Known as both gatophobia and ailurophobia, the fear of cats is not as common as the fear of dogs. Nonetheless, the fear of cats can have profound effects on peoples’ daily lives, making it impossible to visit cat-loving friends and forcing them to limit their daily activities.
People are usually afraid of cats for two reasons: they’re afraid of the physical harm they may cause, or they associate them with evil.
Although it can be tough to remember when cuddling a tiny kitten, cats are, by nature, predators. Domesticated house cats retain many of the same basic instincts as lions, tigers, panthers and other large cats. Those who have been bitten or scratched by a cat in the past may be at higher risk of developing a phobia of cats.
Some people are not afraid of indoor cats, particularly those that have been declawed but are terrified of unfamiliar cats that they encounter outdoors. Some fear only male cats, which they perceive as being more threatening than females. Still, others are afraid of all cats and kittens, regardless of circumstances, because they witnessed or personally experienced a negative event with one.
Throughout history, cats have been alternately revered and reviled due to their alleged supernatural powers. In Ancient Egypt, cats were worshiped as deities. It was believed that they were under the special protection of Bast, goddess of fertility and of the moon. Deceased cats were often mummified and buried in the great cemeteries. Killing a cat, intentionally or accidentally, was often a capital offense.
Perhaps no movement is as closely tied to the vilification of cats as the 17th-century witch hunts in both Europe and the American colonies. Beginning in the Middle Ages, cats were often seen as witches’ servants, nocturnal messengers capable of doing the witch’s bidding. By the time of the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 and 1693, cats were widely believed to be witches’ links to the devil himself.
Today, the fear of cats as harbingers of evil is typically rooted in a religion-based phobia. People who are undergoing a crisis of faith may be more likely to develop this fear. In some cases, the fear of evil is a sign of disordered thinking, but modern therapists are careful to take clients’ religious beliefs into account before making a diagnosis.
In some people, the fear of cats is so strong that it is triggered when thinking about a cat or kitten or hearing one purr. When it is triggered, a variety of reactions is possible. One of the more obvious ones is a “fight-or-flight” response—the person will quickly run in the other direction. Others may have a panic attack. Avoidance is also common, where the person will do absolutely anything possible to not cross paths with a cat, both in real life and in more extreme cases on TV.
As with most other phobias, psychotherapy and counseling sessions are usually necessary. A therapist may help figure out the root cause of the phobia, help put the fear in perspective, and then help you plan out steps and treatment for overcoming it. It may seem like a simple approach, but can be quite difficult to do on your own.