Fear in Cats
Just like us, cats feel fear and their behavior changes in response to it. What makes one cat fearful or anxious may not make another one feel that way. We observe a cat’s body language to understand how they are feeling. Fearful cats make themselves small and are tense. Their bodies will be low to the table or ground, and their legs will be tucked under their bodies. Fearful cats are constantly scanning, and their ears may change directions frequently. Sometimes they are frozen with their ears flattened and their pupils enlarged. Tails may swish or be tucked underneath their bodies. Some cats growl, hiss, swat, scratch, and bite.
Cat displaying fearful body language
This cat is displaying fearful body language. The body is low to the ground, legs tucked under, ears flattened, and pupils dilated.
Dr. Sophia Yin photo collection.
Fear is a normal emotional response in cats, and just because they are fearful does not mean they will respond aggressively. Each cat’s behavior is individual and influenced by environmental stressors, socialization as kittens, and life experiences. For example, a cat may respond aggressively when fearful at a veterinary clinic for a nail trim, whereas other cats may become frozen. In both situations, the cat perceives a person or the nail trim as threatening; however, both are the same fear response but expressed differently. Cats brought in as kittens frequently for nail trims may not be fearful since they had previous positive experiences with lots of treats.
Getting to the Source of Fear-related Aggression
When diagnosing and treating fear aggression, your veterinarian may take a detailed history to determine your cat’s triggers. They will often ask questions about your cat’s behavior and environment.
- Who is the target of the aggression? (people, other cats, etc.)?
- What does your cat look like when this is happening? For example, ear position, tail movement, etc.
- When did the behavior start?
- Are there new animals or people in the household?
- Have there been any changes in the household?
- Are there any changes in your cat’s energy levels or eating?
- Are there any changes in your cat’s normal activity?
Behavior changes may occur as a result of pain or other medical conditions. A thorough physical exam and other diagnostics, such as X-rays or blood work, may be needed.
Working with a Fear-aggressive Cat
There isn’t one single way to treat fear-related aggression because every cat is different. To help your cat feel safe, provide appropriate hiding and vertical spaces. This may be an elevated cat tree, shelf, or quiet room. It is important that your cat can access these spaces all the time, including when there are visitors.
Long-term treatment will involve changing emotional and behavioral responses. This is done by reintroducing the triggers, identified in the history in a gradual and systematic way. Food, play, and other rewards may be used for this process. Sometimes medications may be beneficial. Discuss with your veterinarian what may be best for your cat.