Fear and anxiety are normal emotions that enable animals to avoid harm. With both of these emotions the cat is in a heightened state of arousal in preparation for a negative outcome such as physical pain. Anxiety is where the threat is anticipated but not actually present; with fear, however, the threat is present and imminent. A cat may become anxious in a situation in which they anticipate harm, and then switch to fearful when the threat has been identified.
Normal fear response behaviours might include:
- Facial and postural expressions such as dilated pupils, ear and tail position, muscular rigidity and piloerection
- Muscle tremors
- Attempts to escape
- Aggression towards stimulus
- Urination and defection
When frightened, animals engage in:
- Flight (the preferred response to fear, i.e. escape and avoid it)
- Fight (where they have been prevented escape and have no other choice but to resort to aggression in an attempt to drive the anxiety producing stimulus away)
- Freeze (the cat may feign sleep but actually be fully alert and aware of threats in their environment)
- Fiddle/Fidget (this might include apparently unrelated behaviours such as grooming)
Cats that have a fear of loud noises, such as fireworks or thunder, may hide whilst outside the home so that their behaviour goes unobserved by their owners. At home, cats may hide when frightened by loud noises, and do not show the overt signs of distress that we might observe in dogs (for instance, whining, pacing, etc) and therefore many owners often misinterpret this apparent passivity from their cat as a lack of fear, especially when the cat engages in self-maintenance behaviour, such as grooming, that many of us associate with the cat being relaxed, calm and settled. However, increased grooming can also be a displacement activity, or an attempt at self-appeasement, that is actually a good indicator of stress especially where it happens in excess and is performed out of context, or in times of conflict or in the presence of anxiety-inducing stimuli.
Fear responses in cats, in general, are context specific; so that means they may react fearfully to otherwise familiar stimuli when it is presented in an unfamiliar context or outside its own familiar territory boundaries (for instance, your cat may be comfortable being touched by you at home, but when he is brought to the vet or groomers may present with aggressive behaviour on being stroked). This change to their behavioural repertoire may be due to a significant part of the cat’s emotional self-control system being based on its innate ability to engage in avoidance behaviours when discriminating the level of (perceived) threat in a given environment or situation.
It is important that cats who are exhibiting fear-related behaviour problems are given choice and control over their environment. Forcing them to deal with their fears (through flooding or poorly managed exposures) will likely make the problem worse. That said, sometimes it is necessary to expose the cat to specific stimuli that it fears in order to help them overcome them; however, it is important that this is done through the correct desensitisation and counterconditioning protocols, with positive reinforcement and associations made.
Fear-based behaviour treatment typically involves the following:
- The cat’s environment: ensure your cat has control over its key resources and feels safe in their home. This is absolutely essential in helping to reduce generalised anxiety and stress
- Your reaction: sometimes our own behaviour is what needs modifying as we may unintentionally be adding to the cat’s stress by poor handling techniques, our own stress and anxiety, a lack of consistency, and inappropriate punishments
- Behaviour modification: techniques such as desensitisation and counterconditioning are helpful in fear-based anxiety issues and a separate post will go into this in more detail
- Psychoactive medications: in serious cases of anxiety and fear, it may sometimes be necessary to put the cat on medication so that their anxiety or fear can be brought down to manageable levels, whereby the behaviour modification plan put in place has a greater chance of success (always liaise with your vets with regards medications)
Horwitz, D., and Landsberg, G., (n.d.), ‘Cat Behaviour Problems – Fears and Phobias’ Available from: https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/cat-behavior-problems—fears-and-phobias