Does Your Cat Have Anxiety?

Often the symptoms of stress and anxiety in cats are overlooked or attributed to other issues. Richard Schramm/Shutterstock

We often think of cats as lazy animals that spend their days napping in the sunshine. With such an easygoing lifestyle, what could felines possibly be stressed about?

But there are many situations that can cause stress for kitties — everything from moving to a new home to the sudden appearance of a vegetable at feeding time.

While occasionally experiencing stress is normal for a cat, constant or severe anxiety can be a serious problem, and it’s easy to overlook symptoms or attribute them to other issues.

Signs of Anxiety in Cats

  • Hiding
  • Aggression
  • Excessive vocalization
  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Eliminating outside the litter box
  • Compulsive behaviors such as excessive grooming
  • Destructive behavior like furniture scratching
  • Following owner from room to room

Causes of Anxiety

The source of human stress can be attributed to countless psychological, physical and environmental factors, and the same is true for cats. Introducing a new spouse or pet to the family can be stressful for cats — and so can something as simple as not changing the litter often enough.

However, certain factors may contribute to greater anxiety in felines. For example, cats that have been abused or rehomed several times are more likely to suffer from anxiety.

Cats that were not well socialized during their formative kitten years are also prone to it. It’s important to expose a kitten to variety of social situations and environments before 14 weeks of age. Kittens that are kept isolated may be less social and more fearful when they reach adulthood.

The practice of spaying and neutering could also play a role. Some studies have found an increase in shyness in cats after spaying and neutering, particularly when it’s done at a young age. However, it's important to remember that the risk of other undesirable behaviors, as well as health problems, are decreased when cats are spayed or neutered.

Genetics may also be to blame. Often feral cats that are fixed — through trap-neuter-return programs, for example — are those animals that are most social and friendly. Some experts have suggested that this creates an environment where more aggressive members of the species are the ones capable reproducing, resulting in kittens prone to anxious behavior.

What Is Separation Anxiety?

anxious kitten
Kittens that are socialized at an early age may be less likely to develop anxiety in later years. Khamidulin Sergey/Shutterstock

Cats with separation anxiety exhibit distress and behavioral problems when separated from their owner or a companion animals they’ve bonded with.

Cats suffering from this type of anxiety will often follow their owner from room to room and sulk or hide when their owner prepares to leave the home. While their owner is away, the cat may refuse to eat, eliminate outside the litter box or engage in compulsive or destructive behavior. Upon the person’s return, the cat may be overly enthusiastic in greeting their owner.

Felines that have a history of abandonment or rehoming are particularly prone to this type of anxiety.

How to Treat Your Cat’s Anxiety

If your cat is exhibiting anxious behavior, talk to your veterinarian. Your vet will first do a physical examination to rule out any other conditions that may be causing the behavior.

If your cat is diagnosed with anxiety, medication may be prescribed. Your vet will also likely make recommendations on how you can alleviate your cat’s anxiety. He or she may even suggest that you work with a certified animal behaviorist.

Often, making simple changes to your routine or the environment can relieve a cat’s anxiety. For example, if your cat suffers from separation anxiety, providing your pet with distracting toys, such as puzzle feeders, can be beneficial. Such toys should be left out upon your departure and taken away when you return home.

Creating a more stimulating environment can also be helpful. Providing cat trees to climb, boxes to play in and a perch by the window will help keep your cat physically active and mentally stimulated until you return.

You may also want to consider adopting a companion kitty to keep your cat company, but keep in mind that not every cat will be comfortable with the addition of a new animal.

Most importantly, don’t respond to an anxious cat with yelling or punishment or by locking the animal in a separate room away from you. Reacting negatively like this will only make a cat’s anxiety worse.