Image of anxious cat hiding

Key takeaway

Cat anxiety looks different for every feline, but is often exhibited by restlessness, aggression, social withdrawal, and behavioral changes. These symptoms may be triggered by medical issues, trauma, environmental changes, and more. With training, medication, and extra care, your cat’s anxiety can be quelled over time.

We know that humans can struggle with anxiety, but did you know that cats can experience anxiety, too? Cat anxiety can be quite draining for your furry friend. Some cats are more prone to experiencing fear, anxiety, and stress but the severity and frequency often depend on the breed and individual circumstances.

Anxiety is the overwhelming feeling of nervousness, usually surrounding an event that’s going to happen in the near future. Cats can experience those same feelings of unease and nervousness, too. Cat anxiety is when a cat anticipates danger or threat and can cause them to react in unusual ways.

It is not always easy to spot a cat that’s suffering from anxiety. The change in their bodily reaction and behaviors indicates a lot about what they’re going through. 

Anxiety can be just as debilitating and frustrating for a cat as it is for a human, which is why it’s so important to find the right ways to treat a cat that’s suffering from anxiety. In this blog post, we’ll be discussing cat anxiety symptoms, the causes of anxiety in cats, how to help a cat with anxiety, and more. Finding the right treatment for your anxious cat is crucial so that they can live a happy and anxiety-free life. 

Symptoms of Anxiety in Cats

The first step in treating your cat with anxiety is being able to identify the symptoms. Symptoms can differ for each cat, so you should monitor your cat closely if you think they may be suffering from anxiety. Cat anxiety symptoms can include destructive and compulsive behaviors that are unlike how your cat usually acts. This can include things like scratching furniture and clawing at curtains. A cat with anxiety will likely do these actions over and over again.

These compulsive behaviors can cause self-harm and unintentionally damage your home. For instance, an anxious cat may obsessively lick themselves to the point that they start to develop bald spots. If you come home to a scratched-up couch, try your best to resist getting angry at your cat. These behaviors are unintentional and are just a side effect of untreated anxiety. 

Symptoms related to cat anxiety

 

In addition to these destructive and compulsive behaviors, there are various other cat anxiety symptoms you should be aware of, including:

  • Significant change in activity level: If your cat stops partaking in the activities that they used to enjoy, that could be a sign of anxiety. For example, if your cat usually loves playing when you come home from work and then suddenly can’t be bothered to, that’s something to pay attention to. Take note of these behaviors to see if they change.
  • Significant change in mood: If your cat suddenly becomes more fearful, unsocial, or aggressive, that could indicate they’re suffering from anxiety. For example, if your cat is typically very loving and social around you and then all of a sudden jumps every time you come around, that probably means they’re feeling uneasy about something.
  • Avoiding their litter box: A litter box is meant to be peed in. A potty-trained cat knows that the only place they’re supposed to pee in is their litter box, so if they’re avoiding it, that could mean something is up. If your cat avoids their litter box and starts to pee next to it or in other places in your home (including on your bed), they’re probably trying to tell you that they’re anxious. 
Image shows illustration of cat walking away from litter box, with text “If your cat avoids the litter box, they could be dealing with anxiety”
  • Excessive meowing: Meowing is normal. But meowing nonstop for extended periods of time may be cause for concern. An anxious meow will typically sound different from a regular meow. An anxious meow will last longer and will sound like they’re in distress. Don’t just shoo off your cat excessively meowing- they’re meowing because they’re trying to tell you something. Your cat can’t speak, so their incessant meowing is essentially them asking for help. 
  • Refusing to eat: Cats love to eat. They run for their cat food the second they hear you start to open up the can. So if your cat isn’t as interested in food, or isn’t eating at all, it’s time to talk to your vet. Refusing to eat could be a symptom of other medical problems, but it also could be a symptom of anxiety. Monitor their other behaviors closely so you can determine what’s causing them not to eat.
  • Compulsive behaviors: Compulsive behaviors like over grooming, excessive tail-chasing, chewing on fabric, or repetitive pacing could all be signs of cat anxiety. Take note of these behaviors to see if they keep occurring.  
Photo of cat licking paw

While these are all possible symptoms of cat anxiety, they could also indicate a serious medical problem. So, it’s important to see your vet if your cat exhibits these behaviors in excess or if they start to cause self-harm. Don’t let your kitty go untreated, if you see any of these signs, it means something is up, and they need help.

Causes of Anxiety in Cats

So, what is the cause of cat anxiety? That is an excellent question that is still under investigation. Like most anxiety, fear, or stress problems are likely a combination of genetics, prenatal environment, experiences during socialization period (2-9 weeks of age), and learning.  Burmese and Tonkinese breeds seem to be predisposed1.

There are various circumstances that could cause anxiety in cats, and they can be quite similar to what causes anxiety in humans. People get anxious when they go through big life changes. Maybe they had to suddenly move. Maybe there was a divorce or a death in the family. Or maybe another traumatic event occurred. These could all trigger anxiety in humans as well as in cats.

