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Fight or flight response in cats: what is it?


The fight-or-flight reaction in cats always occurs when a potential opponent falls short of the so-called critical distance. The velvet paw remains in a waiting position, but is on high alert. Find out more about this instinctive cat behavior here. "Should I stay and defend myself? Or would I rather run away quickly?": Cat in careful position shows fight-or-flight reaction - Shutterstock / kombattle

When watching cats among themselves or approaching a strange cat, you can usually observe the fight or flight response. Within a moment, the velvet paw decides whether it is safe or in danger, whether to attack or run away.

What happens in the fight or flight response?

If a situation arises that is unknown to cats or potentially dangerous for them, their entire body, senses and brain adjust to the fight-or-flight response. This is an instinctive behavior that can be observed in almost all animals and humans. The cat pauses at that moment, stops as if petrified and is attentively tense from the tip of the tail to the ears. The brain sends an alarm signal to the body and the adrenal cortex releases an adrenaline rush. This passes through the sympathetic nervous system and flows through the bloodstream until the entire body and mind are on alert.

There is acute stress, in addition to adrenaline, cortisol is released, the heart rate, respiratory rate and pulse speed up. Blood pressure rises, blood sugar and blood fat increase, the pupils dilate, the senses are wide awake and sharp. The muscles are tense, the immune system is temporarily shut down, as are digestion, metabolism and sex drive - all the energy is now used for the fight or flight response.

If the cat actually feels threatened and believes that it can take on the opponent, it will stay, but will show clear defensive behavior, such as hissing, a hump or pawing. If the threat cannot be dispelled in this way, it must become clearer and attack - there is a fight. If the opponent looks too powerful or the cat is unsure, however, it takes flight.

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Need for closeness and distance from cats

When the fight or flight response is activated depends on the so-called critical distance. This is the distance from which cats feel threatened by a potential opponent and have to decide whether they behave defensively (fleeing) or aggressively (fighting). However, the critical distance is not generally quantifiable with certain meters or centimeters, since the respective distance is determined by many different factors.

One of these factors is, for example, the individual distance of each cat. This is the smallest distance that the cat tolerates as tolerable distance to a conspecific, another animal or human, which could be dangerous or uncomfortable. The individual distance depends, for example, on the cat personality - anxious cats have a greater need for distance, trusting cats allow others to get closer to them. Domestic tigers who have hardly had any bad experiences also experience a lower individual distance than animals that have experienced a lot of bad things.

The context also determines the critical distance. If the cat knows a well-protected hiding place nearby, for example a tree or her home, she lets the potential threat come closer to her. The critical distance is much greater on flat, unprotected terrain. Cats prefer to flee if they have the choice - a fight usually only occurs if the critical distance is ignored so quickly that the fur nose has no time to flee. If, for example, you suddenly want to pet a strange cat and surprise them with your affection, they will fight back with their claws and possibly even painful bites. If you respect the critical distance and leave it to the fur nose to decide whether or not to get to know you, the risk of an attack is very low.