Cats may have a reputation for being aloof and independent, but they are far more sensitive creatures than we often give them credit for. Like humans, they can experience bouts of anxiety that impact their physical and mental health.
Knowing the signs to look out for and which treatment options are available can help balance the symptoms of feline anxiety, keeping your kitty healthy and happy, even during testing times. It’s hard to see your feline companion struggle with anxiety, so we’ve created this handy guide to help them get through it.
What Is Feline Anxiety?
Feline anxiety is similar to the same condition experienced by humans; it is a negative set of emotions and behaviors triggered by environmental changes, trauma, or medical issues. And this can cause your cat to behave differently, exhibit aggression, or withdraw completely.
Anxiety can present in several ways, though they are unlikely to resemble the arched cat with hair standing on end that we often see as an image of a fearful feline. If you’re worried that your cat might be scared or anxious, look for the following signs:
- Shaking or trembling
- Crouching down or leaning away
- Hiding or withdrawal
- Excessive vocalization, such as hissing, meowing, or growling
- Avoiding eye contact
- Rapid breathing
- Ears flattened against the head
- Excessive grooming which can lead to hair loss or sores
- Aggression toward other pets or people
- Destructive behaviors like scratching the furniture
- Overreaction to movement or noises around the house
- Changes in weight or appetite
- Increase sleeping
- Eliminating outside the litter box
- Vomiting or diarrhea
How Should You Treat Feline Anxiety?
The most important thing to remember with feline anxiety is that it can share many symptoms with other illnesses. That’s why the first step in treating cat anxiety is taking a trip to your local veterinarian to rule out underlying illnesses.
Once you rule out physical illnesses, you can begin to address the signs of anxiety. This is done through three key methods: environmental changes, behavior modification, and medication or supplements.
Putting together a care plan for your kitty is easier if you can identify the source of their anxiety. Monitor them over a week to see when the changes in behavior occur. Common causes include:
- Changes to their routine or environment
- Unstable relationships with other pets or humans in your household
- Competition for resources (such as food or affection)
- Boredom/lack of enrichment in their environment
- Loud noises or strange smells
- Separation anxiety
Additionally, cats can experience anxiety if they experience trauma or lack proper socialization as kittens. “Trauma” doesn’t have to mean abuse; a traumatic experience is anything that causes an extreme fear response in your cat. It might be an insignificant event to you, but if it caused a highly emotional reaction in your cat, it could have lasting impacts.
Kittens who lack proper socialization between 7 and 12 weeks of age are more susceptible to developing chronic anxiety. Situations that they can’t escape from (like storms or other household pets) can trigger this response.
Managing cat anxiety means removing (or at least trying to limit) the triggers that cause a fear response in your feline. For example, if your cat becomes anxious every time you use the vacuum cleaner, you can modify your routine to help minimize their exposure. But, if friends or family members cause your cat to become anxious, you won’t want to exclude them from your home.
A better alternative is to create a “safe space” where your cat can retreat whenever they feel anxious. When felines feel scared, they like to hide, so providing a space where they know they can withdraw at any time is a great way to make them feel more comfortable.
Select a small space, such as a bathroom or large closet, where they won’t be disturbed by visitors. Try to choose a space that is quiet and experiences low footfall. Once you select a location, check it for any potential hazards (electrical cords, toxic plants, etc.) and block any small spaces you can’t access.
Try to make this safe space as appealing and comfortable as possible. Add secure areas for your kitty to hide, such as cardboard boxes or cozy beds; add blankets to provide warmth and comfort; provide snacks (cat grass is a great way to help your feline relax); and ensure your kitty has access to fresh water at all times.
Any time you notice your cat’s anxiety increasing, relocate them to their safe space where they can relax and enjoy some peace.
Other Environmental Factors
Cats can be highly territorial creatures and may feel anxious if they feel like other pets are taking over their space. If you have a multi-pet household, ensure that each pet has their own space. Cats require separate food bowls, at least one litter tray, and a spare. At meal times, try feeding your pets in different areas where they cannot see one another to avoid them feeling threatened.
Ensure you provide each pet with everything they need: sufficient food, constant water supply, toys, playful interactions, etc. They could become more susceptible to anxious outbursts if they feel like they have to compete to have their basic needs met.
In addition, there are products you can add to your home to make it a more comfortable environment for your feline. Among the most popular is the Feliway diffuser, which emulates the pheromones a mother cat would release to make her babies feel calm and protected. Adding these pheromones to your home can help your cat understand that it’s a safe environment.
In short, behavior modification means teaching your cat the skills they need to deal with challenging situations. Two popular methods are desensitization and counterconditioning.
Desensitizing your cat means repeatedly exposing them to the stimulus that causes them to feel anxious but doing it in a controlled way that helps them learn how to cope. For example, if your cat is scared by loud noises, you could source some of the sounds that make them afraid (such as vacuum cleaners or blenders) and play them through an online platform like YouTube. This way, you can start with a low volume and allow your cat to gradually reduce their sensitivity to the noise as you slowly increase the volume.
When attempting to desensitize your cat, it’s essential to start small and take it slowly. Find a stimulus that doesn’t cause an adverse reaction and work your way up. If you repeatedly scare your cat over and over again, it will do nothing but worsen the symptoms.
Another method, counterconditioning, involves altering your cat’s emotional response to a given stimulus. For example, if your cat struggles in the company of another human or pet, you can try giving them a treat each time they’re in the same room. This way, they learn to associate tolerating that person or animal with a treat and may build positive emotions towards them as the association increases.
Medication and Supplements
Environmental changes and behavioral modifications can have a higher success rate when combined with anti-anxiety medications or supplements. Still, you should never administer any medication to your cat before consulting with your veterinarian.
There are many natural supplements available for your cat that can help to alter their anxiety symptoms. You can add Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Calm formula to your cat’s daily diet to add calming supplements or other plants and herbs like Bach Flower remedy rescue, catnip, or valerian.
If all else fails, then medication could be your best option.
Medications come in two main forms: short-term and long-term. Short-term medications act quickly and are ideal for calming your cat during infrequent and predictable events, such as fireworks on bonfire night. Long-term medications take more time to become effective but can offer everyday, long-term support to cats experiencing the adverse side effects of extreme anxiety.
Regular vet checkups for cats on long-term medications are essential for monitoring blood chemicals and ensuring that everything remains balanced.
The most important thing is to treat your cat calmly and with patience. Avoid all forms of punishment for unwanted behaviors and focus on rewarding good behaviors to build positive associations.