I want to talk to you about something very important – cat anxiety.
Most people probably don’t realize that cats have anxiety but as a proud cat parent of Cleo, I can tell you that like most pets, cats experience anxiety too, and it can manifest in various ways.
Understanding your cat’s behavior is critical to identifying anxiety symptoms and helping them overcome their fears.
Here’s what I have learned about cat anxiety over the years, some of the things that trigger their anxiety, how you can help your cat, and signs you should look out for if you suspect your cat is struggling.
These are some of the ways cats behave when they have anxiety:
1. Changes in mood or activity level
If you notice that your cat is more tired or lethargic than usual, this could be a sign of anxiety.
Cleo is usually very active throughout the day and if we notice that she is more tired than usual, we pay attention and try to ensure the environment is calm enough for her when she needs it to be.
On the other hand, when anxious, cats may seem restless and may pace around the house, even though there are no apparent reasons for doing so.
Our Cleo, for example, would run around the house like mad, jump on and off the couch, and even scratch the carpets, mats, couch and walls when she was feeling uneasy.
2. Crouching down frequently
Crouching down frequently can be a sign of an anxious cat.
When Cleo is anxious, she tends to hide in small spaces or crouch down with her tail tucked under her body.
She will often crouch down and hide if she hears loud noises or if there are unfamiliar people in our home.
3. Decreased appetite
Cats love to eat; that’s why a decreased appetite can be an indicator of anxiety.
Cleo is a picky eater, but when she is anxious, she tends to avoid her food bowl altogether.
If you notice that your cat is not eating as usual, it would be best to take them to the vet to identify if it’s anxiety or a different problem.
4. Dilated pupils
When a cat’s pupils are dilated, it means they are experiencing heightened emotions such as fear, stress, or excitement.
Dilated pupils are a common sign of anxiety and fear in cats.
Cleo’s pupils dilate when she is feeling afraid or anxious, and that’s when I know it’s time to try and figure out what’s going on so that I can help calm her down to make her feel secure and safe again.
Try to take notice when your cat’s pupils dilate to be able to prevent or stop whatever is causing the anxiety at that moment.
5. Ears flat against their head
When cats are anxious, they may also flatten their ears against their head. This is a sign that they are feeling stressed or afraid.
They may also display a defensive display, such as hissing or growling.
For example, whenever we turn on the vacuum cleaner, Cleo’s ears are flat against her head, and she often runs to hide under the bed.
6. Excessive grooming
Our cat Cleo likes to lick her fur whenever she is petted or after she gets showers (which are rare).
We’ve noticed that our cat grooms herself more when she is feeling anxious.
If your cat is constantly grooming themselves to the point of hair loss, it could be a sign of anxiety.
Excessive grooming can also lead to skin irritation and other health issues.
7. Excessive meowing
Cats meow to communicate with their owners, but excessive meowing can also mean something is off.
If your cat is meowing constantly, it could be a sign of anxiety.
We noticed this behavior in Cleo when we moved to a new house and another time when we moved her litter box.
She meowed more than usual, but we reassured her with love, attention, and her favorite toys and learned that whenever we decide to change anything in her life, to do it slowly.
Cleo does not like it when we make big changes that she has to also deal with and adjust to.
Cats like to hide and feel safe and secure. However, if your cat is hiding more than usual, it’s likely due to anxiety.
It could be triggered by loud noises or changes in their environment.
When we bring new people over or have loud music playing, Cleo tends to hide behind the couch or run upstairs under our bed, especially if she has never met the person before.
She hid a lot another time when we brought a new cat into our home.
When a cat is hypervigilant, they are constantly on high alert and looking around. This can be a sign of anxiety and stress.
We’ve noticed Cleo being hypervigilant when there are loud noises or when there are unfamiliar people in our home, and definitely when we bring a new pet into the home.
10. Pacing or restlessness
If your cat is pacing back and forth or restless, it could be a sign of anxiety.
This behavior could mean that they are uncomfortable in their environment or feeling stressed.
Cleo tends to do this whenever she wants attention or food. We make sure to give her the love and care she needs, so she can relax and feel comfortable, but we never try to enable her behavior.
Instead, we stick to a routine to make things predictable for her.
11. Pooping or peeing outside the litter box
If your cat suddenly starts urinating or defecating outside of the litter box, this could be an indication of anxiety.
Cats are naturally clean animals, and if they’re experiencing stress or anxiety, they may not want to use their designated litter box.
This can be frustrating, but it’s important to approach their behavior with compassion, understanding, and patience.
My cat, Cleo, has done this before when she is feeling scared or stressed.
One great tip is to add more litter boxes around your house (if you can), so your cat has more options.
Pay close attention to what is going on in your household as well. Dysfunction, bad energy, and a stressful household do affect our cats.
12. Sudden destructive behavior
If you’re noticing that your cat has suddenly become destructive around your house, scratching the furniture or curtains, this could also be a sign of anxiety.
Your cat may feel overwhelmed or stressed, and this behavior could be a way to release that stress.
