The Two Faces of Fear

Fight or flight – you’re probably familiar with the different ways that we react to fear. Do you stand your ground or take off running? Or perhaps you just freeze up, unable to react at all? Our cats have the same reactions when faced with a scary situation. This story of two brother cats reacting in very different ways gives insight into fearful cats and how you can help.

Yoshi and Sunny

The two orange cats came into the shelter after having spent the last few months living in a garage. Yoshi and Sunny were brothers who had lost their home and were given temporary space by a neighbor but now they needed to move on. The people who brought them in didn’t know much about them, only that they seemed nice most of the time but could be difficult to handle at other times. As this describes many cats, shelter staff didn’t worry too much and set them up in a room with the hope that they would quickly be ready for adoption.

They were not!

When staff checked on the brothers the next morning, Sunny was curled into a ball in the corner of his perch. His tail was wrapped tightly around him and his eyes were closed. But he wasn’t sleeping, instead he was avoiding the world around him.

Yoshi was a different story. Sitting on his cat tree, he was staring at anyone who walked by and hissing loudly. When someone entered the room, he would growl and swish his tail. If approached, Yoshi had no problem using his claws to tell you to back off. Even worse, if there was a lot of activity around him (like someone trying to clean his room), Yoshi would actively move forward to swat hands or legs. He didn’t wait for the threat to come to him!

Could both cats’ behavior really be due to fear? Absolutely!

Fearful Aggression

Like Yoshi, some cats take a more active stance when scared. They may hiss, growl, swat, or bite. Some cats may even come forward at a perceived threat, rather than running away. When cats have low thresholds (they react in a big way to small things) or an owner doesn’t understand that the cat is stressed, this behavior can be labelled as “random” or be attributed to the cat being generally “aggressive.” In reality, cats like Yoshi are reacting to a scary situation (from their point of view). And, while their behavior is aggressive, this isn’t a fixed personality trait.

Siamese cat hissing
Not Yoshi but an equally fearful cat.
Image by Tania Van den Berghen from Pixabay

Sadly, some people still believe the outdated idea that aggression must be punished to prevent it from getting worse. Especially if you label the behavior as “random”, you may not know what else to do. But punishment will only make this situation worse. When you see it as a fearful reaction, you can take steps to help your cat feel safer and decrease the aggressive behavior.

Frozen in Place

On the other hand, cats like Sunny aren’t swatting or biting. They’re just sitting there, not really doing much of anything. These cats might hide under or behind things. They don’t seem to care about playing or toys. You might even be able pet them without any reaction. An owner might get concerned if their cat isn’t eating or using the litter box but as long as those things are happening, these cats get called “fine.”

Grey Cat Hiding with Dilated Pupils
Not Sunny, just an example.
Image by 5350755 from Pixabay

Cats that don’t run away or fight back when fearful are said to “freeze” or “shut down.” Unfortunately, this type of fearful reaction may be ignored if it isn’t causing a problem for the owner. Cats continuing to live with stress may become sick (stress is a common cause of illness in cats). Or they may slowly be pushed to a breaking point where they feel forced to resort to aggression, a shock to the owner. However when this behavior is recognized as fear, you can help a cat feel more confident and have a happier life, as well as preventing the situation from escalating.  

Helping a Fearful Cat

If you’ve identified that your cat is stressed or fearful, there are a few steps to help them.

Home Setup

Give your cat a safe space to escape from things in the home that may stress them out, like other cats, dogs, kids, or visitors. Having the choice to take a break gives many cats the confidence to explore and interact more. Provide plenty of raised perches around the home so your cat has a place to get off the ground and watch from safety. Review this page on cat-friendly homes for more information.

Minimize Stress

Routine and interactive play are wonderful tools for managing stress in cats. When life is predictable, your cat can learn to feel safe. Always let your cat set the pace and don’t force them to interact. Create a place for your cat to hang out away from the action when guests or workers come to the house. Avoid punishment! For more about reducing stress, visit this page.

Positive Associations

Pair the things that scare your cat with things they love (food, play, etc) to build good feelings and change your cat’s emotional reaction. Use very special goodies and take it slow. Classical conditioning is powerful but needs to be done right to work. There are more details here.

Get Help

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Even if you are an experienced cat owner, every cat shows us all the things we don’t know! Your vet can be a great resource. You may also need to speak with a professional cat behavior expert who can help you implement these steps and more.

A Happy Ending

Yoshi and Sunny may have had a hard time transitioning to shelter life but staff were able to identify their behavior as rooted in fear and to give them support. Sunny got a quiet space and lots of positive associations with new people and was able to come out of his shell. Yoshi was given more room to move away from people and, once he had that option to escape, he revealed a wonderful social side!

When we can see what our cats are feeling, we can do more for them.

If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.