A cat, when startled by the sound of a backfiring car, dashes toward a hiding spot, running as fast as she can. A small dog, backed into a corner, snarls, showing his teeth and his willingness to protect himself. A kitten, hearing a vacuum cleaner for the first time, freezes in place. A cat or dog paces and pants, unable to settle down in the absence of a favorite person.
Most people are familiar with the fear reactions fight and flight, but freeze and fret are additional responses to danger that pets may exhibit. Here’s what you should know about the four reactions.
Dogs and cats both have the ability to fight when they are afraid, and they share some characteristics when doing so. Snarling, showing teeth, and lunging toward the danger (even if just a small forward motion) are common.
An unsure, aroused or fearful dog will raise his hackles (the hair on the back along the spine), indicating a desire to either flee or fight. The tail may be tucked close to the back legs if the dog is close to panic. A pet who has learned to be offensive in the face of fear may have the tail up and forward.
Cats in a state of arousal may elevate all of their hair coat, making themselves look twice their normal size. They may also raise one or both front paws, possibly with claws extended, ready to swipe or swat in self-defense.
Although both dogs and cats will fight in some situations, most prefer to either freeze or run away if possible. After all, fighting can lead to injury (or worse) to the dog or cat. If the animal is restrained or cornered, however, fighting may be the only perceived response available. It’s important to recognize that pets who respond with fight instead of flight aren’t mean; they’re scared. They may have learned from previous experience to go on the offense as a first resort instead of waiting until they are cornered or restrained.
Most dogs and cats, when threatened or afraid, prefer to run away from danger. This dash away may be the first response or may follow a fight threat. If the fight threat (barking and lunging from a dog or hissing and swatting from a cat) doesn’t make the danger go away, then the pet might try to escape danger by running away. Whether a pet chooses to flee or fight depends on the individual animal’s circumstances and previous experiences.
Most of the time this dash away lasts just long enough for the pet to find a hiding place. In the house, the cat may hide under the bed while the dog could run to his crate.
Unfortunately, this wild run (which is often accompanied by a sense of panic) may also cause the pet harm. Many dogs and cats are hit by cars during Fourth of July fireworks because the pet, hearing the loud noises, escapes the house or yard and runs away as fast as possible. If he escapes being hit by a car, and continues to hear the fireworks, the panic will continue and the pet could end up far from home.
The inclination to freeze is a lifesaving one for wild animals. The animal who can hold completely still and blend into the background could potentially escape the notice of hunting predators.
Although dogs don’t usually show this response when they have freedom of movement to escape danger, they will often freeze when restrained. If a dog is being groomed (perhaps toenails are being trimmed) or cared for in another manner that causes the dog concern, instead of relaxing, the dog may hold completely still. This stillness (and often stiffness) is the fear response freeze.
Cats most often assume this completely still position when they feel someone or something is looking for them.
In an owner’s absence, a fretful pet may pace, pant, become overly active or unable to settle down, or wait or watch vigilantly. These are often signs of separation anxiety and can affect dogs and cats. Animals may also behave fretfully when their normal environment is disrupted by the presence of guests, whether they are known to the animal or strangers. Fretful animals may try to dig, scratch, or jump their way to freedom or
slip through an open door, possibly in a bid to find their missing person or simply to escape the left-at-home blues.
Fretful behavior can also be a sign of intermittent or chronic pain. That may be the case if fretful actions don’t seem to have any cause and is good reason to take your pet to the vet for a checkup.
Helping Your Pet
Ideally, your pet shouldn’t ever be so afraid that any of these responses kick in; unfortunately, though, life can sometimes be frightening.
To help your pet, learn what things are truly scary to him. Figure out, too, what your pet tends to do when faced with any of these triggers. Does your cat freeze when guests come to the house or does he fight at the veterinarian’s office? Does your dog try to escape loud noises?
Once you’ve identified the fears and your pet’s responses, see if there is some way to lessen your pet’s responses. For example, some high-value treats could change your dog’s attitude toward nail trimming. If you need more help, talk to your Fear Free certified veterinarian or behaviorist for guidance.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT