Anxiety is extremely common in cats, especially with those living in cramped conditions indoors. As with people, they get stressed out when they feel unsafe or insecure. While most cats will get anxious about specific triggers and calm down when it is over, others live in a constant state of restlessness or fear. This is dangerous. Stress is the underlying reason for every behaviour issue, and it is an alarming cause of several serious medical conditions as well. Chronically anxious cats will hide away, attack and sometimes stop eating. They will avoid litter boxes, drink excessive amounts of water (or even none at all). They may become depressed and withdraw or they may become obsessive and stand guard. A happy cat is at peace in their predictable world. Anything that is unpredictable or ‘out of their control’ is viewed as a threat, and they will stress about it until it either goes away or becomes predictable to them.
Why is my cat anxious?
Cats are solitary animals. They work extremely hard at creating a safe environment for themselves and keeping threats at bay. Accidental meetings with other animals are avoided at all costs. Messages are written in urine to tell other cats when they were there and when they plan to return. The other cat will ‘read’ them, leave their own message and be gone before they inadvertently encounter each other. This is the life of a cat. Domestic felines put the same effort into their territory, but it is generally considered that they have fewer worries to contend with. However, we beg to disagree. Our households are very unpredictable – home to dogs, people, rabbits, mice, snakes, lizards, fish, birds, visitors, everything between (none of whom are able to understand our cat’s communications, which are completely ignored), along with all their mess, noise and activity. Our felines never know who is coming, what is going to happen next and they are simply unable to avoid unwanted encounters. They do not have any control, over anything, that is happening in their territory. This is contrary to the nature of a cat, which would rather just leave altogether. Seeing as this is not an option, stress invades their very being. They will become sick and suffer a variety of serious issues. They will also develop litter box problems and start urine marking inappropriately.
What could possibly be perceived as a threat?
Anything new, strange or untoward in your cat’s environment will be understood as something to avoid. It is also pivotal to also look for anything familiar that may be causing your cat anxiety. Ultimately, whatever your cat does not like, is unable to control and cannot be avoided will result in stress. Usually when anxiety is first noticed, it has been affecting your cat for some time already and they are now urinating outside the box, hiding, meowing incessantly, pulling out their hair, attacking everyone or spending the night at the vet. View it as though you have no idea what is going on in your house, which is likely very true. Ninety percent of interactions that a cat faces daily go unnoticed by their owners. If you are able to find what is triggering your cat to stress out, it will be easy to sort it out. However, it might be several things combined and often the case remains a complete mystery.
How to solve an anxiety problem?
We need to do an investigation to find out what your cat is so disturbed about. Remember to think about their sensitive hearing and smelling capabilities. What may not be noticeable to us may be the end of the world for your cat, who really does not like change very much. It could be something small such as a new sofa, or it may be catastrophic such as moving house. Perhaps they do not like strangers entering the house, maybe the dog will not leave them alone, other cats may be guarding the resources that all the cats are forced to use, space could be insufficient, noise continual. Consider the peskiness of small children or changes in routine. Finding the root cause is not easy. Literally anything could be responsible. Providing your cat with several safe places to hide and eliminate when they are stressed will reduce the severity of the problem, as well as the bodily waste lying around the house.
Outside cats, inside cats, they are all predisposed to keeping other cats out of their territory. Peace can be achieved in any household, provided there is enough space for cats to feel safe from conflict. If your cat is threatened by a cat from next door, use motion detectors to set off the sprinkler system when they try to enter uninvited. If your cat is upset about the cats it has to live with, distribute their food, water, litter boxes, toys, beds, hidey holes and scratch posts throughout the house. This way, they do not need to share resources and will create their own boundaries of safety, enabling them to avoid crossing territories with other cats.
If a noise is loud enough, it is bound to make anyone jump out of their skin. Cats have extra-sensitive hearing and what may be considered a mild humdrum has the potential to disturb your cat greatly. Washing machines, dishwashers, hair dryers, microwaves, freezers, refrigerators, thunder, barking, loud music, screaming, crying, children, running on stairs, rain on the roof, fireworks, slamming doors… the list continues. While it is advisable to diminish the level of noise in the house as much as possible, it is not feasible to live life in total silence. Your cat will be able to handle the stress better if they have a safe area to retreat to. It is essential that there are several high perches and dark hidey holes available where nobody can disturb your cat.
New people moving in, another unwelcome cat, the arrival of a baby, new furniture and moving house altogether – these are potential triggers of anxiety. Building, remodelling or extending the house are chronic stress inducers. A new dog is particularly unwelcome. Then there is the other side to consider as well, anything that leaves. Cats are very averse to change; they really do not like it. An escape route to a safe area must be provided at all times. Hidey holes and high perches should be scattered around the house. Move their resources to quiet areas. Do not pick your cat up and force them to say hello or confront the situation directly. As the changes settle, your cat will adapt and it will eventually become part of their predictable world. In the meantime, make sure your cat is able to get away and leave them be.
