23 Oct, 2023

How to help your cat with anxiety

Irina Turcan
How to help your cat with anxiety

With their contented purring and fondness for sleep, we tend to think of our cats as the embodiment of relaxation. However, just like us, they can get stressed and nervous from time to time. The good news is that there are lots of ways to ease cat anxiety. In this article, we examine some of the reasons your cat might be anxious, plus symptoms to watch out for. We also discuss several effective strategies for helping your kitty to feel happy, calm, and reassured.

What is cat anxiety?

Our beloved feline friends can suffer with stress and anxiety just as we do. Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry, or fear that arises when your kitty is anticipating some kind of danger. In cases where there’s a genuine threat, anxiety can help animals avoid it. However, sometimes cat anxiety is triggered by things which are not actually dangerous. This may result in a number of harmful physical and psychological symptoms, including destructive behaviours.

Cat anxiety can affect kitties of all ages and breeds. Thankfully, if your pet struggles with cat anxiety, there are techniques available to alleviate – and even eliminate – it. And one of the first steps in doing so is to try and identify what’s triggering the condition. So, let’s begin by looking at some of the possible causes of cat anxiety.

What causes cat anxiety?

There are lots of different things that have the potential to cause cat anxiety. For example, cats tend to be creatures of habit, who are fond of routine. As such, any change or disruption could give rise to cat anxiety. Most of the time, it’s something big – like moving house or welcoming a new person to the family. However, even events that you consider to be minor changes, such as altering your work hours, can cause cat anxiety.

It’s also possible for cat anxiety to be the result of trauma. For instance, you might see this if you adopt a kitty who has been mistreated in the past. Experts additionally believe that cats who were improperly socialised when they were kittens may be more likely to feel anxious. Interestingly, cat anxiety could even be due to simple boredom.

Furthermore, cat anxiety can have physical causes. If a kitty is in pain or discomfort, they may well feel more vulnerable and fearful. In turn, this might result in anxious behaviour.

Cat separation anxiety

Although we think of cats as independent, they do get lonely. Cat separation anxiety is when our feline friends become distressed because they have been left on their own. Usually this refers to pets left at home by an owner they have a strong bond with. However, cat separation anxiety may also occur if you separate a cat from another animal who they’re close to. The condition is more common in indoor cats who live with one pet parent and no other animals.

Whatever the cause of cat anxiety, there are steps you can take to treat it. But before we discuss those, it’s important to know how to identify the condition in your pet.

Cat anxiety symptoms

It’s not always easy to spot cat anxiety. Our feline friends are adept at hiding fear, pain, and discomfort. In addition, some cat anxiety symptoms could be mistaken for signs of other health problems. That’s why it’s useful to know exactly what to look out for. Here are some of the most common symptoms of cat anxiety:

  • Destructive behaviours (such as scratching furniture)
  • Compulsive behaviours (such as repetitive grooming that leads to bald patches)
  • Hiding away
  • Aggression
  • Excessive meowing or other vocalisations
  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting
  • Following you around the house and/or demanding attention
  • Changes in appetite and/or weight
  • Trembling
  • Pacing or restlessness
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Salivating
  • Urinating or defecating outside of the litter tray
  • Changes in mood
  • Trying to escape
  • Digestive issues (such as diarrhoea)

Certain changes in body language can also be indicators of cat anxiety. These include:

  • Arching their back
  • Puffing up their fur
  • Crouching low to the ground
  • Holding their tail close to their body, or flicking it from side to side
  • Freezing in place
  • Holding their ears back or to the side
  • Fully dilated pupils

Cat separation anxiety in particular can be hard to recognise, because the symptoms usually only arise once you’ve gone out. Setting up a camera is a good way to discover how your moggy acts when you’re not at home.

If you notice any of these cat anxiety symptoms in your pet, you should firstly take them to the vet. This will enable you to determine whether there’s another underlying health issue causing the behaviour. Once you’re confident that it’s cat anxiety, you can begin to focus on strategies to tackle the condition. Here are some of the most effective ways to assist your fluffy friend.

How to help cat anxiety

If you’re able to pinpoint exactly what’s making your cat stressed, try removing or reducing the source of their fear. As an example, if your kitty gets startled by loud noises outside, leave the radio on to muffle external sounds. You could also attempt to change your cat’s response to a scary stimulus through conditioning. For instance, if they’re scared of the vacuum cleaner, try giving them a treat every time you get it out.

Many cases of cat anxiety result from changes in your pet’s routine. While you can’t avoid these completely, you can make them less stressful by introducing new things gradually. Likewise, sticking to a regular schedule for activities such as feeding your cat helps them feel more relaxed.

Regardless of the reason behind cat anxiety, ensuring your pet has a comfortable and calming living environment is key for overcoming it. For instance, kitties love having safe spots to hide away in. Providing them with a cosy den or covered bed helps them to feel more secure. Similarly, many cats like to have high places they can escape to for peace and quiet, such as cat towers. This is particularly important if having lots of people in the house heightens your cat’s anxiety.

