Pet Psychology, the Fight or Fight Response
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Pet Psychology, the Fight or Fight Response

Understand pet psychology. Why do dogs attack, why do cats attack, why do pets run and hide? What is a heightened flight or fight response? Tips for pet owners and trainers.

The fight or flight response is a natural behavior within most animals that determines how they will react in a situation. A few animals, such as some of which have been abused, may have a heightened flight or fight response, additionally many declawed cats have been noted to have a heightened flight or fight response. Understanding this response is important to all pet owners, particularly those interested in animal psychology as it relates to training.

When animals are put into a situation they do not enjoy they naturally respond in one of two ways, either to flee, or to become aggressive and fight. Certain species are noted for generally having one response or the other, but some species can go either way. Sheep, for example, generally flee, but a grizzly bear who feels threatened is more likely to fight.


Flight is generally the first choice for most animals. Most would prefer to flee unless pressed to a point where fighting is the only option, as such a skunk would normally leave, but if cornered will spray. Flight is the safest option for most animals. It generally puts them at the least risk because they are tying to avoid confrontation.

In pets the option to flee is not always present, but a pet who feels threatened may still respond this way. The threat to most pets (we are not speaking here of abuse) that occurs during training is when the owner does not know when to quit and keeps pushing the animal further. The animal “flees” by effectively shutting down.

Pet “shut down” by refusing to co-operate. In the case of a dog, it might lay on the floor and refuse to listen to commands that it knows. The animal has felt threatened, but in a non-violent way.

Pets will also “flee” when they feel physically threatened. Many pets learn that children are erratic and can hurt, or scare, them, and as such flee the room when children are around. Pets will also learn which situations are likely to result in them being hurt and try to flee to avoid those situations. Owners who do not understand how to discipline a dog can also bring on problems.


The fight response is quite common in pets when not given the option to "flee". A dog who is being pushed too far mentally might suddenly become aggressive. This could occur when a novice pet owner tries to train their own dog, and is inconsistent, or does not know when to quit

The fight response is common in dogs who are poorly socialized and dogs who are put in situations where they do not know how to act. These dogs, when they feel threatened, will respond with aggression. They might just show their teeth, or become full on aggressive.

Dogs kept on chains often develop behavioral issues that make them more aggressive.

angry cat

photo source

Heightened Flight or Fight Response

Some pets over react to a situation. This is called having a heightened flight or fight response, and is common in declawed cats, as well as poorly socialized dogs. This is where the pet over reacts to a situation and tends to exaggerate the severity of a situation. As such the pet may feel threatened when no threat even exists.

This is where owners see pets run and hide for no apparent reason, or for when pets attack “out of the blue”. These attacks are not only directed at humans, but other pets too.

In humans we would think of this as a paranoia response, an over reaction to a minor situation or imagined one.

How to Help your Pet

Pet owners need to start by socializing pets at an appropriate stage. Kittens and pups learn socialization skills from their mothers, and should be left with their mothers until 8 weeks of age to help complete this process. When in their new homes, and with new owners, socialization can continue by bringing pet friendly (and pet knowledgeable) people into the home to meet the pet – not unruly children who may be abusive even if unintentionally.

At 12 weeks of age (when fully vaccinated) a puppy should attend puppy classes for basic obedience and socialization. If a person has obtained an older dog it should also attend such lessons for the purpose of socialization.

When training, know when to quit so your pet does not reach a point where they feel overwhelmed.

Proper diet will also help, in that some pets have behavior problems as a result of soy, or food coloring, in their food.

Declawing in cats has been well linked to causing a heightened flight or fight response in cats (as well as other concerns) so should always be avoided.

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Comments (6)

Tomorrow is a no work day, I can apply what I've learned here, thanks.

Ranked #3 in Pet Health

very interesting read

Ranked #3 in Pet Health

I have no votes left so I tweeted

This is fascinating Brenda. It it possible for an animal to take on human behaviors just by observing them? It seems by cat is just an uptight and anxious I am. She wasn't always like this.

Lauren Yes, owners can "train" their pets to become uptight or anxious, and as mentioned this can also be caused by declawing. I know particularly with horses a nervous rider will make a horse nervous - they get tense, the horse can "feel" this and becomes concerned, wondering what it should worry about... in dogs owners often train them to be nervous because they comfort a dog over a situation the dog might not even be concerned with - this encourages the dog to be nervous.

Excellent article. I can't tell you how many people I see who bring their dogs to parks on short leashes and just let anyone approach their pet then they wonder why the dog is either trying to hide behind them or start growling and snapping. They don't seem to understand that for these animals being surrounded by strangers all getting too close is threatening. Then when the poor dog bites the dog is blamed not the owner. It isn't as though he could get away.