Anxiety In Cats
How to recognise, prevent and manage stress in your cat.
Sometimes a small change in your cat’s routine or surroundings can cause stress or anxiety. Research and understanding in this area has increased within the last decade allowing us to treat feline behavioural problems more effectively.
If you think your cat has anxiety, contact your local vet for advice.
More about stress in cats
Just like us, cats are equipped to deal with and recover from situations that cause acute (short-term) stress – for example, being chased up a fence by a dog.
Longer-term challenges, however, such as not getting on with another cat in the household, are much tricker for cats to cope with and these can cause chronic (long-term) stress.
Chronic stress can lead to behavioural and health problems that might even result in cats needing to be rehomed. So, what sort of things can make cats feel stressed? How can you recognize the signs of stress in your cat – and what can you do to prevent it?
Some cats are more likely to suffer from stress than others are. Genetic reasons probably contribute to this, but there are certainly environmental causes, too, such as lack of early socialisation.
Acute stress can be brought about by taking your cat away from home, perhaps for a visit to the vet or to stay in a boarding cattery. While a cat who is acutely stressed often appears very upset at the time, the effects shouldn’t be long-lived as long as they have time to settle peacefully back home afterwards.
One of the biggest causes of stress for cats is other cats. Having more than one cat in your home can work well if there are enough resources for the number of cats and if they all get on well. Sharing food or water bowls, resting places or litter trays can make some cats feel very anxious and can lead to chronic stress. Even if a cat is the only one in the home, they can still experience problems if they encounter cats outside with whom they don’t get on. If other cats can see into your home, your cat can’t escape them by going indoors, and life can become very difficult.
Other pets can make cats worried, too. While many cats and dogs get on well (often better than if they were both cats!), some cats find the arrival of a new puppy, for instance, difficult to cope with.
Even well-meaning humans in the family can cause a cat to feel stressed if they try to stroke, fuss, or pick them up when they don’t want attention. New babies crying and requiring attention from the adults in the house, or small children, who can’t recognize when cats don’t want to interact, can also be a source of chronic stress to a cat who likes routine and personal space.
Some cats may suffer from chronic stress if they are bored and frustrated by lack of opportunities to fulfil their behavioural needs.
Cats who are acutely stressed often appear as we might imagine a stressed cat to look. They may freeze, crouch down, and stare with their eyes wide and their pupils dilated. They’ll often have their ears pinned back and their tail tucked around their body. Their hair may stand on end and they may hiss, growl, or begin to yowl or meow. Sometimes, they may urinate or defecate – this often happens to cats who are stressed about being taken somewhere in their cat carrier. If you try to approach or touch a cat who is feeling acutely stressed, they may act aggressively, by swiping with their claws or biting.
It can be a little trickier to recognize a chronically stressed cat. This is partly because it can be difficult to associate the signs with the cause. Also, the nature of chronic stress means that changes can appear gradually, making them initially less noticeable. Chronic stress in cats can lead to a wide range of behavioural or health problems.
Behaviourally, you might see house soiling or inappropriate toileting, such as urine-spraying on objects that warm up and carry scents, like radiators. You could see a complete change in general behaviour, with cats becoming nervous and jumpy, aggressive or, at the other extreme, withdrawn and unreactive.
Cats may become clingy, or less playful, or they may spend a lot of time hiding, or appearing to sleep. Chronically stressed cats may alter their grooming habits, and overgrooming, sometimes to the point where bare or sore patches appear, can be a strong indicator of this. Just like chronically stressed humans, changes in feeding habits might also occur and, depending on the cat, you could notice that their appetite seems to change, or that they suddenly begin to want to eat non-food objects. If you have a cat who shows evidence of fighting, such as wounds or abscesses, you might then be able to link any out-of-character behaviour with stress caused by aggressive interactions with other cats.
Apart from stress affecting quality of life, there is some evidence that it can also lead to health problems. Feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC) is a condition with some similarities to the interstitial cystitis that affects some people. Cats with FIC suffer from pain and inflammation in the lower urinary tract, which is often most noticeable when they go to urinate. They tend to pass small amounts of urine, frequently, and the urine may contain blood from an inflamed bladder.
Often, cats begin to associate their discomfort with the litter tray and may start to go to the toilet outside of it. The sudden urge to urinate might catch them out, too, and they may not make it to their tray. The urine from a cat with FIC often contains clumps of cells and debris from the inflamed lining of the urinary tract and these can form plugs that block the urethra, preventing the bladder from emptying. A blocked bladder is life threatening and requires immediate veterinary attention, so always get a cat checked out straight away if they seem to be straining to urinate but not passing anything.
If stress affects a cat’s appetite, they may lose or gain weight over time, both of which can affect their health. Sometimes, stressed cats will vomit or have diarrhoea. Stress can also affect a cat’s immune system, making it more difficult for them to fight off infections, so they may seem ‘under the weather’ more often than you’d expect.
