Pet owners know that curiosity is a formidable driver of cat behavior. It’s almost like a challenge to them if you bring something new into the house. They sniff around it and seemingly jump straight into the air if it suddenly moves. The intense fear certainly has all the makings of a panic attack from a feline’s perspective. Just because it’s not called the same term, it’s safe to say it’s in the same ballpark.
Cats are closer in touch to their wild origins than dogs. That explains their hunting instinct when they see a bird flitting around or a squirrel dash across the ground. No one has to teach a kitten what to do if it’s cornered a mouse. Those same behaviors make cats alert to changes in their environment. These are the so-called flight-or-fight responses. Let’s begin with defining panic attacks.
What Is a Panic Attack?
We’ll start with the human version. MayoClinic.org defines it as a “sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.” A person may experience a wide range of symptoms, including:
- Fast heart rate
- Shortness of breath
We kept our list of things we could observe in cats instead of feelings or other intangibles. If you’ve seen a cat frightened by something unexpected, you probably recognize many of these same signs. Your kitty may hiss and back away from you. It may strike at you or simply run away and disappear for a while. One of the other human symptoms is a fear of danger. That sounds like this frightened cat.
Defining Cat Anxiety
Cats experience anxiety for many reasons, most of which stem from the anticipated danger of some sort. It doesn’t have to be a real threat, just like the human definition of panic attacks indicates. It may take other courses, too, such as destructive behavior, GI distress, and withdrawal. It can occur from unpleasant experiences and the associations that a cat may make.
For example, a cat that was abused by a man may shun males in your household, fearing the trauma might happen again with this new person. While it may feel distressing, it’s essential to remember that it makes evolutionary sense for a cat to react this way. It’s a matter of survival in their perception. Sometimes, they don’t get a second chance to determine if something is a threat or not.
Physical causes, such as certain health conditions or toxins, can increase your cat’s anxiety, worsening to the point of a panic attack. Age may also play a role because of diminishing vision and increased dementia risk. The feline may view familiar objects as something they should fear and react accordingly.
Treatment for Behavioral Issues
Not surprisingly, many treatments mirror those that people receive. After all, we do share 90% of our DNA with cats. Most involve behavior modification techniques that can replace the undesirable actions with ones that are preferred. If you’ve studied human psychology, you may recognize many of these methods.
Habituation means trying to get your cat used to a certain situation to make it less frightening. Cats in a new home may react to every odd sound they hear. They may run and hide when someone knocks at the door, or a car backfires outside. The repeated process of exposure to the stimulus and the lack of harmful consequences allows your pet to ignore the noises.
Overlearning is another effective technique to help your cat get over an unwarranted response to a non-existent threat. It’s taking habituation to the next level with repeated exposure. The best thing about it is that it can create appropriate, long-term behavioral modifications.
Separation anxiety can occur when you move into a new home. It is also common in rehomed or abandoned pets. Again, cats act instinctively to potential threats, i.e., not getting food, water, or companionship. It can manifest itself into what appears as a full-blown panic attack, with excessive vocalization, destructive behavior, and over-the-top excitement when you get back home.
It’s essential to begin by eliminating physical causes for this condition. Your veterinarian will likely recommend that you give your cat plenty of distractions, with interactive toys, a window perch, or a safe hiding place with a comfy bed. He may also recommend using a spray or diffuser pheromone that fosters a feeling of security in your pet.
Cats are funny creatures. One moment, they’re exploring their world with abandon. The next time, they run away, tearing down the hall at the sound of a car racing down the street. Instinct and survival define feline behavior. Sometimes, anxiety and panic attacks work their way into the mix of unhealthy habits. Fortunately, there are several measures you can take to restore the calm in your kitty’s life.
Featured Image Credit: Mary Swift, Shutterstock