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
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
Reduction of Cat to Cat Issues
If the trigger is an incompatible housemate like Pippa’s, rehousing one cat is an option, but rarely practical. Instead, you can try increasing the richness of their environment. The idea is to decrease the times the cats can see each other and create zones that allow the victim cat to feel safer.
Many such ideas can be found in our page on keeping indoor cats happy. Even simple things like using potted plants to partition a window sill or mantelpiece can help. Of course, the stressed cat also needs a secure ‘time out’ zone that you must keep the other cat out of.
Often, instead, the cause is stray cats prowling around at night. This is almost always the case when a stressed cat is undesexed but often for regular cats too. You won’t know they’re staring in the window at your kitty, but she knows. Screening windows can be very effective, as can borrowing a friend’s dog for occasional sleepovers.
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.
If you are thinking of acquiring a stray or feral cat, do not despair. With a bit more time, these cats also become very rewarding companions (read one example here). You will, however, need a lot of the next skill…
The main reason cats avoid children is they lack the ability to slow down and let cats be in control. The best thing to do for a nervous cat is ignore them and let them decide when to approach. Slow down, and if your nervous cat chooses you, tell your partner the vet said you can’t move until the cat does. Washing up, cups of tea: someone else’s job now!
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 always use 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.
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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