Understanding the Fear of Cats (Gatophobia)

Orange tabby cat
Marlena Krzywicka ( Szymanska) / FOAP / Getty Images
Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

What Is Gatophobia?

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.

Causes of Gatophobia

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. 

Physical Harm

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.

Fear of Evil

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. 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.

How People Express Their Fear of Cats

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.

Treatment for Gatophobia

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.

One common therapy is gradual exposure to cats. With small steps, a person can become accustomed to cats. For example, they would first practice looking at pictures of cats, then watching videos and movies with cats, touching cat-like material, playing with a toy cat, and finally holding the real thing. These steps should be taken in controlled, comfortable settings with lots of support, both from the therapist and family members or friends.

Throughout this process, relaxation and visualization techniques are often used. They also help reframe the person's mindset and methodically rationalize their fear. In some cases, hypnotherapy may also be useful.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Armfield JM. Understanding animal fears: a comparison of the cognitive vulnerability and harm-looming modelsBMC Psychiatry. 2007;7:68. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-7-68

  2. Watts A. Why do we develop certain irrational phobias? SA Mind. 2014. doi:10.1038/scientificamericanmind0114-74a

  3. Vriends N, Michael T, Schindler B, Margraf J. Associative learning in flying phobiaJ Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2012;43(2):838–843. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2011.11.003

  4. Depreeuw B, Andrews LA, Eldar S, Hofmann SG. The Treatment of Panic Disorder and Phobias. In: David, D, Lynn SJ, Montgomery GH, eds. Evidence‐Based Psychotherapy: The State of the Science and Practice. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc,; 2017. doi:10.1002/9781119462996.ch4

  5. Choy Y, Fyer AJ, Lipsitz JD. Treatment of specific phobia in adultsClin Psychol Rev. 2007;27(3):266–286. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2006.10.002

  6. Spiegel SB. Current issues in the treatment of specific phobia: Recommendations for innovative applications of hypnosis. Am J Clin Hypn. 2014;56(4):389-404.doi:10.1080/00029157.2013.801009

Additional Reading
  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5™ (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.

By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.