You may tease someone for being a "scaredy-cat" or even get a chuckle when something startles your kitty and makes them jump. But a fearful, anxious cat is no joke. Cat anxiety can be a serious problem, especially if left untreated. If you think you might be dealing with a stressed cat, keep reading in order to understand what's going on with your kitty and how you can help them.
Cat Anxiety Explained
Cats experience anxiety when they anticipate danger from "unknown or imagined origins that result in normal body reactions ... associated with fear," explains PetMD. In other words, an anxious cat appears chronically stressed and afraid for no obvious reason. However, this doesn't mean that there isn't a reason. It simply means that it may take some time and investigation to determine the cause.
Potential causes that may result in a stressed cat are wide and varied. Cat anxiety may be caused by pain or illness, exposure to something toxic or infectious diseases that affect the nervous system. A psychological trigger may be to blame, like a traumatic experience, lack of proper socialization or a history of abuse or neglect. An aging brain can also cause anxiety, especially in senior cats experiencing memory problems or dementia. Joint pain in older cats can also be a source of anxious behaviors, such as hiding or failing to use the litter box. Other potential causes of cat anxiety can include new or moved furniture, new pet or baby in the home, or even a new home.
One of the most common forms of cat anxiety is separation anxiety, in which your cat becomes anxious and stressed when you leave their sight or when they are left home alone. This is especially prevalent among cats with a history of abandonment or who have been rehomed or passed from owner to owner, according to PetMD.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), characterized by exaggerated, repetitive behaviors, can also affect cats. Causes of OCD in cats aren't really known, and as such it's generally characterized as a mental disorder, although it can be initiated by stress, says PetMD. Pet parents may unwittingly reinforce OCD behaviors by trying to soothe their cats or giving them attention while they're doing the unwanted behavior. It should also be noted that some breeds are genetically predisposed to certain obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Siamese and other Asian breeds are particularly known for these types of behaviors.
So how can you tell if you have an anxious cat?
Watch for the Signs
An anxious kitty isn't too difficult to spot. PetMD identifies the following signs and symptoms of general cat anxiety:
- Withdrawal and hiding
- Becoming less active
- Trying to escape
- Destructive or aggressive behavior
- Failure to use the litter box
- Sores and lesions resulting from over-grooming
Other symptoms include a loss or reduction of appetite, weight loss, excessive vocalization, lethargy and restlessness, says PetMD. OCD can be identified by excessive, repetitive behaviors such as eating, sucking or chewing on fabric, obsessive grooming, repetitive meowing or yowling, and constant pacing. In a case of separation anxiety, your cat will likely be fine as long as you're around, but may begin acting anxious when they can sense that you're about to leave.
Helping Your Stressed Cat
The first thing you need to know in order to help your anxious cat is that you should never punish or scold them for their anxious behavior. This will only increase negative associations and fear and make things worse instead of better. The goal should be to help them feel safe and relaxed in their surroundings.
Once you've identified anxious behaviors in your cat, the first step is to make an appointment with your veterinarian to either diagnose or rule out any underlying health issues or toxins that might be causing your kitty stress. Because cats tend to hide their pain, this is not something that is likely to be obvious, and may require a thorough series of blood panels and other tests. If it turns out that your cat is suffering from pain or a medical issue, treating the issue may be all that's required to eliminate the anxious behavior and help your kitty get back to their normal self.
On the other hand, if your vet rules out a physical problem as the cause, this may mean that the issue is psychological. If this is the case, your vet should be able to advise you on a course of treatment.
In addition to prescribing anti-anxiety medication to help keep your kitty calm, your vet may recommend a board certified veterinary behaviorist or trainer who can help both you and your cat through behavioral conditioning and counter-conditioning. Behavioral conditioning involves identifying fear triggers in your kitty's life and either desensitizing her to these triggers through repeated, safe exposure, or removing them from their environment. Counter-conditioning, which is similar, involves training your cat to replace a negative behavior with a positive one, while forming positive associations with the new behavior. For example, if your cat is anxious when they can sense you're about to leave, train them to go lie down and reward them when they do with a treat or a favorite toy. In time, they'll associate your leaving with this positive reward and learn to be okay with it. The overall goal of this training and conditioning is to teach your cat that they're safe and that it's okay to relax.
If Left Untreated
Untreated anxiety won't get better on its own, and will likely become worse over time, with undesirable behaviors becoming more pronounced. Just as with humans, chronic stress can have a physiological effect on your kitty's health. If it persists, it could compromise her immune system and make them more vulnerable to illness, which will, in turn, compound her stress. They could also develop severe depression on top of the anxiety, all of which could lead to additional behavior problems. It's not only in your cat's best interest but also in the interest of having a peaceful home, to intervene with your cat's anxiety as quickly as possible.
If you think your cat is suffering from anxiety, take heart. With love, patience and willingness to do your part to help, your cat has an excellent chance of making a full recovery and returning to their healthier, happier self.
Jean Marie Bauhaus
Jean Marie Bauhaus is fiction author and freelance writer and editor living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She writes frequently about pets and pet health in her home office, where she is assisted by a lapful of furbabies.