Cat anxiety can be challenging
An anxious cat isn’t ideal for the pet owner or feline. Not only is kitty feeling stressed out about the world around her, but this situation can also wreak havoc on your household. For example, cats with anxiety can exhibit destructive behaviours such as peeing outside of the litter box or getting into areas they shouldn’t. It can also cut into your ability to get some real human and animal bonding time. While cat anxiety can be a challenging problem to deal with and it won’t magically go away overnight, it is by no means impossible to overcome. We asked veterinarians to weigh in on this issue – and provide some possible solutions to save everyone’s sanity.
Common reasons why cats experience anxiety
Cats tend to be sensitive creatures who are highly attuned to their surroundings. Anything that disrupts the status quo can trigger their anxiety, notes veterinarian Dr Jessica Hermann. Examples including moving to a new home, introducing (or losing) a pet or family member, or changing their daily feeding or playing schedule. Even something as simple as rearranging the furniture can upset your cat.
Dr Hermann adds that boredom may also cause anxiety and destructive behaviour in our feline friends. Though expert loungers, cats do require mental and physical stimulation. Cuddles, toys, and one-on-one time can help.
Finally, pain and illness are also common sources of anxiety. Those sorts of issues can run the gamut, from a hurt paw to an upset tummy to a more serious diagnosis. When a cat isn’t 100 per cent herself, she likely feels vulnerable, on guard, and without all her defences. That would cause anyone to feel a bit of anxiety!
Are some cats more anxious than others?
You might have noticed that some cats saunter around without a care in the world, while others are known for being skittish ‘scaredy cats.’ And that make sense, because their personalities and life experiences are all different. “Just like humans, some cats are more anxious than others,” says Dr Mikel Delgado, a postdoctoral veterinary fellow, certified applied animal behaviourist, and resident cat expert for the pet food company Smalls. “This is due in part to genetics, so some cats just might be born a bit more prone to anxiety. At the same time, socialisation at a young age is also very important to how sensitive a cat’s stress response may be.”
For that reason, Delgado says it’s ideal for kittens to get lots of gentle, positive exposure to different people, animals, types of handling and experiences – such as being in a carrier –when they are young. This will help them cope better with change when they are older.
Signs your cat is dealing with anxiety
Detecting cat anxiety isn’t always easy. Obvious signs can include increased aggression, hissing, vocalising, pacing and extreme mood changes, notes Dr Hermann. But in terms of the more subtle signs, you should be on the lookout for behavioural shifts, such as not using the litter box, hiding, or becoming needier or afraid to leave your side. The anxiety may also manifest itself physically. “A cat experiencing anxiety may eat less and lose weight, try to escape, or over groom [themselves], creating bald spots or even skin sores,” explains Dr Hermann. Sometimes, it can even present as a medical symptom, such as diarrhoea.
How to relieve your cat’s anxiety
Just like humans, all cats want and need to feel a sense of safety, control, and choice in their daily life and interactions with people and other animals, notes Delgado. Keep that in mind as you work to relieve your cat’s anxiety.
“Never punish a cat for exhibiting signs of anxiety, as this could worsen the anxiety and may cause more unwanted behaviour. You want to make them feel safe and loved,” says Dr Hermann. “Sticking to a routine will help. Feeding and playing with your cat at a similar time each day with help create security. Creating a mentally stimulating environment will help, as well.” For example, you might add cat perches and scratching posts to your home, and/or provide an array of cat toys, including food puzzles and interactive mouse feeders. In that same vein, make sure your cat has a quiet, safe place to escape.
Another important thing you can do is scoop the litter box daily and replace the litter every week. An unclean litter box can be a huge source of stress for a cat. On that note, Delgado says that you may need to add more litter boxes and food dishes to reduce stress and competition in a multi-cat home.
Every cat should have their own.
“Calming cat pheromone products can help, as well,” says Dr Hermann. “Feliway spray, diffusers and wipes mimic a natural ‘happy feeling’ feline pheromone for your cat and can soothe, calm, and relax him or her.”
When to see a veterinarian
As a rule of thumb, it’s important to see the vet any time you notice a significant change in your cat’s behaviour or personality. That includes exhibiting the signs of anxiety outlined above. “It’s also important to recognise that anxiety is more pervasive than a short-term fear. Some cats will hide briefly after a loud noise or a visitor, but they return to ‘normal’ shortly afterward,” explains Delgado. “Anxiety tends to be more ongoing and doesn’t always have a clear trigger. Just like you would take your cat to the vet if they had a broken leg, we have to understand that anxiety can lead your cat to suffer and requires medical treatment.”
During your appointment, your vet will likely ask for a detailed history of your cat’s behaviour. They’ll also do a physical examination. From there, they’ll determine the best course of action. “Your vet may recommend medication or behaviour-modification techniques, or [they may] refer you to a behaviour specialist who can help you assess your cat’s situation and environment for changes,” says Delgado. Medication or not, it’s essential to create a routine and provide environmental enrichment, since that’s ultimately what will make your cat calmer.
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