Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD Clinical Professor UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, conducted a fascinating webinar on fear states in cats and how we, as both pet parents and professionals, can work with cats in such a way as to reduce fear, or at the very least minimise its impact. I summarise in this blog post some of the discussion.
Firstly, what is fear?
Fear, by definition, is the word we use to describe our emotional reaction to something that feels dangerous; typically an uncontrollable threat from an identified source. Fear is an aversive emotional state with physiological, behavioural, and emotional reactions to stimuli which are perceived as an actual threat or danger. Feelings are what we know as ‘drive states’, they motivate us to do something and with fear it is to protect ourselves. Uncontrollable means just that: you cannot control it. Anxiety, meanwhile, is another feeling state, but is more of a general feeling of worry, unease, tension and fear. One of the most damaging things to us and animals (behaviourally and physiologically) is the loss of a perception of control. Cats can be very sensitive creatures and may often become anxious or frustrated by things going on around them, or by the way people interact with them; and as a species they like to feel in control, so when we remove this from them they feel a heightened state of both anxiety and fear.
In terms of behaviour, cats present differently depending on both their temperament and the nature of the threat. Initially they might present with ‘normal’ posture and activity states; they might orient towards the (perceived or actual) danger whilst deciding what movement, if any, is appropriate under the circumstances: they might freeze or flee and where they can’t do either of these they might choose to use defensive aggression. The fight, flight, or freeze response is how the body responds to perceived threats. It is involuntary and involves a number of physiological changes that help someone prepare to: fight, or take action to eliminate the danger.
Physiological changes are again dependent on a number of factors, not least impacted by which option the cat takes when dealing with a threat, some of these include:
- Pupils may dilate
- Increased heart rate
- Increased respiratory rate
- Increase in blood pressure
- Sweaty paws
- Excessive shedding
- Evacuate their urinary and GI tract
- Flushing around the upper ears
- Occasional lip licking
What is stress and how does it relate to fear states in cats?
Stress is the body’s response to pressure. Many different situations or life events can cause stress. In cats it is is often triggered when they experience something new, unexpected or threatening, or when they feel they have little control over a situation. Confinement, isolation, conflict with other cats, noise etc are all examples of external sources of stress for cats.
We need to think about what we can do to reduce fear, anxiety and stress as much as we can. We need to think about the cat in their environment, what Tony Buffington describes as “sensitive individuals in a provocative environment”. We want to do as much as we can to look after our cats, and its surroundings, so that they do not perceive their environment, or situations, as threatening and dangerous. To help our cats live fear free lives, we need to firstly provide them with safety at home and appropriate opportunities to engage in species specific behaviours. We then need to think about how often we transport them: is it always necessary? Is there another alternative that might help them feel more secure? (examples include in-home cat sitting, grooming training so that pet parents can keep on top of their cats coats, etc). If we do need to transport them regularly, we need to think about this too; so where is the carrier being kept? Ideally it should be left out all the time and placed in the cats favourite part of the house, filled with things that entice them to use it such as tasty treats tossed in, or catnip toys. Why? Because cats are extremely attached to ‘place’ which means if we can help them feel more comfortable with their carrier, they will be less stressed about the process when you do have to transport them. In terms of the actual transport process, let’s cover their cage and carry it securely (two hands, up high and kept stable – this helps reduce the notion of being out of control; remember, always put yourself in your cats shoes and ask yourself: how would I like to be transported? What would make me feel most comfortable?)
It’s also important to change our language. I have heard over the years many people describe either their own cats, or those they work with, as ‘aggressive’. This word is powerful and places all the focus on us, what we are experiencing in that moment, how we can protect us (usually through engaging in dominant, non-loving actions to ‘control the cat’). But as we know now, aggression is most typically evident in cats who are in a fear state, such a fear state that they felt they had no other option than to resort to biting, swatting and so forth (cats really do not like confrontation and would rather escape the situation if they could!). Using the phrase ‘fearful cat’, then, positions the cat right in the centre, where they should be. It makes you think about the cat and their emotions: how are they feeling about the situation? Is there anything we can do to make them feel safer and more in control? This might mean stopping what we are doing, changing holds, certainly it’s about minimising restraint and using non-confrontational body language with the cats and being in tune with their emotions. Of course there are some cats who are offensively and defensively aggressive, but most of the time we are looking at cats who are afraid. Just very afraid!
These cats deserve more. They deserve to be understood for what they are: firstly as a species which is both a predator and prey, but also as individuals who have their own unique experiences and histories which have served to shape how they respond to the world, and specifically ‘scary’ or threatening situations. Let’s change our language and put the cat back in the centre of things, where we focus less on what they are doing wrong, and more on how we as owners and professionals, can change our own behaviour to get the best out of these cats.
Catastic provide a ‘one stop shop’ for all your cat needs in the Buckinghamshire area. We are a Milton Keynes based cat sitting, behaviour and holistic grooming business and are able to not only cover your holiday sitting needs (we work 365 days of the year), but also assist with behaviour issues and help teach holistic grooming skills so that your cat can be groomed at home, by you, where they are most comfortable.