Feline Fear Overview

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Fear and anxiety are normal emotions that enable animals to avoid harm. In both states the animal is in a heightened state of arousal in preparation for a negative outcome (e.g. physical harm). The key difference is that in anxiety the threat is anticipated but not actually present, but in fear the threat is present or imminent. An animal may become anxious in a situation in which harm is anticipated, switching to fear when the threat has been identified.

Anxiety is the apprehensive anticipation of future threat or danger accompanied by somatic signs of increased arousal and tension. Anxious animals show increased vigilance and an inability to focus their attention on a specific stimulus. This is because the function of anxiety is to maintain arousal in preparation for threat, whilst the animal gathers information about its environment to determine the source of the potential threat and how best to respond when that threat arises. Anxiety is seen in situations in which threat or conflict has previously been experienced, as well as in new situations in which the individual is unable to predict or control what may happen to it. Anxiety can be acute or chronic, and has a pervasive effect on the animal's behaviour. It interferes with the individual's ability to respond to normal social and environmental cues. When functional, anxiety operates over short periods to enable the individual to prepare for real hazards. Anxiety is dysfunctional when it is sustained in the absence of real threat, leading to persistently increased adrenergic arousal and cortisol release that depletes energy resources and has effects such as immune suppression.

Fear is the apprehension of a specific object, person or situation. The source of fear is localisable and identifiable, its presentation elicits fear and its removal terminates it. Fear is a normal, adaptive experience that enables an individual to avoid harm, and is socially communicated between conspecifics. It is also postulated that there is a strong relationship between fear and frustration. Frustration is experienced when an individual does not achieve an expected positive outcome. So, both fear and frustration relate to an expectation of a negative outcome. Experimentally, animals respond with precisely the same escape response both to fear and frustration, so it is assumed that both experiences relate to the same underlying emotional response.

Phobic fear and panic are intense, abnormal and behaviourally disruptive variants of normal fear and anxiety. Panic and phobia are maladaptive; they lead to a reduction in the animal's ability to cope and perform normal behaviours.

  • Phobic fear is more intense and longer lasting than normal fear. The animal reacts with a high-level of fear even to low level presentations of the fearful stimulus, and then takes a long time to recover from it. Phobic fears do not naturally extinguish with repeated exposure and in fact tend to worsen over time.
  • Panic attacks are discrete episodes of intense anxiety and arousal. In humans, panic is associated with tachycardia and dyspnoea, which the patient may perceive to be severe enough to be life threatening. Animals are unable to report the feelings associated with panic, so it is assumed to occur based on signs. It tends to occur when an animal is unable to avoid or escape from a situation in which it is already anxious.

Cats will display absolute avoidance of any situation in which panic or phobic fear has previously been experienced and will engage extreme escape responses.

Signs of Fear

Fear is a normal, adaptive experience that enables an individual to avoid harm.

Normal fear response behaviours observed include:

  • Facial and postural expressions of fear, directed at fear eliciting stimuli (ear & tail position, piloerection, facial expression, muscular rigidity, posture)
  • Sympathetic arousal (graded to threat)
  • Muscle tremor
  • Flight-escape response (well organised and directed unlike in panic)
  • Threat/aggression directed towards stimulus
  • There may be urination or defecation (with an apparent loss of control)

When frightened, animals engage in a set of Species Specific Defence Reactions (SSDRs), known as "The Four Fs". These include:

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freezing
  • "Fiddling about" (performing apparently unrelated behaviours such as grooming)

The cat's primary response to fear is "flight" (avoidance or escape), but they will resort to aggression when escape is impossible in an attempt to drive the fear-eliciting stimulus away. Freezing tends to occur when either flight or fight are impossible, or as the animal evaluates its best option. A cat that is "frozen" but showing signs of stress can launch a sudden attack. Fiddling about may be a form of "self-distraction" in an otherwise inescapable situation of stress, but it may also have some value in diffusing tension in frustration and intraspecific conflict. Fear also potentiates the startle response, so fearful animals will react suddeny to unexpected stimuli and events.

