Recognising Fear and Anxiety in Cats

Fear and anxiety are the underlying factors for many of the behaviour problems seen in practice. Many pets with recurrent medical problems, such as vomiting, diarrhoea or skin problems, may also have anxiety as the underlying issue. The problem is, an anxious or fearful pet is more likely to bite.

Fear and anxiety are often normal responses essential for survival. They result in a common stress response enabling the animal to prepare and respond to a threat. However, they are not the same.

Fear

Fear is the direct emotional response to a threatening situation. It is an innate, self-protective mechanism that enables an animal to react rapidly, such as a wild animal fleeing from the sound or sight of an approaching predator. This is known as the flight or fight response. There is also a freeze response (if I stay still you won't see me) and a fiddle response, where the cat may excessively lick itself (displacement behaviours) when faced with a fear-evoking stimulus.

Fear is often connected to pain or a traumatic event. A cat that has been attacked by a dog or another cat may develop a fear of dogs or other cats.

Anxiety

Anxiety is slightly different; it is the prediction of doom. The animal anticipates a future danger or misfortune, which may be real or imagined. The cat will hide because it may get attacked, however, there may not always appear to be an obvious cause.

The fear response usually happens quickly and is over when the threat has gone, while anxiety is a more chronic state of non-specific apprehension.

Some level of anxiety is normal as it helps us be prepared for unfamiliar situations, but when an animal can’t cope with even small changes in any new or unfamiliar situations, the state of anxiety persists and interferes with its normal functioning.

It becomes over-vigilant and significant physical changes occur, such as an increased heart rate and blood pressure. The animal may not be able to settle and suffers gastrointestinal upsets. When the anxiety becomes abnormal or inappropriate, the animal is considered to have an anxiety disorder.

Panic attacks can occur in animals suffering from anxiety. They usually come without warning and although the fear is generally irrational, the perceived danger to the animal is very real.

Signs of Anxiety

The signs of anxiety are subtle and often missed by people. Signs of anxiety in cats may include:

  • Spraying (even in neutered cats)
  • Eliminating outside of the litter tray
  • Pacing back and forth
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pulling out of fur
  • Trembling
  • Excessive meowing
  • Hiding
  • Illness

Phobias

A phobia is an irrational, intense, persistent fear of a certain object, situation, place or even person. The fear (or panic) response is out of proportion to the stimulus and the response does not decrease with time. Phobias can develop from a single, horrific experience or from continued exposure to the fearful stimulus.

Common phobias in animals involve noises (thunder, fireworks, vacuum cleaners, traffic) and places (vet clinic, parks, cars, garden).

The tendency to develop phobias is often inherited and may develop no matter how we handle the pet. Anxiety and fears may also develop into phobias if the pet is repeatedly exposed to very intense or fearful events.

The best time to deal with fearful or anxious behaviour in your pet is as soon as possible. Your veterinarian can help you manage your pet's environment, implement a behaviour modification plan and possibly prescribe medication. This can often prevent the pet's fear from developing into a severe phobia.