By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 13 April 2011)
Ailurophobia (sometimes spelled elurophobia or aelurophobia) derives from the Greek words for cat, (ailouros) and fear (phobos). Ailurophobes suffer from persistent, abnormal fears about the risk of being physically harmed by a cat or the superstitious idea that cats are evil.
Symptoms of Ailurophobia
Ailurophobia is different from a dislike of cats, as it implies fear rather than loathing or a desire to harm. Symptoms of ailurophobia, which occur in the presence of a cat, may include:
- Intense fear
- Heart palpitations
- Dry mouth
- Tightness in the throat or chest
An ailurophobe may also have negative beliefs about cats, viewing them as sadistic or sneaky. In extreme cases, the phobic individual will not even be able to leave the house for fear of encountering a cat, and even seeing a cat on television or in movie may induce anxiety symptoms.
Historical records suggest that a number of infamous people have suffered from ailurophobia, including:
- Alexander the Great
- Genghis Khan
- Julius Caesar
Napoleon is also often cited as a cat-phobe, but there appears to be no historical evidence to back this up.
Cat lovers often point to the list of supposed ailurophobic dictators to back up claims that those who are not fond of cats have many other unappealing qualities. While there is certainly evidence that people who are cruel to animals are more likely to be cruel to people, there is nothing to suggest that those who are phobic of particular animals are inclined toward viciousness or ruthlessness. In fact, there are many nice individuals who have had the misfortune to acquire a cat phobia at some point in their lives, usually due to early childhood trauma, and have been unable to shake it.
Causes of Ailurophobia
Ailurophobia results from the inappropriate triggering of the biological fight-or-flight mechanism in response to cats. The most common cause of cat phobia is having a frightening experience in early childhood that involves a cat, usually being bitten or scratched. Some people may not even remember the experience that triggered the phobia, particularly if it happened when they were very young, but their bodies respond to cats by releasing adrenaline, which sparks a fear response and the accompanying physical symptoms.
Ailurophobia may also be transmitted to a child by another person, usually a parent. A child who sees a trusted adult reacting fearfully to a cat is likely to become infected with the phobia as well.
Another cause of ailurophobia is the belief that cats are related to evil or black magic. Such irrational ideas are traceable to the historical association of cats with witchcraft, black magic, and Halloween.
Cats Love the Ailurophobes Who Fear Them
Cats are often drawn to ailurophobes. This is not, as is often assumed, because the cat senses the ailurophobe’s fear and wants to torment the individual. Rather, this magnetic draw occurs because cats loathe being stared at, which is interpreted as a challenge, so they gravitate toward the one person in the room who isn’t looking at them. Because the ailurophobe doesn’t stare at the cat or try to pick it up, the cat feels at ease with the unfortunate individual and makes a beeline for his or her lap.
Treatment for Fear of Cats
Like any other phobia, ailurophobia responds well to cognitive-behavioural therapy, and in some cases hypnotherapy as well. Cognitive-behavioural therapy usually includes a desensitization component, which means gradual exposure to the thing that induces fear while in the presence of a supportive professional or trusted friend or family member. Desensitization activities may include:
- Looking at photos of cats
- Watching videos about cats
- Viewing a cat through a window
- Being in the same room as a cat that is restrained on a leash or in a wire cage
- And finally, being in a room with a free roaming cat
These activities may be combined with other strategies, such as practicing deep breathing to reduce physiological anxiety symptoms. Reading books about cats is also beneficial, as it increases knowledge, which tends to decrease fear.
Some people believe that the way to deal with fear is to orchestrate an intense, sudden exposure to the object of a phobia, an approach known as “flooding.” This is not recommended, as it may increase fear rather than decreasing it.
Ailurophobes may avoid seeking treatment because they are embarrassed about fearing a relatively harmless animal. While those who are afraid of dogs may feel some justification – a large dog is capable of killing a person – ailurophobes often feel ashamed that they are phobic of an animal that can do no worse than bite or scratch in a nonlethal manner. Teasing or mockery from others when they do confess their fears can worsen the phobia, so it’s important to only share it with those who can be relied upon to provide support and understanding.
To read about how cats came to be associated with witchcraft and black magic, see the following articles:
For more cat articles, see the main Cats page..