Cleo has scratched our furniture before when she is feeling stressed.
Providing your cat with scratching posts and toys can help alleviate their stress and provide them with an outlet for their anxiety.
13. Tail flicking or tightly held against their body
Cats’ tails are a significant indication of their mood. If you notice your cat’s tail is tightly held against their body or flicking back and forth rapidly, this could be a sign of anxiety.
Cleo will often have her tail flicking when she is feeling aggravated with me.
Tail behavior is often an indicator of a cat’s emotional state, so paying attention to this sign can help you take action accordingly.
14. Trembling or shaking
Just like humans, cats can experience physical manifestations of anxiety, such as trembling or shaking.
These kinds of behaviors may be seen when a cat is feeling fearful or stressed.
Cleo has done this before when she is feeling overwhelmed, especially in the beginning when we used to shower her every weekend (rookie mistake).
If you see your cat shaking or trembling, try to provide them with a peaceful, calm environment and offer them lots of love and affection.
Don’t put pressure on them. Just let them be. Let them live.
Though it may seem like a random symptom – your cat could vomit because of anxiety or stress.
Cleo has only vomited a few times, but we always make sure to monitor her behavior when it happens.
If your cat is vomiting often, it’s important to take them to the vet to rule out any physical conditions.
If your vet determines that your cat’s vomiting is due to anxiety, they may prescribe medication or dietary changes to help alleviate the symptoms.
What are the causes of stress and anxiety in cats?
Stress and anxiety in cats can be triggered by various factors. Some of these include:
- Aging-related changes in the nervous system: As cats age, their nervous systems may undergo changes that lead to behavioral problems, including fears, phobias, and anxieties.
- Infectious diseases and toxic conditions: Certain diseases or exposure to toxic substances like lead poisoning can lead to anxiety in cats.
- Physical discomfort or illness: Cats may exhibit signs of stress and anxiety when they are in pain or suffering from pain or an illness.
- Exposure to something toxic: Certain harmful substances can cause anxiety symptoms in cats. Harmful substances like:
- Certain Plants: Plants like lilies, sago palm, tulips, azaleas, and oleander
- Household Cleaning Products: If ingested or inhaled
- Pesticides and Insecticides: If a cat is exposed to them directly or indirectly
- Human Medication
- Certain Foods: Such as chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, grapes, raisins, onions, and garlic
- Essential Oils: Essential oils can be extremely toxic to cats and can lead to anxiety along with other more severe symptoms
- Lead and Other Heavy Metals
- Psychological issues: Just like humans, cats can also suffer from psychological issues that can lead to anxiety.
- Historical trauma: Especially in rescue cats, past traumatic experiences can lead to anxiety.
- Change in environment, household, or routine: Cats are creatures of habit, and significant changes in their environment or daily routine can cause stress. This includes moving to a new house, rearranging furniture, changing their food or litter brand, or dirty litter box conditions.
- Threats to territory: Cats are territorial animals, and perceived threats to their territory can cause stress. This includes the presence of other cats or pets, strangers, or even loud noises.
- Fear: Certain events like fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes are classic examples of fear-resulting stressors.
- Improper socialization: Cats that have not been properly socialized when young may exhibit stress and anxiety when exposed to people or other animals. This happened to us at the beginning with Cleo when we would have family over, but eventually, she adjusted and now loves getting attention from them.
- Separation anxiety: Some cats may become anxious when separated from their owners for extended periods.
- Boredom: Lack of stimulation can lead to stress in cats. They need opportunities for play and exercise to stay mentally and physically healthy.
How can I help my cat with their anxiety and stress?
If you notice that your cat has anxiety, here are some of the ways you can help them, naturally and/or with your vet’s help:
Gently stroke your cat
Gently stroking your cat from head to tail can help to relax them. Rewarding them with a treat when faced with stressful situations can also be helpful.
This is really a short-term solution, especially the rewarding with treats part. What you really want to do is try to prevent the situation, not reward it.
Provide a safe space
Give your cat somewhere in the house where they can feel safe and secure.
This could be their own bed or a corner of the living room, but make sure you provide them with blankets, toys, and food so that they have something to do when feeling anxious.
Try comforting your cat
Never punish your scared or anxious cat. Instead, try to comfort them and provide reassurance.
Stick to a routine
Cats thrive on routine, so try to feed them, play with them, and clean their litter box at the same times each day.
Create a safe space
A quiet, dark area away from stressors can help your cat relax.
If other pets, a baby, sounds, or things they can see outside are creating stress for your cat, providing them with a separate space can be beneficial and don’t make any changes in your home too fast. Examples include moving furniture, changing the cat’s litter too fast and litter box location.
Provide playtime and enrichment
Provide your cat with plenty of activities, both physical and mental to help stimulate their minds, boost mood and reduce anxiety.
Playing with toys is a great way to distract them from feeling anxious and give them an outlet for their energy.
Interactive toys that your cat can play with on their own, puzzle feeders and scratching posts are all great ways to challenge their brains and provide them with daily mental stimulation.
