What is Flooding?
Flooding is a method of behavior modification. It has been used on animals and people to stop them from reacting to something they fear. It basically means exposing them to the feared thing at full strength for a long time, until they are quiet. So, if you were afraid of spiders and I wanted to using flooding to fix that, I’d shut you in a room full of spiders until you stopped screaming and swatting at them. Not a pretty picture, is it?
Does it work?
Sometimes. But not only is flooding unpleasant, perhaps cruel, it can backfire. After I let you out of that room full of spiders, you might well react even more strongly the next time you see one. And you probably don’t trust me much anymore. So, what have I accomplished?
What to do instead.
If your cat is afraid of something, only exposing them to it briefly and at a distance is the preferred method. You want the cat to notice the thing, but not react. You should also use the most toned-down version of the feared thing. As the cat gets comfortable with that over the course of days (or week or months) you can increase the amount of time the cat sees the thing. When that is going well, you can DECREASE the amount of time a bit, and then also decrease the distance. Or increase the “scariness factor”. Not both at once. Then build the amount of time back up as slow as needed to keep the cat calm and unafraid. Then repeat. Much kinder, don’t you think?
Flooding to fix a scared cat.
Some examples I have seen of people flooding their cat are removing all the hiding places from a newly adopted cat that is hiding from them. The cat might come around, or the cat might develop stress-related medical problems, such as urinary crystals, diarrhea, constipation, or worse. Or the cat might stop eating. Or start spraying.
Flooding to introduce two cats.
Probably the most common flooding I see is when a person lets a new cat loose in the home with a resident cat. If either cat is afraid, this is flooding. I have known this to result in a puncture wound from a cat bite. Or a scratched eye. Certainly, spraying and the above-mentioned medical issues are possibilities as well. Some people crate a cat to prevent a physical injury. Although this is safer, it is still flooding. And might still result in stress-related medical or behavioral problems. If you are adding a new cat to your family, please use my method of introducing them, as outlined in my blog on cat introductions.
Patience Fisher owns Patience for Cats LLC, a cat behavior business based in Pittsburgh, PA. She is Associate Certified by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She holds a Bachelor’s in Biology, a Diploma of Feline Behavior Science Technology, and is a certified veterinary assistant.