What do Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Mussolini and Hitler have in common? One or two things spring to mind, obviously, but tyranny and a thirst for world domination are not what concern us here. All are reputed to have suffered from ailurophobia – the fear of cats. That’s not to say that they didn’t much care for cats or held felines to be inferior to, say, dogs or horses; allegedly, they were palm-sweatingly, spine-tinglingly, stomach-churningly terror-struck by pussycats.
I say allegedly because the vast library of cat love doesn’t tend to trouble itself with footnotes. I have no idea if anyone really knows (or cares) how Hitler or Mussolini felt about cats, or where the story about Alexander falling into a swoon at the sight of a cat originates, but ailurophiles seem irresistibly drawn to the idea that cat aversion is an indication of a brutish, insensitive temperament. “Artists like cats; soldiers like dogs,” as Desmond Morris once said.
Evidence to back up these historical whispers is hard to come by – that’s not to say it doesn’t exist, but, frankly, there aren’t enough hours in my life to trawl through tomes on much-examined historical figures in search of passing references to moggies. Someone who has looked into the matter is Katharine MacDonogh, author of Reigning Cats And Dogs: A History Of Pets At Court Since The Renaissance (St Martin’s Press, 1999). She writes, “No record exists of Napoleon either liking or hating cats”, and I believe her, because the book is extensively indexed, and MacDonogh is, in fact, a historian, rather than someone who just happens to like cats a great deal.
So why is the tale of Napoleon being turned into a quivering wreck by a cat regurgitated so often? MacDonogh sheds light on this, too. “Cats have been endowed with a magical ability to detect the overweening ambitions of dictators, many of whom have consequently been accused of ailurophobia on the flimsiest evidence.”
As compelling as the idea may be to some cat lovers, the connection between ailurophobia and ruthless ambition is tenuous to say the least. Indeed, some very nice people are terrified of cats, so much so that even a picture of one can induce panic. The bad news for ailurophobes is that cats seem to be drawn to people who don’t like them. This isn’t, as some may suspect, because they’re wicked little creatures – there is a perfectly logical explanation for this seemingly perverse behaviour. Cats don’t like to be stared at, but people who are fond of cats tend to look directly at them and may even start gesticulating and making silly puss-puss noises. The cat-phobic, on the other hand, will remain still, silent and try to ignore the animal, which puts the cat at ease and makes for an inviting lap.
The good news is that fear of cats, like other phobias, can be overcome. Cognitive behavioural therapy is often very effective, as is hypnotherapy. Melanie Phelps, a hypnotherapist based in Frimley, Surrey, specialises in treating people with phobias, including fear of cats. “The reason for phobias is most commonly a bad childhood experience,” she says. “It might not be something they’re consciously aware of, but somewhere along the way they’ve learned that cats are scary and dangerous. It’s a fight-or-flight instinct that’s been triggered inappropriately.”
So, a child may be drawn to a cat or kitten by its cute, cuddly, toy-like appearance and then get a nasty shock when the bundle of fur turns into teeth and claws; or the parents may transfer their own anxiety about cats on to the child. According to Phelps, three to five sessions is usually enough to tackle simple phobias. The difficult part is plucking up enough courage to seek help in the first place.