Communication is key to any relationship, and conflicts arise when we misunderstand a message. We can usually decipher a person’s emotional disposition by expression and body language, but cats are mysterious and wear a poker face so their emotions aren’t as easily read. Most humans aren’t adept at reading a cat’s normal behavior when dealing with conflict, so we often fail to recognize the early signs of fear, anxiety and stress (FAS) before full-blown expression.
Fear, anxiety and stress are powerful forces that can potentially cause numerous serious health conditions, worsen others, and negatively affect behavior. Fear and anxiety are often used together and share similar physiological responses, but they are different things, as is stress. It’s important for pet parents to understand the distinction.
Fear is an innate protective emotional response to avoid a real or perceived danger and incites us to confront the danger or escape it, the natural fight-or-flight response. In some cases of extreme fear or inability to escape, cats freeze in place. When it comes to cats, the crucial word is perceived. We may not perceive a person or situation as dangerous, but if the cat does, the perception is the cat’s reality and the cat will respond accordingly.
Anxiety is the anticipation of future danger, real or imagined, based on past experience of a frightening, painful, or negative event. Living in constant anxiety is a miserable quality of life, and it isn’t normal or healthy.
Stress is a reaction to fear, anxiety (or both) or the inability to cope with an environment perceived as threatening to wellbeing. Chronic stress can affect the immune system and increase susceptibility to disease.
Signs of FAS
Cats communicate with their whole body, from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail and have a full vocal repertoire to express their feelings. The biggest challenge pet parents have is recognizing behavioral cues and their meanings. Perhaps none are so misunderstood as fear and anxiety. The more severe signs of salivation, shaking, flattened ears, and small, crouched body position are often misinterpreted as signs of distress. The key is to recognize the early signs of stress and extinguish the first spark before it ignites a firestorm of fear or fear-aggression.
Cats avoid conflict and give many signals to ward off confrontation. When people, cats, or other animals misunderstand or ignore the signs, posturing and vocalizations intensify. Fighting isn’t the first response—it’s a last resort.
While the cat is giving off behavioral cues, physiological changes are happening in every system, revving up the body for fight or flight. Some changes include increased heart rate, increased respiratory rate, high blood pressure, pupil dilation, sweaty paw pads, and piloerection, hair standing on end.
Let’s identify the signs of FAS from subtle to severe.
A relaxed cat presents a friendly, soft, neutral position: pupils are normally dilated; body loose; ears, brow and lips relaxed; tail up in U-shape. An “interested” cat has slight pupil dilation; ears and whiskers perked forward; tail up and winding.
Cats with mild signs have partial pupil dilation; avoid eye contact and turn body away; ears slightly rotated; whiskers forward; brow slightly furrowed; displaced grooming; and tail wraps closer to the body.
Moderate signs of FAS include increased pupil dilation; ears more rotated and slightly flattened; back becomes more arched; direct staring at threat; whiskers pulled back; tense jaw set. May hiss.
Signs of severe FAS include actively trying to flee, pupils dilated, ears flattened. The cat may adopt a “Halloween cat” stance with arched back, bristled tail, and stand on tippy toes in an effort to look larger. A cat in freeze mode will curl into a small ball with tail curled tightly into body, ears and whiskers back; full stare at threat. May hiss or growl.
The severest signs of FAS represent fight or aggression stance, including the offensive stance, a heightened “Halloween cat” posture, pupils constricted or dilated, intense staring. Defensive aggression posture includes fully flattened ears, whiskers pulled tightly back, tail may thrash, paw swats, growls or spitting.
Fear, anxiety and stress can have adverse effects on the immune system, behavior, and overall health and wellbeing. Learning the first signs of FAS and defusing it before it escalates into full-blown fear is essential to a fear-free happy cat and home.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT