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Understanding Fear, Stress and Anxiety in Cats

Fear and anxiety disturbances are sadly quite common among domestic cats. Our feline friends can often suffer significant fear and anxiety problems, just like some humans and dogs. 

These issues impair their functioning, health, quality of life, welfare and longevity. Feline fear and anxiety may manifest behaviours that are very challenging, frustrating or dangerous for us as their human counterparts. 

In fact, fear and anxiety in cats can lead to behavioural issues such as anti-social behaviour or “inappropriate urination” and are a leading cause and contributing factor to surrender and euthanasia. It is important that we are able to recognise normal and abnormal behaviour in our cats. 

The History of our Relationship with Cats

We must understand them as a species and understand their needs as individuals if we are to live harmoniously with them. We need to be equipped to notice when they are struggling with their mental health so that we can intervene and give them the help they require. 

Cats, as opposed to dogs, are only considered “semi-domesticated”. Cats have been only minimally or mildly modified in regards to physical, behavioural and social characteristics from their wild ancestors. 

The “domestication” or perhaps more accurately, the “co-habitation” of cats with humans, came about as we moved from a hunter-gathering life-style to an agrarian life-style. Agriculture and the storing of food led to inevitable problems with rodent infestations. This then brought the cats, who were welcomed as low-maintenance pest controllers
Credit: Flickr - olfiika
As we humans progressed, we only ever asked that cats hang around on the periphery of our society and aloofly address our rat and mouse problems. Thus we developed a loose and somewhat distant but mutually beneficial relationship between our two species. 

In contrast, dogs were selectively bred and dramatically genetically altered to fulfil certain purposes. They were invited to share our food, shelter and family lives more intimately. Cats have always been less reliant on us and us on them. The bodies and brains of cats have been far less remodelled by human intervention than those of dogs. This is worth remembering as it often underpins the conflicts and misunderstandings we have with cats.

Cats as a species are both predator and prey in their natural evolutionary setting. They can be very prone to fear and anxiety due to their genetic inheritance as a prey species. Cats are all individuals of course and there is a broad spectrum of temperaments and personalities among them. 

However, as a general observation, cats do not cope well with change. They are a species who chooses to occupy a particular set territory and tend to have fairly set social relationships. 

They are not very optimistic or resilient when it comes to environmental or social change once they have moved beyond their social maturity phase of development. They do not usually tolerate introduction to new places or new cats without experiencing a significant amount of stress. Some cats are “neophobic” which means they are highly fearful of anything novel or unfamiliar and very easily startled by anything unexpected. Hence the online video craze of cats freaking out at the sudden sight of cucumbers!

Interestingly and uniquely, cats evolved as hide-and-wait predators. Their strategy for catching prey was to sit very quietly and very still at sites where prey was likely to appear such as entrances to burrows, then react instantly with a catch and kill repertoire. 

This evolutionary niche influenced feline brain development in regards to cognitive, social and emotional parameters. Feline brains and behaviour became wired to move explosively between a state of very low arousal and very high arousal

This has implications for our domestic cats’ behaviour today. Cats can be very explosive and impulsive when fearful, enraged or otherwise stimulated or aroused. They can show minimal moderation or graduation of emotion between calm and extremely upset. Cats often have normal or baseline arousal levels that are different to dogs and people. This results in them having a low threshold for becoming stressed and means they are often not the most tolerant of creatures.

Furthermore, cats often have poor resilience and do not recover well after stress. After significant episodes of fear or distress, many cats do not return to normal levels of physiology and functioning for up to 72 hours. This is why a cat who has been through a stressful time may be terribly irritable and require some substantial time and space to re-adjust and re-set. 

In the vet profession when treating a cat, we often have only one chance to intervene. If that cat exceeds its stress threshold, the mission may have to be aborted as subsequent attempts to interact with the cat may be met with more and more fear and aggression. Stress is very cumulative in cats!

Importantly, cats who are stressed, frightened and aggressive must not be handled roughly or restrained forcefully. This is traumatic for the cat and dangerous for both cat and handler. The emotional state of the cat must be respected and it must be allowed to cool off so it can more calmly and rationally handle the next interaction.

Why are some cats fearful and anxious?

Behaviour is determined by three fundamental overlapping factors which are all as influential and important as each other:

  • Genetics
  • Experience 
  • Environment 
If a cat is anxious it is due to the interplay between these 3 factors. 

#1. Genetics:

 Cats can be genetically prone to fear and anxiety. In domestic cats it has been shown that the temperament of the Tom is more influential than that of the queen in determining temperament of the kittens, especially in regards to broad traits such as boldness, friendliness or fearfulness.

Epi-genetic factors play a huge role too as stress acts on genes to make harmful changes. Stress or poor nutrition of the queen during pregnancy will alter genetic expression within the developing brains of the unborn kittens, rendering them more prone to fear and anxiety. Stress early in life also serves to change an animal’s genes and behavioural traits. Exposure to too much stress alters general perception, resilience, optimism and coping ability.

#2. Experience:

There is a component of learning and experience to the development of fear and anxiety problems. Socialisation is extremely important in kittens to help prevent emotional and behavioural issues later in life. 