Keep the environment calm and quiet while your cat is getting used to the change. Where possible, prepare your cat gradually before the change occurs. For example, if you are going to be building onto your house over several weeks, try to do it in small stages. Giving your cat as much space as possible, confine them to a safe section of the house and have the builders lay the foundation. When this is done, let them out and give them a week or so to deal with it. Then repeat the process for the next stage and so forth. Having a hundred builders all working at once is far more stressful than having ten at a time. You may have the building finished sooner, but there will be a more drastic change for your cat to deal with. If this is not possible, keep your cat confined in a large part of the house during the day. At night, let them explore and sniff the area when it is quiet. If a new person will be joining the household, let them visit several times before moving in. If a baby is imminent, make sure your cat has access to the preparations. That way, they will know something is happening and will be less shocked when the baby arrives. It will also give them time to deal with some of the stress beforehand.
While many of our cats get along with our dogs, they are not really compatible in the real world. Perhaps they are not attempting to kill each other, but a cat will always be wary of a dog – instinctively. Any sudden move and your feline will unhappily be playing ‘catch the cat’. Other types of animals will cause some anxiety for your feline as well. It is certainly possible to have a peaceful household with different animals, but this does not mean it is always stress-free. A cat must have a safe place to go where nobody will be able to get to them. It will provide them with security and a place to get away. Hidey holes off the ground are ideal, several of them. Perching posts around the house are also excellent and both should be provided. You will also need to manage your dog. If Fluffy chases Tiddles, playfully or not, he will jump onto a spot and expect to be safe. Tiddles will be stuck there and will not calm down if Fluffy sits there and barks for the next several hours. Maybe Fluffy is bored and just being excited, but this will not make them very good friends. Do not make the mistake of viewing this as ‘cute’; it is decidedly not.
It is critically important that Fluffy, for the most part, learns to ignore Tiddles. This means that every time Fluffy gives untoward or excited attention to Tiddles, you should intervene immediately. Take Fluffy for an exhaustive run and provide something that is more arousing than chasing or harassing the cat. Never allow your dog to invade your cat’s territory inappropriately, pull them out of their hiding spot or sit by their perch and prevent them coming down. If your dog has a tendency to make your cat’s life stressful, you must put a stop to it. Provide a safe room with easy access to a cat flap for Tiddles if you will be away for some time and are unable to monitor Fluffy. This should apply to all cats in the house. Their resources should be available in every room and each door should have an easily accessible cat flap for them. If Fluffy learns to use the cat flap, then you will need to be more creative. Design high ramps that Tiddles can use to ‘lose’ Fluffy, such as tunnels between objects or leading to other rooms. This will not be necessary if Fluffy learns good manners and ignores Tiddles, who now has somewhere safe to go when needed.
Changes in Routine
Creatures of habit, cats are very aware of their routine. Seeing as they really have no say in the matter, it tends to revolve around yours. They like predictability and that is all that matters. If their routine changes, they will fret about it. Sudden routine changes will cause the type of stress that invokes litter box problems, vomiting, not eating and if severe enough, a trip to the vet. An earlier alarm, less play time, irregular grooming, a different feeding time, a longer absence than usual – these are a few examples. Unfortunately routines change, as they must. People switch jobs, have babies, take kids to school and dance lessons. They go out for dinner, overnight excursions and try to live normal lives. They throw dinner parties and have guests over.
The trick with routines is to find one that suits you and stick to it. If you go out regularly, your cat will not be too bothered by it – provided their routine stays the same. Cats have an internal clock more accurate than your watch. If you are home on Sundays, then that is a good time to groom them, clean their litter boxes and do whatever is required. Try to keep feeding and play times the same. Find what works for you and keep to the schedule as much as possible. If a looming change is inevitable, introduce it gradually. Perhaps you are going to work again after staying at home for your child’s toddler years. Start setting your alarm a little earlier each day and feed the cats in the same manner. Leave the house for short periods and return, lengthening the absences each time. Try to keep everything else in the house normal. If you have always had the television on throughout the day, leave it on when you go. Think about what your routine will become and transition it gradually.
The subject of young children is always a sensitive one. Naturally people will gravitate towards protecting their child, but often this extends beyond reason and teaches kids the wrong lessons. Animals should never have to suffer for the sake of a child having their way, yet millions of them do, often paying with their lives. People expect animals to simply know their place. How would they and what does that even mean? Roll over and let the kid strangle them to death? Truthfully, no creature alive will allow that as their survival instinct is too strong. Cats are not toys for pesky kids, or anyone for that matter. Frankly, children are responsible for their actions and will be for the rest of their lives. Most cats tend to avoid them like the plague. Being chased, screeched at, squeezed, smacked, kicked, pulled, prodded, thrown, dragged and physically hurt causes an enormous amount of chronic anxiety.
