Fear and Distress in Cats

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Fear is a normal emotional response to potential threats, and perceptions of threats can be increased in unfamiliar situations or environments. A perceived threat can be anything unfamiliar to the cat, such as a trip to the veterinary practice, a change in the home, or the presence of unfamiliar people or other pets. Fear can be induced by interactions that the cat finds oppressive, such as interactions with people who force the cat to be held, placed on a lap, or followed, instead of waiting until the cat is ready to interact . When fear is related to a perception rather than a reality of threat, it ceases to be adaptive and it is the veterinarian’s responsibility to prevent mental suffering by offering appropriate advice to owners of these patients.

Stress can be a normal result of fear, and both short term and long term stress can lead to poor feline welfare.
Overt aggression is a last resort as a feline defense strategy because it runs the risk of debilitating injury to both parties. As a result, passive defense options of avoidance and inhibition are more likely to occur and many fearful cats are inactive and quieter as a result of their negative emotional state. This passive feline expression of fear and distress can delay detection and result in compromised welfare.
When fear and distress result in chronic stress, cats may cease to demonstrate normal behavior, such as by becoming inappetent or unkempt, but they may also demonstrate normal stress-related behaviors that are unacceptable to the humans with whom they live.

For example, cats will often urine mark or urinate outside the litter box when stressed, leading to punishment by the owner or relinquishment, which increases the cat’s stress further. Regardless of whether it is rehomed, sent to a shelter, or put outside permanently to enter the stray cat population, the cat’s loss of the familiarity and security of its environment causes it fear and distress. As a social species, there is also the loss of the relationship with a person or persons, and possibly with other pets.

Many innate feline behaviors, such as hunting, marking, scratching, climbing, and jumping, are undesirable to owners. Cats are often relinquished or euthanized for performing these instinctive behaviors, but some owners take the alternative approach of using techniques to prevent their pet from engaging in these behaviors. Keeping cats indoors to prevent hunting, performing onychectomy to prevent furniture destruction, and using a squirt gun to keep cats off counters are some of the recommendations that have been made by veterinary professionals to assist clients in their goal of keeping their pet. From a feline welfare perspective, however, these interventions limit the cat’s ability to express innate behaviors and are therefore detrimental to its welfare.

– Feline signs of fear can be passive and subtle. Many cats prefer to avoid or hide rather than run away or fight.
– Forcing a cat to sit on a lap when it does not want to is stressful for the cat, and the contrast between the relaxed body language of the person and the tense body posturing of the cat illustrates the level of miscommunication between the species.
– Cats prefer privacy when they toilet. It is not sufficient to provide one litter box per cat if the boxes are in close proximity,
– Instead of forcing interactions with the cat, providing hiding places big enough for only one cat to enter can help to increase their sense of security, especially in a new environment.
– The vertical dimension is essential in the home environment.
– Feeding cats in close proximity to each other causes stress and competition for resources.
– Scratching posts should be placed in areas where cats prefer to scratch, such as near a primary piece of furniture or where the scent profile changes (e.g., near a door or window). Providing a post that allows a cat to stretch fully is ideal.


In the end, Poor feline welfare is frequently caused by a lack of understanding of the feline species, which stems from a fundamental difference between the social behaviors and communication systems of cats and people. This misunderstanding leads to unintentional restrictions of normal feline behavior that compromise feline welfare.
The result is often the onset of behavior that is considered problematic or abnormal.

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