This is the third article in a series about animal behavior: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Whereas fear freeze responses seek to limit physical activity as much as possible, the goal of the fear flight response is to put as much distance between the perceived threat and the self as possible. As with the freeze response, flee responses may take different forms.

The majority of the fearful companion animals opt for a panic-driven straight-line escape route, particularly in more complex indoor environments such as a veterinary clinic. The good news is it's easier to predict where these animals are going, in order to head them off. The not-so-good news is the speed at which they initiate their flight and accomplish it may take clients and veterinary staff by surprise.

When the escape attempt occurs in a confined space, that often means the animal will head straight for the nearest opening. This is unfortunate because a break that results in access to a larger area of the facility or the outdoors may offer numerous nooks and crannies where cats and small dogs in particular then may hide.

It's also unfortunate for those people who might be between the animal and a perceived straight-line escape route. Terrified cats may run right at and attempt to go over such people with puffed up fur, unsheathed claws and fully dilated pupils. That plus any accompanying loud vocalization may cause some people to panic, too. If no exit is available, these animals literally may try to run up the walls.

Orphan kittens raised without a sufficient amount of quality same-species parental care may have low stimulus thresholds and also panic when they exceed these. Given enough time and patience, most eventually can sort out via trial and error which of all the incoming sensory stimuli signals a potential threat and what does not.

Give them the benefit of an adult cat with good parental skills, and they'll do this much faster. But until this occurs, these cats may display the straight-line flight response described above.

When this occurs, dropping a towel or blanket over the animal and swiftly, smoothly and silently moving the animal to a cage or carrier in a low stimulus room and leaving the animal there to calm down yields the best results. ("Swift, smooth and silent" is a good mantra to remember when dealing with any frightened animal to limit increasing the animal's stimulus load and the negative effects that accompany such increases.)

The second kind of flight response involves a certain amount of physical and mental preparation even though some people may not perceive the result as a thoughtful one. Instead of running in a straight line, these animals chart an energy-intense, erratic course that zig-zags and makes other unpredictable twists and turns.

But although this might seem like a needless waste of energy compared to making a beeline toward safety, this approach offers some distinct advantages. Those who follow such an unpredictable path are more difficult to pursue, block or ambush.

Also recall the role innate cost-benefit analyses play in behavior. Pursuing wild predators must weigh how much energy they can gain from the capture of the prey against how much it will cost to chase, capture, eat and digest it.

While veterinarians and their staff seeking to capture wily animal escapees may not think of themselves as predators even if their runaways do, most quickly learn how much of their often limited resources it can take to capture them.

As practitioners encounter more transported former street animals among their patient base, these shrewd escape-and-flee artists are apt become more common. And because some of these animals may feel more secure on the streets or in the woods than indoors, they're going to be more difficult to track down and capture than the dog or cat from a local population with an established companion animal heritage.

Incredible animal journeys may make for interesting media stories, but they can be harrowing experiences for clinicians whose patients go AWOL from their facilities.

Consequently, it makes sense for veterinarians and their staffs to put themselves in a fearful-animal-seeking-escape mode and tour their facilities and the surrounding area looking for possible escape routes. Here are nine areas to examine:

  • Do exam room doors open into waiting rooms with a direct path to exterior doors?
  • Do treatment rooms have doors that open directly into parking lots?
  • Does the waiting room have secure rings to which leashes can be attached?
  • Is an emergency supply of leashes and carriers readily available for inexperienced clients who arrive trying to hold their terrified cats or hang on to their leaping dogs' collars?
  • Are skittish animals moved from waiting rooms to secure exam rooms ASAP?
  • Do protocols exist to keep staff members from barging into exam rooms unannounced?
  • Are ward doors closed before cage doors are opened?
  • Do staff members take dogs outside for exercise in marginally secured or unsecured areas?
  • Are they always prepared to keep the animal from bolting should a car backfire or siren suddenly shatter the serene setting?

As all veterinarians know, prevention is always cheaper than treatment. And at no time does the wisdom of this approach hit home harder than when one is running around trying to catch a frightened animal that escaped through a door someone accidentally left open.