Fears and anxiety play a major role in a number of behavior problems in cats and can often interfere with their overall well-being. It is usually not too difficult to recognize a stressed kitty, but it can be challenging to work with an anxious cat and support it through its fears. Anxiety in your cat is often implemented by intense or prolonged exposure to a stressful or unpleasant event. While you may not always be able to prevent this, there are ways in which you can reduce your cat's anxiety and fears and provide them with the support and encouragement they need from you.
Fear can be defined as an emotional response urged by the perception of danger or threat. The emotional response is followed by a number of metabolic and behavioral changes leading to confrontation or escape from the threat (fight-or-flight response), or in extreme situations a freeze response. Walter Bradford Cannon, who was an American physiologist, professor and chairman of the Department of Physiology at Harvard
Medical School, explained that animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system which prepares them for fighting or fleeing. The physiological changes required for the fight-or-flight response include increased blood
flow, blood pressure, heart rate and levels of blood sugar and fats (to supply the body with extra energy), blood clotting (to prevent excessive blood loss) and increased muscle tension (to provide the body with extra strength and speed). Important
molecules involved in the stress response in animals are neurotransmitters catecholamines (particularly norepinephrine and epinephrine), dopamine and serotonin and hormones estrogen, testosterone and cortisol. The nature and intensity of the behavioral
response is largely influenced by the intensity of emotional response (emotional reactivity) and cognition (comprehension and understanding of the situation and the personal ability to control it). Certain fears are acquired
as a result of learning from past experiences.
Fear and behavioral reactions to it are essential evolutionary adaptations required for the survival of animals. However, because fear in animals is regulated by cognition and learning, depending of the context, it can be classified as rational or irrational. The irrational form of fear is called phobia, and it’s classified as an anxiety disorder characterized by excessive and persistent fear of certain situations and/or objects. Irrational fears are largely learned
and can be unlearned with gradual exposure.
A feeling of fear or anticipation of future dangers from unknown or imagined sources is classified as anxiety and it is followed by the typical physiologic reactions associated with fear. Intense or prolonged feeling of anxiety, or anxiety disorder,
can interfere with the overall well-being of an animal. Most common form of anxiety specifically seen in pets (particularly cats and dogs) is separation anxiety.
“Most fears, phobias, and anxieties develop at the onset of social maturity, from 12 to 36 months of age. A profound form of fear and withdrawal of unknown cause often occurs around eight to ten months of age.” – explains the petMD vet team. Most commonly, fears and phobias are a result of traumatic or unpleasant experiences or the inability to escape threatening situations. A cat can also develop fears and anxiety due to limited exposure to specific objects or
situations while they were young. For example, young kittens who were deprived of social exposure in the first few weeks of life often develop the fear of contact. Cats with the history of abandonment, rehoming or neglect, on the other hand, commonly
develop separation anxiety. Additionally, in certain cases when a disturbing event occurs in the presence of a particular object or person, the cat may associate the unpleasant feeling with this object or person as well. Some illnesses, painful conditions
and nervous system changes (associated with aging, infections or toxins) can also lead to behavioral problems, including fears and anxiety.
Symptoms and diagnosis
A frightened cat may attempt to hide and escape the threat or face it. The common signs of fear in cats therefore include withdrawal, hiding, trembling, rolling into a ball, flattened ears, reduced activity and escape on one side and dilated pupils, arched
back, piloerection, hissing and aggression on the other. If your cat is suffering from anxiety, however, you may notice some of the following behavioral patterns: nervous grooming (to the point of hair loss and skin damage), hiding for prolonged periods
of time, extreme aggression without a solid motive, excessive vocalization, urination and passage of bowel movements outside the litter box, obsessive following, changes in the eating habits, nervous pacing, lethargy and destructive behavior.
When trying to assess the diagnosis of anxiety in cats, your veterinarian will first attempt to rule out any other possible causes of the odd behavior in your cat (i.e. nervous system or hormonal diseases). With the help of a behavioral consultant or
a veterinarian, you will then want to identify any factors that may be causing your cat to be fearful or anxious. Once you have identified the source of your cat’s fear, you will want to examine if there is anything that reinforces the fearful and
anxious behavior in your cat. Do you reward your cat’s fearful behavior in any way, thus leading it to assume that what they’re doing is the appropriate and healthy behavior?
Treatment and prevention
The treatment and care of your fearful or anxious cat depend on the intensity and type of your cat’s fears. Extreme fear and anxiety in cats typically have to be addressed by a veterinarian who can prescribe drug therapy for your cat and advise appropriate
protection from the stressful situations for these animals. For as long as your cat is on medications, your veterinarian will regularly monitor the cat’s blood status, health and behavior. This will allow them to adapt the treatment if necessary.
The medical treatment usually takes from four to six months. These cats often require intensive care and protection from self-inflicted physical injuries during the episodes of fearful reactions. In milder cases, you may be able to help your cat get
over its fears by gradual exposure to the stressful situation, object or person. Before starting any training at home please consult with your veterinarian first. They will be able to provide personalized tips tailored specifically for your cat and its own fears and anxiety.
The idea behind the gradual exposure to stressful situations is to get your cat used to the stimuli that cause fear and teach them that they are not actually dangerous. This process has to be done slowly and carefully. You should start exposing your cat
to the stimuli that are mild enough not to scare your cat. Whenever your cat remains calm and relaxed, you should reward it with favored treats. If the stimuli are too intense, you should stop the process immediately. Your cat should always be set up to succeed. Each time your cat gets scared, the problem will only be aggravated. Furthermore, each time your cat escapes, the fearful behavior is reinforced. Thus, increase the intensity of stimuli while maintaining within your cat’s comfort zone. Be patient and
consistent until your cat completely desensitizes to the stimuli and works through its fear.
For example, if your cat is afraid of a particular person, you can start training your cat by having the person sit beside your cat’s crate while it’s eating. Eventually, this person can try to feed the cat with treats through the bars of the cage. Once
your cat gets used to this, you can start exposing it to the person’s presence outside the cage (if necessary, you can put your cat on a leash), initially maintaining a distance. Over time, you can decrease the distance and the person should come closer to the cat at feeding times. This should be done until your cat is comfortable with this person feeding them. The same method can be applied to fear from other cats, objects and situations too.
The best preventative methods in terms of fear and anxiety in cats is adequate socialization of young kittens and exposure to other animals and a variety of social situations and surroundings while they are still young. Separation anxiety can be avoided
by providing a young cat with a loving and safe home without too many perturbations and family changes.
Living and management: How can I support my cat?
If you’re living with an anxious cat, you will likely have to offer them a full-time care. It is important to avoid fear-inducing stimuli, particularly when you’re away, and to provide your cat with a safe and sound surrounding. If your cat is suffering
from separation anxiety, you may want to consider hiring a cat-sitter and providing your cat with a number of activities to occupy them while you’re away. And remember, if your cat is suffering from extreme fears, make sure to protect them from self-inflicted
physical injuries during the episodes of fear reactions.
Fears and anxiety in cats can significantly affect the quality of their life. While it can take a while for an animal to cope with its fears, your support and encouragement are essential. It is important to keep an eye on your cat’s behavior and identify
the signs of anxiety early on. This will allow you to avoid the stressful situations and protect your cat from them. A prolonged exposure to stressors can aggravate your cat’s fears, while behavior like escaping and aggression is likely to be reinforced
as they often eliminate the threat from the environment. If your cat is suffering from extreme anxiety, please consult with your veterinarian immediately.