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Photo of a cat in a cage being introduced to a "back scratcher" stick

Image Courtesy of Pat Koven

Person and dog in a shelter-like run/cage

Q: I volunteer at a shelter, and we use back scratchers to socialize fearful cats. I think this makes some of them more scared. Do I keep pushing it?

A: Many cats in shelters are afraid. We should be careful not to force them into situations they are uncomfortable with because it might make their fear worse. This is referred to as “flooding.”

What is flooding? Flooding is a method used to make people or animals face their biggest fears head-on, hoping they will get over it quickly.

Why might flooding be problematic? Think about being really scared and feeling trapped without an escape. That’s how these cats might feel. Some might just seem to “shut down” and not react, but inside, they are terrified. This reaction is called “learned helplessness”.

What is learned helplessness? It is when someone or an animal feels so overwhelmed by fear that they just stop trying or reacting, even if they are still deeply frightened.

Are there other ways to help? Yes, there are better ways to make cats feel safe and friendly. We can introduce them to new things slowly and reward them for being brave. This way, they’ll learn to associate good things with what used to scare them.