Often, stress makes cats change their grooming habits. This can lead to them licking an area so much that they remove all the hair and even cause a skin infection. Urinary tract pain, from FIC for instance, can make a cat lick their tummy so much that the skin, as well as the underlying reason for the licking, needs veterinary attention.
What can you do to prevent and manage stress?
There are things you can do to prevent your cat from becoming stressed, both acutely and longer-term, and there are ways you can help your cat if you think they could be suffering from stress.
From time to time, your cat might encounter situations beyond your control that will cause them acute stress. Giving them time to calm down in a quiet, safe place, and allowing them to come to you if they want physical reassurance is often all that is needed. For those acute stressors over which you do have control, such as a visit to the vet or to a boarding cattery, you can put some plans in place to help your cat to cope.
Getting your cat used to their carrier while they’re still young is an easy way to make a big difference. It’s better still if they are happy to walk inside to look for a treat when you open the door for them. Picking them up, bundling them inside or, worse still, having a fight each time you need your cat to go inside their carrier, isn’t a good way to reduce stress levels!
- Place a familiar blanket or bed inside the carrier and keep it in a room your cat uses regularly. If they don’t climb inside to explore within a couple of days, remove the top half of the carrier and let them use the bottom half as an extra bed for a week, before trying the lid on again.
- Once your cat is happy going in and out of the carrier with its lid, try closing the door for a few seconds at a time – don’t lock it, in case your cat is worried, but offer them a few little treats to eat while inside.
- Once your cat considers the carrier ‘part of the furniture’ and they’ll go inside it and can cope with the door being shut, you can lift it up gently for a few seconds. Wait a moment before letting your cat out again. You can post cat treats through the front door for your cat to find while they’re inside.
- Build up to carrying them carefully around your home (avoiding stairs – dropping the carrier now would not help!).
- Once your cat is used to being taken around in their carrier, try placing it in the car and progress to running the engine for a few minutes, before taking your cat back indoors and letting them out again. Don’t leave treats in the carrier during car rides, in case of choking.
When you take your cat to an environment where there are other people and animals, or sights and sounds that might frighten them, place a blanket or large towel over the carrier, so that your cat can’t be seen by, or see, anything scary. At the vet’s, prevent dogs from sniffing at the carrier and always place it either on the floor or in a purpose-built cubbyhole, so that it can’t fall or tip over if your cat moves around inside. Talking calmly to let them know you’re still there if they can’t see you, or if the carrier is secured in the car, also helps your cat to feel safer.
If your cat goes to stay in a boarding cattery, find out whether they can take some of their own things with them, such as bedding. You can also ask whether the cattery offers short ‘taster’ stays. If you leave them there for a longer stay in future, your cat will already be familiar with the new environment and will know that you’re coming back for them.
You can buy pheromone products for cats, which have a calming effect when sprayed onto the bedding, or when used in a plug-in diffuser. Pheromone products are invaluable when you want to help a cat to feel more secure, either at home, in their carrier, or in a new environment like a cattery.
If you think your cat is suffering from chronic stress, try to think whether any of the possible stressors described above apply. You can control many of the situations in which your cat may find themselves.
If you think the problem involves interactions with cats outside your home, you could keep your cat indoors so that they don’t have to interact with other cats in the area. If you choose to keep your cat indoors, you’ll need to provide environmental enrichment for them so that confinement doesn’t become a new stressor.
Also, consider your cat’s view as they move around your home. Can other cats see them when they’re indoors? This can make cats feel unsafe in their own homes and you might find that they scent-mark in order to try to make their home more of a ‘stronghold’ to put off intruders. Applying self-adhesive plastic to make windows look ‘frosted’ can help cats to feel more secure.
You may not be able to control all chronic stressors. For instance, you may have just had a baby, or adopted a dog. If you feel your cat is finding life with the new family member difficult, you need to find an alternative to removing the stressor.
Try running pheromone diffusers and spraying pheromones onto blankets placed in quiet resting places, such as on top of wardrobes or under beds, to give your cat somewhere safe to hide. You can use stair gates to keep dogs to certain rooms only. Cats often learn quickly that they can use parts of the home to which other pets or children don’t have access.
Multi-cat households are a common reason for chronic stress in cats. While some cats get on well together, many do not, and become upset about sharing their home. It’s not always immediately apparent that a cat is stressed about living with another cat and this can make it very difficult to know what to do when both cats have become part of the family. It’s important that cats who live together have enough resources and space to distance themselves from each other if they need to. Place litter trays, food and water, beds and hiding places in various parts of the home and make sure there are more resources than cats.
Your vet is there to help you if you think your cat is suffering from chronic stress. In the first instance, arrange to have a chat with them so they can listen to your concerns, examine your cat thoroughly for any physical clues and work with you to make a plan. Sometimes, they may need to prescribe medication to ease a cat’s anxiety, while you work on reducing or removing stressors.
By understanding our cats better and adapting their environment and routine to suit them, we can help to prevent or reduce stress and improve our cats’ health and wellbeing.