Use natural calming products
Calming cat pheromone products, such as Feliway spray, Stress Stopper, Safe Space cat-safe diffusers, and wipes, can mimic a natural ‘happy feeling’ feline facial pheromone that helps calm your cat naturally and reduce anxiety.
Supplements, including milk proteins and certain amino acids, as well as pheromone therapy, can also be beneficial. If you do decide to use supplements, talk to your vet first.
If you prefer a more natural approach, there are several herbs, such as chamomile, valerian root, catnip, and lemon balm, that have been known to help reduce anxiety in cats.
You can purchase these remedies in capsule form and add them to your cat’s food. Just make sure to consult with your vet first before trying any supplementation.
Regular vet visits and checking for health and behavior causes
Make sure to take your cat for regular checkups and vaccinations.
This can help keep them healthy and alert, which will dramatically reduce signs of anxiety in the long run.
Sometimes, anxiety in cats can be caused by underlying health issues. It’s always a good idea to have a vet check your cat if they’re showing signs of anxiety.
How do you know if your cat is traumatized?
A cat that has experienced trauma may show several signs and symptoms indicating distress. Here are some signs to look out for:
- Behavioral Changes: A cat might become more aggressive, skittish, or withdrawn than usual. They may also startle easily or show signs of anxiety.
- Avoidance: Your cat may avoid certain people, other animals, or areas of the house where a traumatic event occurred. They might also hide more often than usual.
- Changes in Eating Habits: Traumatized cats might eat less or not at all. Some might overeat or start binge eating.
- Excessive Grooming: Cats may groom excessively to the point of creating bald spots or sores on their skin. This is a sign of stress or anxiety.
- Changes in Sleep Patterns: Cats might sleep more or less than usual. They could also become more nocturnal, staying awake and active at night.
- Litter Box Problems: Sudden frequent accidents outside the litter box that has never occurred before can be a sign of stress or trauma.
- Vocalization Changes: Increased or decreased vocalization, or changes in the tone or volume of their meow, especially if they are yowling a lot, can also indicate trauma.
How to help a cat who has been traumatized?
Give them time and space
When dealing with a traumatized cat, it is crucial to exercise patience and allow them the necessary time to acclimate to both you and their surroundings.
Create a safe and quiet space where he can retreat when he feels overwhelmed.
Sudden movements and loud noises can easily trigger fear in traumatized cats.
Try to minimize these triggers as much as possible and create a calm environment for them.
Help your cat overcome their fears by slowly introducing the triggers while providing positive experiences.
You can try playing soothing music or using a white noise machine while offering treats or gentle petting.
This way, your cat will associate the triggers with positive feelings, helping them overcome their fears.
Build trust with your cat by offering them treats, playing with them using toys, and engaging in activities they enjoy.
This will help your cat associate positive experiences with your presence.
Catifying your cat’s territory
Design a cat superhighway by utilizing your cat’s preferred spots as central hubs, slowly extending their realm of safety and comfort.
Achieve this by strategically placing familiar scents, such as your worn shirt, and cozy blankets throughout various areas in your home.
Use eye contact wisely
To prevent any potential threat perception, avoid prolonged direct eye contact with a traumatized cat.
Instead, opt for a more gentle communication approach by engaging in slow blinking, which effectively conveys affection and helps you build trust.
In his YouTube video below, Jackson Galaxy discusses the “Michelangelo technique” for engaging with a cautious cat.
This technique entails delicately extending your hand toward the cat’s nose and letting them dictate the course of the interaction.
He also emphasizes the importance of building trust and allowing the cat to feel in control throughout the process.
Seek professional help
If your cat’s trauma and fear responses are severe, it may be beneficial to consult with a veterinarian or animal behaviorist who specializes in working with cats that have experienced trauma.
They can provide guidance and support to help your cat on their journey to healing and recovery.
How common is anxiety in cats?
The prevalence of anxiety in cats seems to be quite significant but often-times situational (depends on what is going on in the cat’s environment).
Here’s a study by researchers trying to test if they can help calm cats’ transportation anxiety.
Another study about how veterinary examination can make the vet visit experience less anxiety-inducing for cats.
A different study reported a prevalence rate of 70.6% for inappropriate urination, a common sign of anxiety, in a sample of cats.
Furthermore, it’s interesting to note that anxiety levels in pets have reportedly increased since the onset of the 2020-2022 pandemic, with anxiety in cats or dogs jumping significantly—from just 16.5% in 2020 to 43.52% in 2022, per this study.
While cats can indeed suffer from anxiety, it’s clear that they can also serve as comforting companions for some of us suffering from anxiety ourselves.
This means that we should do everything we can to ensure our cats are doing well so that their presence and love can best support us.
To that end, it’s important to be aware of the signs of anxiety in cats and the causes that could lead to it.
If your cat is showing signs of anxiety or stress, don’t hesitate to bring them to the vet for a checkup and talk about potential treatment options.
Taking steps to reduce your cat’s anxiety will help both you and your cat stay happy, healthy, and stress-free.