Anxiety in Cats: Meow, I am Nervous
By Elizabeth Racine, DVM March 07, 2019
Does your cat run for cover when the doorbell rings? Does he cower in fear when he sees your dog? These can be signs of feline anxiety. Like humans, cats can suffer from anxiety that affects their relationships and quality of life. Since feline behavior is subtle, anxiety is often missed by pet owners. However, identifying and alleviating anxiety in your cat can improve his health and your bond with him.
Causes of Anxiety
Poor socialization is the root cause of many behavior problems in cats. Too often kittens are separated from their mothers and littermates before they have had a chance to learn proper social skills and coping methods. Kittens raised without proper socialization will quickly become timid, fearful, and poor at adapting to changes and stressors in their environment. The critical period for socialization in kittens occurs from 3-16 weeks of age. This is the time that the kitten is rapidly learning about social skills, new environments, novel objects, and handling from humans. If kittens are deprived of these experiences during this critical time, they will be more fearful and aggressive as adults. For more information on proper socialization of kittens, take a look at Dr. Sophia Yin’s Checklist for Kitten Socialization.
Stressors in the Household
Many people think that their cats live the life of luxury and cannot possibly have any sources of stress. In reality, our feline pets experience a great deal of stress in our homes. Cats are naturally solitary creatures that prefer to roam a large territory. Confining them to a house and forcing them to interact with multiple people and other pets is undoubtedly stressful for them. Other stressors for cats can include the following:
- Irregular or unpredictable feeding times.
- Being forced to eat “family style” (side-by-side with other cats).
- Poorly maintained litter boxes.
- Unpredictable or unfamiliar handling from humans.
- Absence of positive interactions with humans.
- Changes in social environment, such as new pets or people in the household.
- Changes in physical environment, such as moving or remodeling.
- Lack of environmental enrichment.
- Loud noises or other situations that startle the cat.
- Rigid routine or lack of choices in resources.
Aggression between cats is not just hissing and spitting. While these outward displays of aggression are typically the first signs pet owners notice, often aggression has been occurring long before a fight breaks out. Cats communicate through subtle changes in body language, and aggression between two cats can be as subtle as a slight shift in posture or the twitch of an ear. Understandably, these seemingly innocuous interactions are often missed by cat owners, and our cats can suffer as a result.
Housemates are not the only potential aggressors our cats must encounter. Roaming neighborhood cats and feral cats are often sources of stress for an indoor cat, particularly if they tend to hang around outside your house. These unfamiliar faces can be threatening for your cat, and their presence can lead to a multitude of behavior problems.
If your cat is experiencing anxiety, you may notice some of the following signs:
- Decreased social interaction, either with you or with other cats in the household.
- Decreased exploration and play behavior.
- Hyper-vigilance and spending more time awake.
- Chronic withdrawal and signs of depression.
- Changes in appetite.
- Decreased grooming behavior.
- Fur plucking or over-grooming.
- Inappropriate urination.
In some cases, anxiety can be caused or worsened by an underlying medical condition. Just like a human, a cat’s mental health can suffer when he is sick or in pain. Diseases that commonly cause anxiety include hyperthyroidism, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, dental disease, arthritis, or any disease that results in pain. Senior cats may be more prone to developing anxiety secondary to cognitive dysfunction. Seniors may also become more anxious due to the normal decline of their hearing and vision, which can be stressful, particularly in unpredictable environments.
If you notice changes in your cat’s behavior, the first step is to visit your veterinarian. The veterinarian will perform a full physical exam and may recommend additional diagnostic testing, such as blood work to rule out any underlying medical conditions. Your veterinarian will also discuss your cat’s history and lifestyle with you to help identify triggers for the behavior change.
Dealing With Anxiety
If your cat has been diagnosed with anxiety, identifying and mitigating potential triggers is essential to improving his quality of life. Monitor your cat’s behavior throughout the day and make a note of the times when he seems particularly stressed. Also identify areas of the house where conflict between pets is most likely to occur. Creating a predictable household routine – including establishing specific times for feeding, play, grooming, and cleaning litter boxes – can help reduce stress for your cat. Good environmental enrichment and litter box management are also important to reduce stress and conflict within the household.
Providing your cat with a safe space can also help alleviate anxiety. This should be an area of the house he can go to rest undisturbed, such as a quiet room or a high perch. He should have access to all of his basic needs, such as food, water, a litter box, and a comfortable sleeping area so that he does not need to leave his safe space until he chooses to do so. Ideally, this should be an area of the house that no other pets or children can access. If there are other cats in the household, providing food, water, and litter boxes in multiple areas throughout the house will reduce competition for these resources. Remember to introduce new changes to your cat’s environment gradually to avoid startling him and inadvertently increasing his stress.
In some cases, anti-anxiety medication may be necessary to help decrease your cat’s fear and allow him to adjust to his environment. Your veterinarian will help you decide whether your cat is a good candidate for this treatment. In severe cases, your veterinarian may recommend that you seek the help of a board certified veterinary behaviorist.
A veterinary behaviorist is a veterinarian who has completed years of additional training in animal behavior and is an expert at dealing with problem behaviors. The veterinary behaviorist can not only prescribe medication for your cat, but can also help you develop a behavior modification training program to teach your cat better coping strategies. Any training program you implement for your cat should be based on positive reinforcement, which means using rewards such as treats, toys, or petting to reinforce desired behaviors. Never use punishment such as spraying water, loud noises, or startling your cat, as these methods will undoubtedly make your cat’s anxiety worse.
Anxiety is a common problem in cats that is often brought about by poor socialization and household stressors. While the condition can have a negative impact on your cat’s quality of life, anxiety can be managed. By identifying and eliminating triggers and improving your cat’s environment to decrease stress, you can help your anxious cat feel more at ease.