Managing Anxiety in Cats
Written by Small Door's medical experts
Anxiety is a very real problem that can not only cause our cats severe emotional distress, but can also exacerbate or cause a number of medical problems, including urinary tract issues. Cats suffering from anxiety may also engage in unwanted behaviors, including urinating outside of the litter box or vomiting. Read on to learn more about the causes and symptoms of anxiety, and the things you can do to help treat and manage your cat’s anxiety.
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Cat behavior can be unpredictable. Suddenly zooming out of a room and then immediately returning can be considered “normal” behavior for a cat. But if you notice your cat freaking out for no reason, they could be suffering from anxiety. Anxiety occurs when your cat is anticipating a potential danger or threat. Even though your cat may not actually be in danger, the perception of danger results in a physical response.
Cats may develop anxiety following a traumatic event or in response to a specific stimulus. It can often stem from changes in your cat’s environment, such as moving to a new home, conducting renovations or redecorating, the addition of a new family member or pet, or even nearby construction noise.
Many cat owners first notice signs of anxiety between 5 months and 1 year of age, but anxiety can develop at any time. As anxiety can worsen over time, it’s important to take steps to mitigate stressors and treat your cat’s anxiety as soon as possible.
There are a number of different ways that anxiety can manifest, and symptoms may not always be obvious. In general, you should watch out for any changes in behavior, particularly following any changes in your cat’s environment.
Common cat anxiety symptoms
Excessive grooming, which can lead to hair loss
Urinating outside of the litter box
Additional cat anxiety symptoms
Hiding/trying to escape or conversely, staying completely still
Physical signs of anxiety, such as holding their tail tight against their body, holding their ears back and hair standing up
Anxiety can also trigger a number of medical conditions, particularly Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD) and Upper Respiratory Infections (URIs), so you may also notice related symptoms, such as difficulty urinating and increased frequency of urination for FLUTD, and sneezing, congestion and discharge for URIs.
If your cat frequently suffers from recurrent medical issues, you and your veterinarian should consider the possibility that they are being caused by underlying anxiety.
A number of different things can trigger anxiety:
Changes in your cat’s environment (moving to a new home, changes tofurniture or type of litter, new family member, new pet in the home, oreven a new pet next door!)
Illness or physical pain
Improper socialization during kittenhood
It’s important to determine the precise cause of your cat’s anxiety, so you can remove the stressor from their environment or mitigate its effects as much as possible. Think back to any recent changes that have occurred in your home that may be to blame. You should also pay close attention to your cat’s behavior throughout the day and note when and where they display the most symptoms of anxiety. Taking video footage of their behaviors and keeping a log of their activities may help you and your veterinarian to pinpoint the cause.
Your veterinarian will diagnose anxiety based on your description of your cat’s behavior, and potentially after running diagnostic tests such as bloodwork and urine tests to rule out any medical causes of your cat’s behavior.
The most helpful thing you can do is provide your vet with as much information as possible when it comes to the behavioral changes and symptoms you’ve noticed. This will allow your vet to help narrow down the actual trigger for your cat’s anxiety and prepare a treatment plan for them.
The best way to treat most cases of anxiety is a multi-modal approach that combines behavioral modification techniques, making changes to your cat’s environment, natural calming aids, and potentially anti-anxiety medication, depending on the severity of your cat’s anxiety. Any underlying or linked medical conditions will need to be treated as well.
Successful treatment plans require consistency and commitment, as it may take several months for your cat to overcome their anxiety, or to reduce it to a manageable level. Be patient and remember that even small changes in their behavior and symptoms will have a meaningful and cumulative impact on their wellbeing and quality of life.
If your cat’s anxiety is being triggered by something in their immediate environment (or a recent change in their environment), one of the first things you should do is try to remove or lessen the effects of the stressor.
For example, cats are naturally quite territorial creatures and territorial anxiety may develop if they feel an intruder (such as a new pet or member of the household) has invaded their space and is threatening or competing with them for resources. In this instance, you can take steps to ensure they have their own territory where they can feel safe.
Create a safe space for your cat
If other pets, a baby, sounds, or things they can see outside are creating stress for your cat, a quiet, dark area away from these stimuli can help. Create a ‘safe space’ for your cat (and separate spaces for additional pets), where they can relax away from any stressors. A quiet, darkened place, made from cardboard boxes or sheets draped over chairs can work well. Make sure your cat can live in this space comfortably for a few days, and provide all the essentials in this one room: food, water, bedding, a litter box, a scratching post, and other toys. Provide plenty of individual attention, playtime and cuddles to your cat, to ensure they don’t get jealous of other pets.
If you live in a smaller apartment and are worried your cat does not have enough individual space, there are a number of ways you can increase their territory vertically, using cat trees, cat shelves and window perches (provided they are safe and there’s no chance the cat could fall out).
Remove litter boxes from confined areas
Ensure your cat’s litter boxes are placed appropriately. They should not be placed in a ‘dead-end’ or corner where your cat could feel trapped; there should be multiple access and entry points for them to feel comfortable. You should also have several litter boxes in multi-cat households. A good rule of thumb is to have one more litter box than the number of cats you have, and if you have a multi-level home, to have a litter box on each level.
Feed pets separately
Cats may feel threatened when they are fed in direct sight of other household pets. Ideally, each cat in the house should have their own feeding area where they cannot see other household pets during meal times.