The importance of appropriate socialisation in cats has long been under-emphasized compared to dogs, but the same principles apply. 

Kittens must be exposed to all relevant stimuli in a non-threatening (i.e. positive or neutral) way early in life so that they learn to tolerate them and generally become acclimated and habituated to the world in which they are expected to live. 

It is generally accepted that the socialisation phase in kittens is from about 2 weeks to about 9 weeks of age. This is the sensitive window of time which can be make or break in regards to setting up emotional and behavioural templates and lasting perceptions of the world. What kittens learn during this time will have a big impact on their behaviour later on. 

Research has shown that kittens who are handled frequently during the first few months of life show less fear and greater friendliness towards people later on. 

Conversely, cats who lack experiences or who have traumatic experiences will be at risk of manifesting fear and anxiety. During early development cats become prone to developing fear and anxiety if things that should happen don’t and/or things that should not happen do. 

Importantly, early weaning and hand-rearing of kittens is known to alter their social and behavioural development, often causing significant and irreparable changes to their brains. 

Hand-reared kittens commonly manifest very abnormal behaviour especially in regards to aggression and impulse control. Many hand-raised kittens inevitably become untenable as pets and later require euthanasia, despite the best intentions and efforts of their human carers. This evidence should be heavily considered in the decision to hand-rear kittens.

#3. Environment:

Environment is hugely important in terms of fostering or hindering optimal feline behaviour. We are generally not very good at providing for the environmental needs of our cats. As discussed earlier, cats are prone to stress, especially associated with change. Therefore, cats like to have a consistent and predictable environment and need to be able to exercise control over their environment.

Environment includes both physical surroundings (where the cat lives) and social surroundings (who the cat lives with). Changes in either the physical or social environment can be very destabilising for cats. Even the addition of new furniture can perturb some cats to the point of a mental health meltdown.

Cats are often very restricted by domestic life. This is especially important in light of the fact that they are only semi-domesticated. They can find confinement very stressful as the need to roam and patrol their territory is strongly ingrained. 

I certainly do not suggest that cats are allowed free access to roam off our properties as this is not in the best interests of the cat, people or other animals. 
However, cats do benefit from enrichment in the form of outside time which is safe and supervised. Cats can be trained to walk on a harness or may enjoy a cat enclosure

Similarly, the instinct to hunt is strongly innate in cats (although it can be tempered if they are not taught to hunt by their mothers). Cats can experience high levels of frustration and stress if no suitable outlets are required to mimic hunting. Bursts of play involving chasing and catching objects or clever creative feeding can be used to address this need. 

Ambient sensory input such as temperature, weather, sights, sounds and scents will often greatly affect feline mood and behaviour. Cats can commonly become acutely or chronically unwell due to stress. Stress impacts many systems in the body, especially the urinary tract, bowels and skin. Stressed out felines often present with ongoing or recurrent health problems such as urinary tract inflammation and infection, irritable bowel and dermatological conditions

Many cats develop abnormal repetitive behaviour and especially self-directed behaviour as a means to cope with environmental stress. A common example is over-grooming where cats may lick and groom parts of their body to the point of significant hair loss or skin trauma. This is called “psychogenic alopecia”.

In regards to social environment, a very common cause of fear, anxiety and undesirable anti-social behaviour is the presence of another cat in the home. One of the biggest stressors in cats is having to live with another cat who they do not get along with. Even the presence of a foreign or feral cat that visits the property occasionally can induce massive stress in a cat.

It is important to recognise that in their natural state, cats will simply elect to leave a given territory if there is social stress or conflict. However, in the domestic setting they are instead forced to remain and inhabit a household.

We must understand the type of relationship that exists between cats living under the same roof. Cats are either in the same social group or not. Cats in the same social group are bonded friends. They choose to spend time together and show affiliative behaviour towards each other such as grooming and sleeping together in close contact. They are usually comfortable to share resources.

By contrast, cats who are not in the same social group consider each other to be enemies. In this case they will need to completely avoid each other or worse, may be in overt conflict - fighting and harming each other. 

In these situations, subtle conflict or competition over resources can cause considerable stress without their owners even noticing. Cats can be masters of passive aggression. Often an anxious cat will subtly stare or body block another cat which is very threatening and stress-provoking for the victim but may go undetected by people. 

The concept of social groups is often not well understood or recognised by owners of multiple cats which can lead to stress and behaviour problems in cats.

Watch the video below explaining how to tell if cats are friends or foes.

What does fear and anxiety look like in cats?

Fearful cats will show one (or more) of the “4 F” behaviours. These are the only 4 behavioural options that they can use to cope when they are feeling anxious or fearful.
The four F’s are: Fiddle, Flight, Fight and Freeze.

Which one a cat choses at any given time is dependent on many factors such as genetics, prior learning and the given situation or context. It is important to recognise that when a cat is using one of the 4 Fs, it is in a heightened and negative emotional and arousal state. It is not calm and rational and is struggling to deal with the situation. 

