As a cat owner, you want nothing more than for your feline friend to live a happy and healthy life. But, did you know that cats, like humans, can suffer from panic attacks?
In this article, we’ll look at what cat panic attacks are, how to recognize them, what causes them, and, most importantly, how to prevent and respond to them.
Cat Anxiety and Panic Attacks
While cat anxiety can be ongoing, a panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear or distress that can affect a cat’s physical and emotional well-being. It’s a natural reaction to a perceived threat, but it can be overwhelming and lead to more serious health issues if not managed properly, which we talk about more below.
- Increased heart rate
- Dilated pupils
- Aggression or cowering
- Inappropriate urination or defecation
A panic attack is an extreme reaction to overwhelming feelings of anxiety, in both humans and cats. While the reasons for both species experiencing anxiety might be different, many of the symptoms are the same.
For example, when cats feel scared or threatened, they may react by lashing out. Alternatively, the complete opposite reaction could take place and you might find your cat hiding away from the threat in a dark corner of your home.
It’s perfectly normal for cats to experience short bouts of stress in certain situations, such as traveling or on hearing fireworks. However, if the threat is perceived constantly, then your cat may have developed anxiety. This can lead to panic attacks if it is not dealt with swiftly. Older cats with poor eyesight are generally more likely to develop anxiety because a lack of vision can make them feel more vulnerable to attack. Cats that were not socialized properly as kittens are also at higher risk.
What Does a Cat Panic Attack Look Like?
The generally accepted definition of a panic attack is a sudden burst of intense fear that results in severe physical reactions. Even when there is no actual threat present. Essentially, this means that your cat will exhibit physical signs of anxiety or a panic attack, even if there’s nothing for them to be afraid of. For a cat, the cause could be as simple as a stranger entering the home and smelling like another cat.
Cat Panic Attack Symptoms:
Panic attack symptoms in cats can be both physical and behavioral. Here are a few of the most common symptoms:
- Dilated pupils: Your cat’s pupils will appear larger than normal
- Hiding and refusal to come out: Your cat may hide away in fear
- Excessive grooming or vocalization
- Trembling or shaking
- Fast breathing/Hyperventilation: Panting, rapid breathing, or open-mouth breathing (if your cat is panting, read here to learn how to calm them)
- Inappropriate urination or defecation: Soiling or spraying around the house, incontinence, restlessness, which could mean an inability to go
- Unusual destructive or aggressive behavior
- Increased heart rate: If you can get close enough, you may be able to feel your cat’s heartbeat racing
To explain a few of the symptoms in more detail:
Changes In Activity Level
You probably know your cat’s personality better than anyone else in the world. That’s why you’re the best person to pick up on any behavioral changes in your pet. Both a significant and sudden decrease or increase in activity can indicate that your cat is suffering from a panic attack. For example, a cat that is normally calm and docile might become more agitated and energetic as a response to a panic attack.
Trembling and shaking are clear indicators of fear, anxiety, and potentially a panic attack. If your cat still feels comfortable enough to be around you, it will be easier to notice any trembling or shaking. However, cats will often withdraw from social interaction when they are suffering from extreme anxiety. So, it is important that you keep an eye on your kitty if you are concerned.
This is a very common sign of a panic attack in both humans and cats. If you’ve ever seen two cats staring each other down in the few seconds before a fight breaks out, you may have noticed how remarkably still they both are (if your cats are staring at you, read here). In the case of panic attacks, your cat might exhibit the complete opposite reaction and their breathing will suddenly increase rapidly. In this situation, you should be able to see the rib cage moving quite clearly.
Ok, this symptom isn’t quite the same as it is for humans but at least it’s a very clear indicator of a potential panic attack. If your cat is usually quiet, then a sudden increase in vocalizations could indicate that they are suffering from stress. However, again, you need to know your cat’s normal behaviors in order to identify any changes.
Of course, meowing can just be a sign of hunger! So, make sure you note when and how often your cat starts to vocalize excessively. Then you can begin to identify the triggers and work out if any intervention is necessary.
What Causes Panic Attacks in Cats?
Some potential causes are:
- Fear and Anxiety Triggers
- Previous traumatic experiences
- Lack of proper socialization as a kitten
- Separation anxiety
- Loud noises
- Fear of unknown objects or events
- Genetics/Health Issues
- Pain or illness
- Old age
- Environmental Factors:
- Moving to a new home
- Moving furniture
- The addition of a baby or new pet into the home
- Another cat in the house or nearby
What To Do If Your Cat Has A Panic Attack
Firstly, the best thing to do is to leave them alone until they have calmed down. You won’t know for sure what is causing their feelings of anxiety so you could end up making the situation worse unintentionally. However, it is important to remember that all cats have their own personalities. Some will prefer to hide away but others may seek comfort. To test this, you can sit a short distance away from your cat and talk softly. Make sure you hold your body low to the ground so they don’t perceive you as yet another threat. If your cat comes over, make sure you are slow and gentle with any movements you make, and watch your cat’s reaction carefully. If your cat refuses to move, then simply leave them alone.
If your cat has stopped eating or drinking because of a panic attack, you could bring their food and water closer to them. Alternatively, you can leave their bowls in a quiet room away from any people or other pets. If you really can’t bear to see your cat in a state of anxiety, there are plenty of natural remedies you can try.