Effects of Fear and Anxiety

Typical signs observed by owners include:

  • The cat being withdrawn, secretive and tending to hide
  • A decrease in interest in social and object play
  • Reluctance to cross open spaces (e.g. avoiding outdoors or crossing a room)
  • Hiding under objects, or climbing to inaccessible high places
  • Avoiding contact with familiar people and other animals
  • "Jumpiness" (fear potentiated startle response)
  • Low-threshold flight response

Behavioural problems relating to fear and anxiety include:

Potential Causes of Emotional Problems

Potential causes of feline fears, phobias and anxiety-related problems include:

  • A lack of appropriate socialisation and habituation
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Genetic influence on temperament (shyness/boldness)
  • Old age - loss of competence and an increase in general fearfulness in geriatric cats is well recognised
  • Unintentional owner reinforcement of fearful responses

In the veterinary context:

  • Cardiac and pulmonary disease are recognised as potential maintaining factors for anxiety.
  • Hypothyroidism has been associated with anxiety and compulsive behaviour.
  • Pain and fear are associated with increased self-defensiveness.
  • Hyperthyroidism causes many behavioural changes including increased irritability and aggressiveness.
  • Any form of debilitation tends to increase self-defensiveness and aggression.
  • Hypoglycaemia is associated with irritability and aggression.

Sickness behaviour, which is mediated by the release of the pro-inflammatory cytokines interleukin-1, interleukin-6, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha. Sickness behaviour includes lethargy, depression, anorexia, energy conservation, anhedonia, cognitive impairment, hyperalgesia, decreased social interaction and anxiety. Many of these signs are associated with emotional disorder. It is therefore wise to consider the possibility that behavioural change is associated with medical disorder.

The Effect of the Environment

The first response of cats to fearful situations is to escape, but the ability to do so is dependent upon familiarity with the environment and the opportunities it provides for escape and avoidance behaviour. This is why success in treating fear-based problems is dependent upon improving or modifying the environment to enable the cat to escape more easily and avoid fearful situations.

Anxiety can be reduced by making the environment more predictable and controllable for the cat. For example, the owner maintaining a more regular routine and pattern of interaction with the cat, and providing the cat with free access to resources such as food, water, latrine sites and outdoor access.

The core zone of the cat’s territory is where it expects to be safe, as this is a place where it would not usually encounter unfamiliar cats. Recognition of the core territory is partially dependent upon pheromone odour signals. The cat expends a lot of time and energy placing face and flank marks within the core territory area, not only to identify elements of the environment as familiar but also to create an appeasing environment for itself. Manipulation of the pheromone environment may also help to improve the environment for cats. This can be achieved by removing undesirable chemical signals (such as scent from previously resident cats, urine spray and claw marks), and the deposition of additional "facial and flank marks" by the owner. This can be done by harvesting facial and flank odour from the resident cats using a cloth, and then wiping this onto suitable places such as door posts and furniture. Synthetic pheromone analogues such as F3 (Feliway), can also be used to recreate or enhance core territory chemical messages. This can trick the cat into perceiving the environment to be safe and secure.


As with dogs, the mainstay of prevention of emotional problems in cats is proper socialisation and habituations to stimuli during the sensitive period of development. However, the sensitive socialisation period in cats ends at around 6-7 weeks of age, when kittens are typically still with the breeder. It is therefore essential that breeders take primary responsibility for providing appropriate socialisation and habituation of very small kittens. To develop properly, kittens must meet a wide variety of people and other animals, and be exposed to a wide range of noises and everyday events that are typical of what they will experience in a family home. The greater the discrepancy between the rearing environment and the environment the cat will live in as an adult, the greater the risk of a behavioural problem.