#1. Fiddle:

The correct term for fiddling is “displacement behaviour” because fiddling in effect displaces emotion and arousal into active behaviour so that the animal can act to feel better.

When an animal is fiddling it is in a moderately high state of arousal and anxiety and is starting to get very worried and feel unsafe. Fiddling is often seen first before an animal escalates to an intense state of fear or panic and deploys one of the other 3 strategies of flight, fight or freeze

Fiddling can be an important warning sign prior to impending aggression. If we do not recognise a cat’s distress at the fiddle stage and alter our interaction, it may then switch to aggression as an attempt to deal with the situation. Unfortunately, fiddling is often completely missed, overlooked or misinterpreted by people if they are not familiar with or trained to read cat body language. But once aware of it, it becomes very obvious.

The purpose of fiddling is to: 

  • Self-soothe – reduce arousal state
  • Deal with an internal emotion or conflict i.e. displacement 
  • Communicate to others a state of anxiety / distress in the hope of defusing the situation 
  • Disengage from the environment ie appear distracted in order to stop or avoid an interaction 
Common examples of fiddling in cats:
  • Looking away – averting gaze or turning head
  • Yawning
  • Lip-licking
  • Body shake / shake off
  • Tail flicking
  • Skin rippling 
  • Pacing 
  • Self-directed behaviour e.g. pretending to groom, licking paws or chasing tail.
#2. Flight:

This is an attempt to move away from the threat or fearful stimulus. It is a distance increasing behaviour. This is often the first choice for cats – at least initially or early in the development of fear and anxiety. The cat may try to flee, withdraw, hide or make itself inconspicuous.

Importantly, flight is not an option when cornered, restrained or confined. In these situations the cat will need to use one of the other options instead. This is why cats may be more readily defensively aggressive when confined or restrained.

#3. Fight:

The fight response is the use of anti-social behaviour or aggression. This includes the entire ladder of aggression from body posturing, stiffening and staring through growling and hissing or spitting to actually lunging, swiping, snapping and biting. 

A fearful and aggressive cat will often show the classic “halloween cat” body language of arched back, puffed up fur and erect brush-tail, dilated pupils, tight face and pinned back ears.

Aggression is a distance increasing behaviour, it is an attempt to try and get the threat to move away. 
A very important point is that feline aggression towards people is ALWAYS defensive and always secondary to fear and anxiety. There is no such thing as “offensive” aggression and there is certainly no such thing as “dominance” aggression – this is a complete myth. 

Even when a cat is actively moving aggressively and assertively towards the target it is still defensive aggression – the animal is fearful, perceiving a threat and following an “I must get you before you get me” philosophy. In this case, the cat is confident the aggression is an effective strategy (due to previous learning experience), hence it's appearing assertive.

Often we misinterpret fearful behaviour in cats as the cat being “angry” or “vicious” when in fact it is simply scared.

Aggression is usually a last resort – at least initially. However, it is easily and quickly reinforced by prior learning of success. When a cat is pushed to use the fight response it may quickly learn that this is the extent it needs to escalate to in order to deal with the threat and make itself feel safe again. This means aggression is quick to develop and worsen with time as it becomes a reliable coping strategy and the “go to” strategy as soon as the cat is afraid. In this way, people often make aggression worse by not recognising or responding to the cat’s prior strategies of trying to flee, fiddle or freeze.

#4. Freeze

This is when a cat stops moving in order to appear non-threatening and prevent provoking or escalating any further interaction or conflict. This is a way of ceasing to act on the environment in the hope that the threat passes. It can be a shut down and inhibited state. 

It can often be a consequence of learned helplessness which is a state in which the cat has learned there is no point in trying to flee or fight because it does not work. This can happen in cases of heavy prolonged restraint or physical punishment where the situation gets worse or continues despite the cat’s attempts to cope. When its coping strategies are exhausted then it may give up. 

This manifests as being behaviourally still but the cat is in an internal state of fear and distress. This must not be confused with being calm. Often animals who are frozen are in an even worse emotional state than those using the other strategies because they are not confident enough to do anything to try and help themselves despite being terrified.

Remember, if you see a cat doing one of the above 4 F behaviours then it is clear that it is suffering anxiety and fear and needs help to cope with the situation and calm down.

In Part 2 of this series, we'll look at how to successfully manage your cat's anxiety issues and available treatment options.

written by Dr Eleanor Parker, February 2019 for Australian Cat Lover (all rights reserved)

For questions, clarifications, further information or if you know a dog with separation anxiety who needs help, please contact Dr Eleanor Parker of Pawly Understood.

About Dr Eleanor Parker
BSc BVMS (Hons) MANZCVS (Behaviour)

Elle graduated from Murdoch University in 2010. Starting out in emergency and critical care, she quickly found her passion for behaviour and mental health in animals.

Fascinated by this blossoming field, Elle undertook further study through the University of Sydney in 2015 and sat her membership exams in veterinary behaviour in 2016.

Elle's behavioural mantra is "compassion, communication, co-operation, cohabitation". She offers private veterinary consulting services to people needing assistance with their pets' behaviour through her practice at Pawly Understood.

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