One simple but crucial factor is to always make sure your pet’s litter tray is clean and tidy. It should also be in a secluded spot that’s not too close to their food or water bowl. And if you have more than one moggy, they should each have their own litter tray.

Ways to help cat separation anxiety

If you have a cat with separation anxiety, there are some specific strategies that will help them feel more at ease when home alone. For example, you want to ensure that your kitty has plenty to keep them occupied while you’re out. Puzzle feeders, cardboard boxes, toys, and scratching posts all provide enrichment and entertainment when your moggy is by themselves. If possible, you could also set up a perch where your kitty can see outside and indulge their curiosity. Mental stimulation is a great way to stave off boredom and reduce cat separation anxiety.

In addition, playing with your cat before you leave the house can allow them to burn off some energy. Your kitty is then more likely to snooze while you’re out, as opposed to getting bored or nervous. Just be careful not to make a fuss over the fact that you’re leaving. It should be a normal, everyday activity that doesn’t produce a stress response in your pet – so treat it as such. Some people also find that putting an audiobook or podcast on when they're out helps animals feel less alone.

A change in routine often results in cat separation anxiety, but you can counter this with some forward planning. For example, start preparing your kitty for more time apart by gradually building up how long you leave them for. That way, they’ll be able to adapt to your new schedule more easily.

Another tactic is to remove any negative associations your kitty has with cues that you’re leaving the house. For instance, try giving your moggy a treat when you pick up your keys or put on your shoes. This should make them link these actions with positive feelings instead, reducing cat anxiety.

Supplements for cat anxiety

To complement the above strategies, you might like to consider using functional foods to help treat cat anxiety. Including these in your kitty’s diet can be an effective way to ease stress and support their overall wellbeing. There are a few options out there, but one of the most promising is ashwagandha.

Practitioners of traditional medicine have been using this Ayurvedic herb to alleviate anxiety and improve sleep quality for generations. As a potent adaptogen, the plant helps the mind and body to cope with stress more effectively. For example, it could work to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Studies on humans demonstrate that ashwagandha is able to reduce feelings of anxiety.(1) While there hasn’t yet been much research specifically on ashwagandha and cat anxiety, evidence shows the herb decreases stress in rats and horses.(2) Moreover, it can significantly lower stress-related symptoms and signs of anxiety in dogs.(3) As an additional advantage, it could also reduce pain and inflammation in animals suffering from conditions like arthritis. All without the unpleasant side effects that some pharmaceutical medication can cause.

Adding ashwagandha to your pet’s diet to help with cat anxiety is easy. Simply blend 50-100mg of the powder per day into their normal wet food.

Please note that the herb might not be suitable for cats with certain health conditions or who are on medication. This is because ashwagandha can interact with sedatives and drugs that affect the immune system. It’s also possible that your kitty could be allergic to the plant. We recommend consulting a vet before using ashwagandha – or any functional food – to help with cat anxiety in your pet.

Cat anxiety: what not to do

When it comes to alleviating cat anxiety, there are some strategies that it’s best to avoid. For instance, you should never punish your cat for anxious behaviours like scratching furniture or urinating in the wrong place. Not only will this not help reduce those behaviours, it can actually worsen cat anxiety. That’s because scolding your kitty will likely increase negative associations and make them more fearful.

Similarly, you don’t want to try and confine your cat when they’re anxious (for example, by putting them in a carrier). This can cause some kitties to panic, and could result in them injuring themselves by attempting to escape. Even if they don’t hurt themselves, the added stress could be extremely detrimental to their mental and physical health.

In line with this, while you may think that cuddles will help ease cat anxiety, this isn’t always the case. Some kitties would rather you left them alone when they’re nervous or stressed. If that applies to your pet, respect their wishes and don’t force affection on them. It might make them feel more anxious.

If your pet suffers from cat anxiety, it’s also important not to put them into situations they’ll find highly stressful. Where feasible, this includes not making drastic changes to their routine or environment.

And finally, don’t ignore cat anxiety. It’s possible for the condition and its symptoms to get worse over time, and become harder to treat. Prolonged stress can also weaken the immune system, leaving your pet more vulnerable to illness. Catching the problem early and proactively taking steps to ease cat anxiety gives your kitty the best chance of recovering.

Final thoughts on cat anxiety

It can be upsetting to see your feline friend struggle with cat anxiety. However, following the advice above should help you to alleviate, and eventually eliminate, their distress. And remember that in some severe cases of cat anxiety, you may find consulting a professional animal behaviourist useful. Our pets are all unique individuals, and what solves one case of cat anxiety might not work in another. But rest assured that with kindness, patience, and love, you’ll be able to help your nervous kitty feel happier and more relaxed.