Claustrophobia is the irrational fear of confined spaces. It is considered an anxiety disorder. Cats don’t like confined spaces but this is not due to an irrational fear. We don’t like confined spaces; no one does. However, some people react in an extreme way. This is the claustrophobic person. It has to be irrational. Cats act instinctively and therefore I am not sure that they can be irrational. The word ‘claustrophobia’ was created by humans for humans.
There is one possibility when a particular cat might have a particular fear of confined spaces and that is if she had been traumatised within a confined space thereby becoming frightened and associating confined spaces with fear and frightening events. This individual may have claustrophobic tendencies but it would be a rational fear rather than an irrational one.
Inherently domestic cats like a certain amount of space usually about four acres for a home range. Therefore if they are shut in a room, for instance, without any sense that they’ll be released, they might feel confined and become upset. They might try to get out and scratch at the door and cause problems but this should not be seen as an irrational fear of confined spaces. They simply want to get out of the room because they are unhappy in it and probably anxious. The anxiety is probably linked to survival.
I read a post on the website reddit.com in which a woman said that she locked her cat in a room overnight because she did not want him disturbing her in another room while she slept. The cat made a lot of noise and tried to get out. This kept her awake. She thought her cat was claustrophobic and sought advice. My advice to her would be to rehome the cat because she is obviously unsuited to the task of looking after him.
I have never bumped into a discussion by any cat behaviourist on the issue of claustrophobia. I have searched high and low through the best books on cat behaviour including Dr. Bradshaw’s Cat Sense and another excellent book, The Domestic Cat: the Biology of Its Behaviour, and Cat Watching by Dr Morris to name three. There are no references in any of these books or others (to my knowledge) on claustrophobia in cats.
People are only just getting used to the idea of domestic cats having emotions. The ‘experts’ are only now understanding that cats do have emotions but we’re still not sure how well developed that aspect of cat biology is. Therefore, take it from me, people don’t know for sure the answer to the question in the title.
But, as I’ve said, the best answer will be that cats don’t like confined spaces but that they are unlikely to have an irrational fear of them. If one cat is keener than another to get out of a confined space it is because he dislikes it more than the other cat for various reasons one of which may be that he is more used to freeroaming, free-living and open spaces than the other cat.
I don’t believe that the domestic cat’s liking of boxes has anything to do with claustrophobia or the opposite: agoraphobia. Cats do like boxes because they provide a sense of security but this does not support the idea that cats are unlikely to be claustrophobic. They are two different subjects.
I think full-time indoor cats can (but usually don’t) develop agoraphobic tendencies because of a lifetime in a relatively confined space: the human home.
If you have an opinion on this subject please share it with others in a comment.