Extreme Fear and Anxiety in Cats

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Fears, Phobias, and Anxieties in Cats

A phobia is a persistent and excessive fear of a specific stimulus, such as a thunderstorm. Immediate, excessive anxiety response is characteristic of a phobic condition, and it has been suggested that once a phobic event has been experienced, any event associated with it, or the memory of it, is sufficient enough to generate a response. The most common phobias are associated with noises (such as thunderstorms or fireworks).

Fear is the instinctual feeling of apprehension resulting from a situation, person, or object that appears to present an external threat -- whether real or perceived. The response of the autonomic nervous system prepares the body for the freeze, fight, or flight syndrome. It is considered to be a normal behavior, essential for adaptation and survival; its context determines whether the fear response is normal, or abnormal and inappropriate. Most abnormal reactions are learned and can be unlearned with gradual exposure.

Anxiety is the anticipation of future dangers from unknown or imagined origins that result in normal body reactions (known as physiologic reactions) associated with fear; most common visible behaviors are elimination (urination and/or passage of bowel movements), destruction, and excessive vocalization (barking, crying). Separation anxiety is the most common specific anxiety in companion animals. When alone, the animal exhibits anxiety or excessive distress behaviors.

Most fears, phobias, and anxieties develop at the onset of social maturity, from 12 to 36 months of age. A profound form of fear and withdrawal of unknown cause often occurs around eight to ten months of age. Old-age-onset separation anxiety of unknown cause may be a variant of a decline in thinking, learning, and memory in elderly pets.

Symptoms and Types

  • Fears and anxieties - variable signs: diagnosis may be made only on the basis of nonspecific signs for which no identifiable stimulus is present
  • Mild fears: signs may include trembling, withdrawal, hiding, reduced activity, and passive escape behaviors
  • Panic: signs may include active escape behavior, and increased, out-of-context, potentially injurious motor activity.
  • Classic signs of sympathetic autonomic nervous system activity due to stress, including diarrhea that may be diagnosed as inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome
  • Anxieties: lesions secondary to anxious behavior (such as licking and biting at the self)


  • Any illness or painful physical condition increases anxiety and contributes to the development of fears, phobias, and anxieties
  • Aging changes associated with nervous system changes; infectious disease (primarily viral infections in the central nervous system), and toxic conditions (such as lead poisoning) may lead to behavioral problems, including fears, phobias, and anxieties
  • Fear resulting from a traumatic experience; cat may have been forced into an unfamiliar and frightening experience
  • Cats that are deprived of social and environmental exposure until 14 weeks of age may become habitually fearful of contact
  • Phobias and panic may have a history of inability to escape or get away from the stimulus causing the phobia and panic, such as being locked in crate or in abusive situations
  • Separation anxiety: history of abandonment, multiple owners, rehoming, or prior neglect is common; exacerbating the condition may be that the cat has been abandoned or rehomed because of separation anxiety


Your veterinarian will first want to rule out other conditions that might be causing your cat's behavior, such as brain or thyroid disease. The behavior could also be originating from a response to a toxic substance, such as lead, which can cause neurological disorders. Blood tests will rule out or confirm such a possibility.

If your veterinarian diagnoses a simple fear, anxiety, or phobia, a prescribed medication may be all that is needed. But your doctor will most likely make recommendations based on your individual cat, what the fear trigger is, and how you can alleviate your cat's fears and anxieties through behavioral conditioning.


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