Use exercise to calm nervous cats down
It’s also important to remember to keep your cat well stimulated and exercised. A cat with excess energy will often channel it into nervous energy, so it’s important to make sure they have enough toys, enrichment items and playtime each day to keep them in a calm and happy state of mind.
You can find more great advice on how to enrich your cat’s life on the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s website.
Pheromones can be a great way to combat cat anxiety. They are natural chemicals released by cats (as well as other animals and humans) in response to certain emotions or stimuli. Other cats can smell these pheromones and understand them as messages. Happy or relaxed cats will release positive pheromones, whereas an anxious or territorial cat may release correspondingly negative pheromones to warn other cats in the vicinity.
Pheromone sprays and diffusers work by mimicking the positive, or ‘happy cat’ pheromones, and can help to calm stressed or anxious cats by reassuring them that all is well in the nearby environment. You can use sprays on bedding, scratching posts, and other common areas, and you can plug the pheromone diffusers into wall outlets around your home and near the litter box.
Feliway is a popular brand that we recommend at Small Door. Feliway offers a number of pheromone types – Feliway Original is useful for calming environmental change stressors, while Feliway Multicat is suitable for calming social conflict issues in multi-cat households.
There are also other calming aids you can try, including pheromone-diffusing collars.
CBD products for pets have gained popularity in recent years, and many dog owners have seen benefits when using them to treat anxiety in dogs.
However, while there are many different CBD products on the market for cats, it’s important to note that there have been very few scientific studies examining the safety (and effectiveness) of CBD in cats. There is also no official regulation, as the Food and Drug Administration has not officially approved CBD products for therapeutic use in cats.
Cats are a sensitive species, and often have difficulty processing drugs that are safe in humans and dogs. Therefore, at Small Door, we currently do not recommend CBD for cats, and will not do so until there are more studies on its safety.
There are two different strategies you can use to help your cat learn to cope with their anxiety triggers: desensitization and counterconditioning.
Desensitization is accomplished through repeated, controlled exposure to your cat’s specific fear or anxiety stimulus. If the stimulus is given in small doses and at a low intensity, your cat will hopefully not respond with fear or anxiety. Repeated exposure, accompanied by rewards for positive behavior, can be extremely helpful in the long-term management of anxiety.
A common example is playing a sound that your cat is afraid of (such as a dog barking), at a very low volume when they are in a calm state. Doing this repeatedly, while slowly increasing the volume over time, can help them to become more accustomed to the noise, so they don’t become anxious when they hear the real thing.
It’s important to always work at a sub-threshold level; this means ensuring that you work at a level that does not cause them any fear or stress, which would be counter-productive. watch your cat’s body language cues carefully, including their ear and tail positioning, and stop while they are still calm.
Counterconditioning teaches your cat to change their response to the anxiety stimulus. You use positive behavior reinforcement to replace anxious behaviors with more desirable ones.
If your cat is afraid of another pet, feed them their favorite treat any time they see the other pet. Over time, their response to seeing the pet will change from fear to happiness associated with the special treat.
Depending on the severity of your cat’s anxiety, your vet may prescribe anti-anxiety medication. There are a number of different options available; some are fast-acting and can be given before an event that would typically cause your cat anxiety (such as going to the vet), to help them relax and cope. Others are longer-acting, such as antidepressants, and work over a period of months or even years to reduce their stress.
Anti-anxiety medications work best when used in conjunction with (not as a replacement for) the techniques discussed above.
For particularly severe anxiety or issues that are not resolving, you should speak to your veterinarian. They can organize a referral to a board certified veterinary behaviorist (a vet who has undergone additional years of training specifically focused on behavioral issues, and must undertake regular board examinations to retain their certification) to get you additional help. Keep in mind that if your cat’s anxiety goes untreated, the symptoms can become more severe over time, even resulting in health conditions.
What is the cost of treating anxiety in cats
Because every case of anxiety is different, it’s hard to provide a single estimate for the cost of treatment. Treatment may include an examination by your vet, medication, testing, and training. Depending on the extent of treatment and the duration of any training required, the costs could range from a few hundred into thousands of dollars.
One of the best ways to help your cat grow up to be well-adjusted and anxiety-free is to ensure they’re well socialized as a kitten.
Expose your cat to a variety of social situations and experiences while they are young to decrease the likelihood of them developing anxiety in the future. This could include being petted by strangers, human visitors coming and going, meeting other (vaccinated) cats and dogs, travelling in a car, and hearing a variety of loud noises.
When introducing a new pet to the home, take things slow. If you notice any signs of anxiety or territorial behavior in either pet, separate them and let them live in separate rooms for a while. Reintroduce them slowly, starting with their scents – use a common towel, brush, or other item between your pets to help them recognize and get used to each other’s scents. Next, slowly allow them to spend time together. Gradually increase the duration of their interactions until they have adapted to living in the same space. Continue to introduce and separate your pets until they are coexisting safely.
Anxiety is a natural response to certain situations and stimuli, but it can become debilitating for your cat, leading to poor quality of life and worsening or causing medical issues, so it’s important to watch out for the signs of anxiety and consult your veterinarian for treatment as soon as possible. With an approach combining behavioral modification, environmental changes, calming aids and potential medication, most cats can overcome or lessen their anxiety, and be able to lead a much happier life.