You can also seek the advice of a vet if you are concerned, as they can give you advice on the best ways to deal with cat anxiety. These include behavioral modification techniques, desensitization, and certain medications.
- Stay calm and make sure the environment is safe for your cat
- Remove any potential triggers
- Provide a secure hiding place
- Reassure your cat using a soothing voice
- Depending on your cat, provide comfort if they want it, or leave them alone to calm down
- Speak softly and offer treats
- Monitor your cat’s condition
- Seek veterinary care if symptoms persist or worsen
Treatment Options for Cats Experiencing Panic Attacks
There are three main categories of treatment options for cats experiencing panic attacks: behavior modification techniques, environmental management, and medication and supplements.
- Behavior Modification Techniques
- Environmental management
- Enrichment activities
- Medication and Supplements
Behavior Modification Techniques
The goal of behavior modification techniques is to change the cat’s emotional response to a specific stimulus that causes the panic attack. Counter-conditioning and desensitization are two common behavior modification techniques.
The process of changing a cat’s negative emotional response to a trigger into a positive one is known as counter-conditioning. This is accomplished by associating the trigger with something pleasant, such as a snack or a game. For example, if a cat has a panic attack when he or she sees a vacuum cleaner, you could try giving the cat a treat when the vacuum cleaner is nearby. Over time, the cat should begin to associate the vacuum cleaner with something positive rather than something frightening.
Desensitization is a method of gradually exposing a cat to a trigger in a controlled environment. The goal is for the cat to become more at ease with the trigger and reduce their panic response. For example, if a cat has a panic attack while traveling in a car, you could begin by placing the cat in a carrier in the car for short periods of time and gradually increasing the length of time.
Environmental management involves making changes to a cat’s environment to reduce the likelihood of panic attacks. This can include activities for enrichment as well as medication or supplements.
Cat enrichment activities are intended to provide mental and physical stimulation. Cat toys, scratching posts, and interactive feeders are examples of such items. You can help reduce stress and anxiety in your cat by providing opportunities for play and exploration.
Medication and Supplements
Medication and supplements may be prescribed in some cases to help manage a cat’s panic attacks. Anti-anxiety medications, pheromones, and natural supplements such as valerian root can all fall into this category. It is critical to only give your cat medication or supplements that have been prescribed by a veterinarian, as some over-the-counter alternatives can be harmful.
How To Prevent A Panic Attack
Create a Stress-Free Environment
The stress levels of cats can be greatly influenced by their surroundings. Make sure your feline friend has plenty of opportunities for play and exploration, as well as a safe and secure place to retreat to, to create a stress-free environment. Keeping a consistent routine and avoiding changes in your cat’s environment can also help reduce stress.
Keep Triggers to a Minimum
One of the most effective ways to prevent panic attacks in cats is to limit their exposure to fear or anxiety triggers. Avoiding certain environments or situations, such as loud noises or unfamiliar people, may be necessary. You can also work with a veterinarian or a cat behaviorist to identify and reduce triggers.
Regular Vet Checkups
Regular vet visits can help prevent panic attacks in cats by identifying and treating any underlying health issues that may be contributing to anxiety. A veterinarian can also give you advice on how to avoid panic attacks and how to reduce stress in your cat.
Behavior Modification and Training
By teaching your cat to associate triggers with positive experiences, training and behavior modification can help prevent panic attacks. This can include counter-conditioning, desensitization, and positive reinforcement for calm and relaxed behavior. A veterinarian or cat behaviorist can assist you in developing a personalized training plan for your cat.
Medication and Natural Remedies
Medication may be required in some cases to help prevent panic attacks in cats. Consult your veterinarian about possible medications for your cat. Consider natural remedies such as pheromone sprays, calming treats or supplements. These remedies can help your cat feel less stressed and anxious, making panic attacks less likely.
Can a Cat Die From a Panic Attack?
One of the most immediate dangers of a panic attack in cats is that they will run out onto the road and be hit by a car. This is especially concerning if your cat lives indoors or becomes disoriented during a panic attack.
To reduce the possibility of an accident, keep your cat safely contained during a panic attack, either by confining them in a room or by holding them securely.
Long-Term Impact of Untreated Panic Attacks
Panic attacks can contribute to the development of potentially fatal conditions such as hepatic lipidosis. This is why it is critical to treat panic attacks as soon as possible. Untreated panic attacks can have a significant psychological impact on your cat in addition to the physical impact. Repeated panic attacks can contribute to a cycle of fear and anxiety, making it more difficult for your cat to cope with triggers over time.
To avoid the long-term consequences of untreated panic attacks in your cat, work with a veterinarian or cat behaviorist to identify and treat the underlying cause of the panic attacks. Environmental management, behavior modification techniques, or medication and supplements may be used.
Final Thoughts and Advice for Cat Owners
Seeing your cat have a panic attack can be a difficult and scary experience, but they can be managed or even avoided with proper care and support. You can help reduce the likelihood of panic attacks in your feline friend by creating a stress-free environment, minimizing exposure to triggers, and utilizing training and behavior modification.
Regular vet visits, as well as the use of medication or natural remedies, can help to prevent panic attacks in cats. Of course, as with all health issues, you should speak to your vet if you think your cat’s panic attacks are getting worse, as there may be an underlying medical cause.