A common set of guidelines for owners could include:

  • Only take kittens that have bold, sociable parents.
  • Avoid kittens that have been reared in isolation from normal domestic activities (such as in a cattery or shed).
  • Let kittens develop in confidence by their normal reinforcing approach and play behaviours with food and play (let them avoid contact if they want to).
  • Don't force contact or handling if a kitten is fearful.
  • Provide free access to food, water, latrine sites, resting places, and objects to climb and scratch.
  • Do not use scolding or physical punishment to deter normal behaviours such as climbing or scratching. Instead, provide outlets for these behaviours and redirect the kitten to them.

The provision of a complex and stimulating environment also reduces the risk of destructiveness and frustration.


When dealing with cats who are exhibiting fear-related behaviour problems it is essential that the cat needs to feel in control of the situation; forcing the cat to confront its fear is likely to lead to a worsening of the problem.

However, it is sometimes necessary to repeatedly expose the cat to stimuli that it fears, in order to perform desensitisation and counterconditioning. It may therefore be necessary to prevent the cat from immediately escaping from the place where behavioural therapy takes place, so that the cat can gain appropriate experience. In such cases the cat must be given hiding places in the room, so that it has enough control to feel safe, but is still present to be exposed to the stimuli being used in behavioural therapy.

A general approach to the treatment of behavioural problems involving fear would be as follows:

1) Alter the cat's environment, so that escape and avoidance behaviours are supported, and in all aspects of its life the cat has control over access to resources. This reduces general anxiety and stress, and supports behavioural therapy. In many cases, this is the most important aspect of treatment.
2) Behaviour modification techniques can be used to provide the cat with positive experiences that reduce fear and increase its perception of coping. Examples include desensitisation and counterconditioning. Desensitisation involves repeated exposure to a previously fearful stimulus below the threshold that elicits a fear response. An example might be exposing the cat to the presence of people beyond its flight distance. Counterconditioning involves the creation of an association between a previously fearful stimulus and an appetitive stimulus (such as food or play). By repeatedly pairing the fearful stimulus with food, for example, the cat's emotional response is changed. Selecting appetitive stimuli that are of sufficient value to override even a mild fear response can be difficult in cats, so it can be difficult to keep cats in the vicinity of the fear-inducing stimulus during processes such as counterconditioning. Both of these methods of controlled exposure must be performed carefully if flooding is to be avoided. Flooding involves sustained exposure to a fearful stimulus, at a level that elicits fear, until the animal ceases to respond to it. In flooding, responding ceases when the animal becomes physically and psychologically fatigued, which has been shown to intensify emotional responses, potentially leading to phobia and panic. Flooding is no longer a method used in veterinary behavioural therapy. For further information on practical aspects of behavioural therapy for fear problems see the problem-specific information linked below.
3) Psychoactive medication may be necessary to reduce anxiety or fear to manageable levels. For cats that show high levels of fear or anxiety, changes to the environment may not be effective as the cat is unable to experience them (it remains hidden or is so inhibited that it does not explore its environment). For some cats, the range of fearful stimuli is very broad or the stimuli are unidentifiable or unavoidable. In these cases, and for the animal's welfare, psychoactive medication is sometimes prescribed to facilitate adaptation to the environment and response to behavioural therapy.
4) The owner's reaction may need to be modified. Owners may unintentionally add to the cat's distress by mishandling it, often by trying to restrain the cat so that it does not escape. This is commonplace when the fear is of unfamiliar people or animals; owners will often hold a cat whilst allowing a visitor to pet it. Cats will appear to tolerate this, because their secondary species defence reaction is to freeze. However, the cat remains intensely fearful, and may attempt to attack the person restraining it, in order to escape. Owners are often surprised that cats handled in this way become less, rather than more, tolerant of visitors. Owner reinforcement of fear and anxiety should also be avoided, but this is a less common problem. However, some owners will use punishment to control a cat's behaviour; scolding a cat for eliminating in an inappropriate location, for example. This merely increases stress for the cat and increases the likelihood that it will become secretive, avoidant and mistrustful of its owners.

Also see:

Feline Fear of Other Species Except Humans
Feline Fear of People
Feline Fear of Inanimate Stimuli
Feline Attachment Problems

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