lure-oh-foh-bee-uh) — is an intense and persistent fear of cats. It’s also called:
- cat phobia
A variety of factors may drive cat phobia. Some people fear being bitten, scratched, or attacked by a cat. For others, it’s a belief that cats are evil. This is particularly true for black cats — who have their own phobia called mavrogatphobia.
For other people, the distress is driven by disgust rather than pure dread, similar to a person’s reaction toward cockroaches or rats.
While ailurophobia isn’t recognized as a distinct disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), its symptoms fall under the diagnostic criteria for specific phobia: Animal type.
Ailurophobia symptoms may be emotional, psychological, or physical. These symptoms might be similar to what’s experienced in an anxiety disorder or a panic attack.
Emotional or psychological symptoms of ailurophobia may include:
- intense anxiety or fear
- racing thoughts
- fear of losing control
- avoidance of anyplace with cats (including the homes of friends or family members with cats)
Physical symptoms of ailurophobia may include the following:
- rapid breathing or breathlessness
- brain fog
- racing heart
- chest pain
The exact cause of ailurophobia is unclear. The source may differ for each person and stem from various factors.
Contributing factors to ailurophobia may include:
- Genetics. Phobias and other anxiety disorders often run in families. Studies on twins have found phobias to be
30% — 40%inherited.
- Previous bad experience with cats. A person who was attacked by a cat in childhood may develop ailurophobia.
- Dysfunctional brain chemistry or circuitry.
Research from 2017suggests that anxiety disorders, such as PTSD and specific phobias, may stem from a dysfunction in brain circuitry.
- Having another anxiety disorder or other phobias. Individuals with one phobia are
83%more likely to have another phobia.
- Having a close family member with ailurophobia. If your mom or dad has an intense fear of cats, you may have learned this fear by watching them.
According to the DSM-5-TR, a diagnosis of specific phobia of any type is given if your symptoms meet the following criteria:
- Significant fear or anxiety toward a specific object (in ailurophobia, it’s cats).
- The trigger (cats) almost always leads to sudden, intense fear or anxiety.
- The fear is far more severe than the actual risk of the specific object or situation.
- Triggers (friends’ homes with cats or pet shops) are actively avoided or endured with severe anxiety.
- The phobia (fear of cats) is persistent and lasts 6 months or more.
- The phobia (fear of cats) results in clinically significant distress or impaired functioning. For example, you can no longer go home because your roommate got a new cat.
- The phobia (fear of cats) is not better explained by the symptoms of another mental disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Treatment for specific phobias may include one or more of the following techniques:
- Flooding. This technique gives you the maximum level of exposure to your trigger without any attempt to lessen the anxiety. Flooding is considered the most effective intervention for many phobias, and research shows it has a response rate of 80%-90%.
- Desensitization techniques. This treatment exposes you to a list of your triggers, starting with the least to the most anxiety-provoking. You can also learn various techniques to deal with anxiety, such as relaxation and breathing techniques.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR treats the events in which you’ve encountered cats as unprocessed traumas. You would then work through these memories to overcome your fear of cats.
- Virtual reality (VR) therapy. You could overcome your fear by interacting with cats on a VR screen.
- Medication, including:
- beta-blockers (propranolol)
- benzodiazepines (Lorazepam)
There are several things you can do to cope with ailurophobia.
Visualization techniques allow you to use your imagination to confront your fears. If you have ailurophobia, you can visualize certain situations involving cats and see yourself successfully handling them.
For example, you might imagine yourself walking into a pet shop.
As you “walk in” the pet shop’s front door, you might see yourself breathing deeply and imagining how it would feel to not have any fear. In your mind’s eye, you could walk toward the cats. Perhaps you imagine yourself just looking at them or petting them without any anxiety.
Anxiety-reducing practices, such as meditation, can help you feel less distressed and fearful in the long term.
When you encounter a phobia trigger, it causes your body to release high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, leading to the “fight-or-flight” state.
In contrast, meditation trains your brain and body to reach a highly relaxed state called the “relaxation response” — essentially the opposite of the fight-or-flight state.
Remaining calm when you encounter a trigger may help you overcome ailurophobia.
Talking with someone who understands what you’re going through can be extremely helpful. Support groups can make you feel validated.
There are numerous support groups for anxiety and phobias. You can attend an in-person group or an online group. MIND offers several tips and online resources for people with anxiety and phobias.
Consider seeking professional treatment if ailurophobia interferes with daily functioning. For instance, if you can’t visit your best friend’s home because he has a cat, seeking treatment for your phobia could improve your quality of life.
In contrast, constantly avoiding cats can make your fear worse. If you go out of your way to avoid cats and accidentally encounter one in the street, it could lead to a panic attack.
If your ailurophobia symptoms are severe enough to interfere with your daily life, don’t hesitate to seek professional treatment. A psychiatrist or therapist trained to treat phobias via flooding or desensitization techniques would be particularly helpful.
If your symptoms don’t require professional care, you might consider joining a phobia support group. Sharing your experiences with others can be very healing.