Having a stressed cat can be traumatic for loving cat parents. Thankfully there are some fantastic cat calming treatment options available today. But how do you know if your cat is anxious and not just a scaredy-cat?
For as long as there have been cats in our homes, cat owners have described their feline friends with human adjectives (aloof, playful, mischievous) without giving much consideration to the fact that cats have their own psychology, and with it, their own mental health issues.
Just like with humans, anxiety is a subconscious response to an external threat.
This threat might be real, or it can be just a perception of something dangerous. While cats are apex predators in their own food chain, they are living in the unpredictable human world where there are lots of bigger animals around them.
Cat anxiety is often a response to external stimuli around your house. Sometimes this is fairly obvious, such as when you move or the addition of another life form to your house. Sometimes it can be more subtle, such as a rodent in your walls or a new cat in the neighborhood.
Understanding what cat anxiety looks like is the first step in addressing a problem that left untreated could develop into something dangerous.
Cats become anxious when they anticipate danger and are afraid. It’s amusing to watch your calm cat leap off the couch and chase some invisible threat around the house for a minute, but these abrupt changes in behaviour can indicate that your cat is stressed or anxious.
Other symptoms include oppositional behaviour, in which your normally quiet cat suddenly begins meowing all the time, and defensive behaviour, in which your cat runs away from you regardless of what else is going on.
The causes of stress and anxiety may not be obvious, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. It simply means that the investigation to determine the cause has begun.
As well known TV cat behaviorist, Jackson Galaxy describes in this video cats hide their pain very well, but you can tell if they are stressed by noticing changes in your cat’s behavior. They may not be dramatic changes but they will be doing something slightly different that they have never done before.
These signs of anxiety may also indicate other issues so if you have noticed changes that concern you, consult your veterinarian.
Grooming is one of the ways cats communicate with each other. They also groom themselves to stay clean and healthy. However, excessive grooming can be a symptom of stress.
Cats that are excessively grooming will often develop bald patches. You may also notice large clumps of fur around your home.
Anxiety or stress can cause litter box problems. Events that cat owners may not think of as traumatic can cause huge stress for cats. Simple things such as changes in your daily routine or the placement of furniture, or bigger things like moving house, or adding new animals or family members to your household can make your cat feel frightened or anxious.
Something to keep in mind in a multi-cat household is that sometimes one cat may take control of access to litter boxes and prevent other cats from using them. This can create huge stress on the less dominant cat. A pheromone-based diffuser such as the Feliway multicast diffuser can help with this.
If your cat’s subtle body cues are missed, they are more likely to resort to defensiveness and aggression. This can include raised hackles, hissing, and even lashing out in the most extreme circumstances. For this reason, you should know the signs of stress to watch out for BEFORE it gets to this stage. Let’s run through the more common ones now:
If the situation escalates, your cat may show more aggressive signs which include:
You should not approach or attempt to pick up a cat that is displaying these signs as you may get a nasty swipe in return!
When your cat spends too much time hiding under furniture and blankets, it could mean he or she is feeling anxious.
Many cats suffer from acute stress which can have them running for cover under the nearest bed! This type of response is usually caused by loud noises or sudden movements (think fireworks being set off or the sound of the dreaded vacuum cleaner!). Signs of acute stress usually disappear a short while after the ‘threat’ has disappeared.
If your cat is permanently hiding away with no apparent cause, then it could be the result of chronic stress. This is a much more serious condition that requires closer attention.
Cat anxiety can cause physical reactions such as trembling, salivation, panting and increased respiratory and heart rates. If this continues you should consult your vet immediately.
An anxious cat may show changes in behavior such as pacing or restlessness. Cats naturally sleep a lot, so if you notice your cat is spending more time pacing than sleeping, it could be a sign of anxiety.
Many cats lose their appetite when they are under stress. This is because the act of eating is a vulnerable position. Think about it; when they are nibbling away at a tasty morsel of food their guard is down and their head is lowered. So, they are less likely to be able to dash away at a moment’s notice!
By keeping an eye on your kitty’s food and water bowls, you’ll be able to notice if they are eating or drinking as much as normal.
Don’t place the water bowl directly next to the food bowl as your cat is likely to point-blank refuse to drink from it! This behavior stems from their wild ancestry, where water sources could easily be contaminated by the bacteria found in raw carcasses!
There are a number of reasons why a cat may begin vocalizing excessively, and one of those is anxiety. your cat is trying to communicate with you.
Anxious vocalizing usually sounds like a plaintive meow. If your anxious cat is vocalizing too often or at inappropriate times, like when you’re sleeping, it’s important to remember showing your own frustration can increase your cat’s anxiety. See our cat anxiety treatments page for tips, but one way to treat increased vocalization is by increasing your cat’s activity or playtime during the day so that they are tired out.
Another sign of stress is vomiting or diarrhea. It’s not uncommon for cats to experience these symptoms during times of high anxiety.
These conditions can also occur due to other medical conditions, so make sure you take your cat to the vet if you see them exhibiting this kind of behavior.
This is usually a display of separation anxiety but it can show in other forms of anxiety. Your cat wants to be with you at all times.
When a cat feels insecure or stressed it will often begin scratching household items. They do this to claim territory and security. Try to identify the trigger, so that you can work to remove or to modify it. Provide alternative and more suitable scratching posts or areas and spray them with Feliway spray for cats. And be sure to spend plenty of time with your cat and include quality play time to release some of that excess anxious cat energy.
When a cat lowers their tail below the level of their back it usually means they are scared or anxious. If your cat has tucked its tail between its legs, this indicates they are very scared or they may be in pain. Keep in mind that some cat breeds naturally carry their tails low, so this may be typical behavior for your pet.
“Airplane mode”, when a cat’s ears are flattened against their head like airplane wings indicates they are scared or nervous. It’s a sign that your cat is uncomfortable and they need some space.
When a cat’s ears stand straight up and fully erect, they are in alert mode because something has caught their attention.
Some medical conditions such as Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD) and Upper Respiratory Infections (URIs) can also be caused by anxiety so if you are concerned about any of the above symptoms, you should consult your local vet.
Compulsive behaviors resulting from anxiety can be very problematic in cats. Severe anxiety can cause a cat to reach such a state that it unintentionally hurt itself or others. This can manifest as aggression or intense over-grooming, as well as other self-mutilating behaviors.
There are three main types of causes of cat anxiety:
Certain stressful situations or stimuli can cause cats to develop anxiety. For example, moving or renovating one’s current residence. The addition of a new family member or pet can also cause anxiety in your cat.
You can eliminate or modify environmental issues, which may help to alleviate your cat’s anxiety.
Another type of trigger that can lead to the development of anxiety in cats is painful or traumatic experiences. In the same way, neglect or abuse can. Cats require social interaction, so if you are an introverted pet owner, a lack of socialisation may result in cat anxiety. Siamese and Ragdoll cats, which are more interactive, are especially vulnerable to this trigger.
Anxiety in cats can develop as a result of painful physical conditions or illness, toxic exposure, or infectious diseases that affect the nervous system.
As a result, senior cats are more vulnerable to cat anxiety because they can develop memory problems, dementia, and joint pain.
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