Kids have limitless imaginations. The cat will try to prevent this at all costs, even if it means they urinate in secret places. They will stop taking food or water, no longer want to play and this amount of stress will make them seriously ill. Children have either been given no guidelines or ignore them behind their parent’s back. Toddlers are not able to understand the consequences of their actions, but if you have a household with animals, it is your responsibility to make sure everybody is safe. If your child hurts the cat, expect retaliation. Your cat is not in the wrong here; this is a last resort when trying to get away and there are no options left for them to escape. By the time this happens, the poor cat has been abused on countless occasions already.
If you hurt Tiddles, he will hurt you back. That is it. No mess, no fuss. Children understand this concept from a very early age. It will apply to them for life and is a value they must learn. Respect for all living creatures is paramount for a peaceful household. On the other hand, if Tiddles scratches the kid in sheer terror and desperation then gets thrown against the wall, sent to the shelter or euthanized, what message is learnt then? We must never rely on children for this responsibility, but we are unable to watch them every second of the day either. This is why it is essential that we provide the cat with many quick escape routes. Your child must never be able to corner the cat, at any time. Use baby gates near their litter box, food and water. Provide hidey holes and high perches that are completely out of reach. Safe areas where your cat can retreat will give the child few opportunities to terrorize them, reducing stress for all involved.
Generally cats are wary of strangers. While some will happily jump on anyone’s lap, most would rather skulk off in another direction. The arrival of guests will cause your cat some concern, but they should be able to deal with it if they are not forced to have anything to do with them. Do not pick up your timid cats and drop them in a stranger’s arms. This will cause extreme distress and may result in a scratch or two, as well as a hasty retreat and shock all around. Make sure that your cat has a safe area where they do not have to confront visitors if they do not want to. They should be able to access their litter box, food, water, toys and other resources without bumping into your guests or having to pass them by. If your cat is anxious, they will then avoid their resources, including the litter box. Your cats will join in if they are ready and willing to.
Travel is a trigger that upsets almost all cats. Their own travel and that of yours! Cats hate cars, planes are worse. There is no form of transportation that cats are even vaguely alright with using. Unfortunately, it is not avoidable. While some cats are forced to endure this more than others, all of them will need to go to the vet at some point in their lives (hopefully much more than that). It is possible to make travel a mere annoyance for your cat, as opposed to a terrifying ordeal. All you need to do is crate-train them in their cat carrier. However, while this is certainly stressful, it is seldom a reason for inappropriate house soiling in cats (except in the car when anxiety is at its worst). They are usually calm an hour or two later and resume daily life.
The problem begins when you pack your bags and leave the house. It may continue long after your return. Your departure signals major catastrophe for your feline friend. Their security, routine and daily life is turned literally upside down. They will display all the chronic symptoms of extreme anxiety, especially if they are left in kennels or catteries for the duration of your vacation. Some never get over it. If you need to go away, make proper provisions for your animals. Do not leave them alone at home or put them in environments that are even more stressful. Sometimes there is no other option besides a boarding facility. Do your homework in advance. There are lovely catteries that are quiet, spacious, well staffed and a fun adventure for your cat. Look for safety and round-the-clock care. Do not leave your cat in a kennel-type environment with barking dogs, lots of activity, neglected animals or worse. The bad experience never fades. If you can, rather get a familiar friend to come and stay in your house. While this is very stressful, it is the best option for your feline friend. You could also get a trusted house sitter to be at home with your pets. Make sure that these people are calm types that are not going to throw parties while you are away, inadvertently freaking your pets out completely.
Quiet, peace and calm is a cat’s motto. Running around, excessive foot traffic, screeching and other energetic activities are going to make your cat want to crawl somewhere safe. If they have nowhere to go, expect severe anxiety (along with nasty symptoms such as illness and litter box avoidance). While we must live our lives, we must also provide for our cats if this is a daily occurrence. There are many chaotic households with happy, stress-free cats, but they have quiet places for themselves away from the activity. Warm, dark hidey holes must be available at all times. They must be out of the way and not accessible to anyone else. Food, water, toys, litter boxes and other resources should also be nearby, so that your cat is able to use them at all times. When the craziness gets too much, your cat can calmly slip away until peace returns.
Certain medications are known to cause anxiety. This is aggravated further by environmental disturbances at home. If your cat is on medication that causes stress, make sure that you provide them with opportunities to de-stress. Private areas are essential for anxious cats, create them. Places to go when things get too much to handle is the best thing you can offer your pet. Stroking, petting and cooing will not resolve the problem. It is likely to make it much worse. A stressed cat does not want interaction. They want to run away and hide somewhere safe. Make sure they have every chance to do so easily.
Cats with anxiety will quickly have less of it if we are considerate of their needs as felines. Give them safe shelter and options for escape. Unfortunately, some cases are extreme and cats are practically living at the vet, pulling their hair out, not eating, losing weight, dehydrating, urinating in dark corners, suffering diarrhoea, bladder infections and worse. We never advocate anti-anxiety medications, except in chronic cases such as these. Being so fearful continuously is heartbreaking indeed and very bad for their health. Speak with your veterinarian about any products or medications that will help your cat relax. Use them only as prescribed. Do everything in your power to provide a safe environment for them. That way, they will eventually get better and not need medication for life.