Liz writes the following...
what about cats? do they have similar behavioral developement? how do you get a cat used to different kinds of situations? my cat is awesome with our family, and if one or two adults comes over, she's just fine. add another kid however, and she freaks. this is partly due to some mishandling of other people's kids, and i totally understand her behavior. i just would like to know if there's a way to get her to calm down in those kinds of situations, or if i should just continue what i'm doing, which is locking her away in our room whilst company is over to avoid the situation altogether. normally, this wouldn't bother me, but she's such a social cat. the most social i've ever seen. she just hates being locked away from all the excitement, but again, if there are children...any advice?
Cats and dogs have similar behavioral developmental "windows", though the data isn't as well established in our feline pets. The type of handling and experiences a cat has when young will help develop its personality and tolerance for certain kinds of stimulus. However, socially cats and dogs are very different. Dogs are by nature very social, and have been bred for millenia to be this way. Cats have been bred for independence as much as anything, and have been revered for their aloof nature. In the wild, cats rarely congregate in social groups (lions being the obvious exception), preferring a solitary life. While pet cats have been bred to be human companions, some of that solitary nature remains.
When a kitten is very young, it is recommended to do kitten "gentling" exercises. That means to gently handle their feet, ears, teeth, tail, and belly several times each day. Regular stimulation of them in this way helps get them used to handling, making them more gentle (hence the name). Exposing them to other animals (dogs, cats, etc.) as well as new people, pet carriers, and so on will help get them used to such things. Dog owners take note that the same exercises can and should be used on puppies.
Now let's say you have an adult cat, like Liz mentions. Changing a cat's behavior is much more difficult than changing a dog's, because they respond to different kinds of rewards, and are by nature different behaviorally. In my comments about storm phobias I mentioned Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP). Well, a cat version came first, called Feliway. Originally designed to help with spraying and marking behavior, the pheromone helps reduce stress. Using this prior to any expected visits could help reduce a cat's fear of such things.
Now, in Liz's case, the cat is specifically afraid of children, and appears to be due to mishandling. This can indeed cause a cat (or dog) to become afraid of anyone or anything that resembles the source of the trauma. This is an important lesson to anyone with children. Teach your kids NOT to chase, pull, or otherwise frighten pets!
Besides the Feliway, I would recommend having some children come over occasionally in a controlled setting. Find a treat that the cat really goes crazy for, and have the child offer the treat to your cat. Make sure the child doesn't do anything that would frighten the kitty, and wait for the pet to come over to the child, rather than the child approaching the cat. Do this with relative frequency, using different children (to prevent the cat from associating the reward with a single child). You should also council friends with kids that when they visit, the kids need to be quiet so as not to scare the kitty. Yes, this is a lot of work, but it's the only way to undo the "damage" that was done.
Definitely find a vet good with behavior problems if this doesn't help. Good luck!