Updated March 24, 2021
Sadly, the treatment of mental health problems in dogs is taken much more seriously than in cats. An anxious dog will often get help quickly due to destruction or noise issues. An anxious cat, by contrast, tends to suffer in silence. Even worse, when they do show signs they’re often blamed for it.
One of the main problems is that we don’t often recognise what it is that causes the problem.
Causes of Stress or Anxiety in Cats
Cats are very sensitive to the environment around them and many things can cause anxiety:
- Other cats: by far the most common reason
- Lack of adequate kitten socialisation
- Dogs (read here how I socialised my kitten to reduce fear of dogs)
- Children who can’t leave the cat alone
- Unsympathetic, impatient or inexperienced cat owners
- Change of environment
- Occasionally health problems like thyroid disease or pain
I once saw a cat who developed significant stress just because their old home was renovated into a modern showpiece.
So how do you know when there’s a problem?
Signs of Stress or Anxiety in Cats
Symptoms are often subtle and non-specific, including:
- Hiding away for a large part of the day
- Urinating outside the litter box
- Unexplained aggression to people or other cats
- Excessive grooming or poor grooming
- Reduced appetite or eating quickly at odd times of day
- Lack of affectionate behaviour
All of these can have other causes including urinary tract infections, arthritis, parasite problems or any general illness. That’s why it’s essential to start with a trip to the vet. One such cat is Pippa.
Pippa has been struggling for a while. She lives with the sort of cat who is often said to be ‘like a dog’. These cats are great fun (to us) but are every ‘normal’ cat’s nightmare. They don’t respect personal space, and they assume that every cat loves them.
Pippa just wants to live in peace and quiet, but she can’t just have a sit or snooze without being on guard for threats. It’s no good telling her there’s no threat; she feels it instinctively. She’s been unhappy enough to be brought to the vet for help. Here’s what we did:
Treatment of Feline Anxiety
Reducing Stress From Cats & Dogs
If the trigger is an incompatible housemate like Pippa’s, try these tips:
- Add boxes, shelves, plants to break up visual sightlines
- Feed each cat separately
- Give each cat sufficient attention
- Create refuge areas where your cat can escape when needed
- Rehoming to a friend or relative as a last resort
If the problem is a new dog, some of the ideas above work just as well. However, it’s also vital that you monitor all interactions and make sure your cat feels safe.
Many cat-friendly ideas can be found in our page on keeping indoor cats happy.
If you suspect the problem is stray cats prowling around, try:
- Screening windows to prevent visual contact
- Making sure cats cannot enter your house
- Borrowing a friend’s dog for occasional sleepovers
Reducing Stress From Children
Stress from kids falls into two categories. When kids won’t leave them alone, it’s an education issue. Kids need to know to respect a cat’s personal space and private areas.
However, occasionally cats are just freaked out by kids (especially babies) and nothing seems to make it better. This is a hard problem to fix without rehoming or medication.
Sometimes, in our efforts to ‘fix’ a problem, we just make it worse. The best thing to do for a nervous cat is to let them decide when to approach.
Take supposedly ‘feral’ cats for example. If you are thinking of acquiring such a cat, do not despair. With a lot of patience, even these cats also learn to trust humans and become very rewarding companions (read one example here).
No matter the situation, forcing interactions only loses a cat’s trust and makes things worse. Losing your temper over pee in the house is a devastating mistake.
Use of Anxiety Medication
Just like in dogs, there’s far too much resistance to medicating anxiety in cats. These cats are suffering and there’s no sense in going slow. The drugs are very effective, very safe and usually able to be given once daily in food. They won’t cause any noticeable changes except reduced anxiety if used correctly.
Most cats come off medication after a period of adjustment if owners also put an effort into improving their environment. The exception is cats that have anxiety with no identifiable cause, who usually need medication for life.
Even that is not a great problem. Just like in Pippa’s case, we always perform regular blood tests to monitor the safety of the medication.
Personally, I don’t see efficacy for other treatments if used alone, but I often recommend Feliway pheromone as an add-on. You can also try any natural remedies that are safe for cats, remembering that almost any essential oils are toxic, for example.
This is more about prevention, but it’s worth mentioning here. Kittens who grow up without positive human contact can become very fearful. Early positive play, avoidance of punishment and correct feeding practices go a long way to making a cat feel at home. For more information, visit our ten tips to raising cats to be happy and affectionate.
So in conclusion, don’t despair. Anxiety in cats is actually quite easy to treat if you get your vet involved. I hear that Pippa has already started to relax. That’s in only two weeks!
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.