A build-up of several stressful life situations could also cause anxiety in your kitty. Your cat is there for you throughout all of your major life changes. So although you might not think that getting a divorce, moving, and then getting a new partner might not have any impact on your feline friend, it actually can do quite the opposite. 

Graphic shows potential causes of anxiety in cats

There are many reasons why your cat could be experiencing anxiety, such as:

  • Separation anxiety: Separation anxiety can affect anyone: people, dogs, and even cats. Cat separation anxiety usually occurs with cats who have switched families multiple times or who were abused in the past. Cat separation anxiety is especially apparent when their favorite person is not around. This stress may lead to a variety of behaviors that are problematic for cats and their families:
    • Vocalizing (mewing, yeowling, screaming)
    • Pacing or inability to settle
    • Excessively inhibited: Refusal to eat or drink; delayed litter box usage
    • Destructive behaviors, often targeted at items that smell like their attachment figure, or at points of exist (scratching, chewing, urinating, or defecating on them)
    • Elimination (often on the owner’s bed)
    • Hiding
    • Excessive grooming
  • Trauma: Traumatic events can seriously disrupt a cat's mental state and lead to anxiety. Even if you adopted your cat and they seem fine, something can easily remind them of a past traumatic event that triggers anxiety. Cats who were abandoned are more prone to anxiety, but other traumatic life events can also contribute. This is why it’s so important to know your cat’s history if you adopt them from a shelter. Knowing if your cat was abandoned can help you have a better understanding of how to raise them and if they need extra care. Some life events might not seem like a big deal to you, but they are to your furry friend, so make sure to keep an eye on your cat if you go through any life changes. 
  • Changes in your cat’s environment: If you move homes and your cat suddenly takes on a new persona, that may be a result of anxiety. Changes in your cat’s environment can cause a lot of stress. These changes can include moving to a new home, having a new family member, or getting another pet or simple/small changes such as a new type of litter or a new litter box. 
  • Improper socialization: Although cats are not as social as dogs, that doesn’t mean they should be solitary. Cats deserve to be played with, too! Improper socialization, especially when they’re a kitten, can lead to anxiety as they get older. If you get a new cat, no matter how old they are, make sure you play with them and show them enough love. Get some toys, and your cat will appreciate it. 

How to Treat & Prevent Anxiety in Cats

So now that you know the symptoms of cat anxiety and what can cause it, let’s discuss cat anxiety treatment. Treatment will differ for every cat. What works for one cat might not for another, so it may take some time and trial and error before you find a method that works for you and your furry friend.

Cat anxiety treatment will often involve a combination of things, like optimizing their environment and giving them medication. It’s also important to address any underlying medical issues first, as that could be the reason for your cat’s anxiety.

Treating your anxious cat is so important for their overall health and wellbeing. Your cat is relying on you for help, and putting off treatment is just going to exacerbate the issue at hand. 

Graphic shows four treatment options for anxiety in cats

Here is how to help a cat with anxiety:

Counterconditioning

Counterconditioning basically entails teaching your cat to change their reaction to anxiety triggers. This involves the use of positive reinforcement, like with their favorite treats. Some anxiety triggers can include strangers, other animals, or sounds. 

The goal of counterconditioning is for your cat to react positively to their triggers instead of negatively. For example, if they come in contact with another animal, rather than having anxiety, they would associate the encounter with desirable feelings. This will help train your cat to be calmer in anxiety-inducing situations.

The first step in counterconditioning is actually identifying what triggers your cat’s anxiety. You then need to identify something specific that your cat enjoys, like a certain treat. This treat should only be given to them during the treatment process.

Desensitization

Desensitization is another effective treatment technique that involves exposing your cat to small doses of their specific fear at a low intensity. Similar to counterconditioning, desensitization requires repeated exposure to this fear, followed by rewards. 

Start by exposing them to their fear in very small doses and then work your way up. This will hopefully train your cat to not be afraid when they encounter their fear in real life.

Desensitization can be tricky, as exposing them to their fear could backfire and make the situation worse. That’s why it’s so important to start small. You don’t want to do anything that’s going to cause even more stress on your kitty — they're going through enough.

Both desensitization and counterconditioning should be done slowly. It can take a long time for your cat to change their reaction, so be patient. Doing this treatment once isn’t going to get rid of your cat’s anxiety entirely. You’ll likely need to do this treatment process several times over the course of a few weeks or even months.

Enrichment activities

Boredom can trigger anxiety in a cat, so if you feel like your cat has been acting out more than usual, it might just mean they need to be played with. Doing various enrichment activities with your cat can be a great way to reduce their boredom and stress. It exercises their brain while keeping them entertained.

There are various forms of enrichment activities you can engage in with your cat. You can simply play with them, incorporating various cat toys. Cats need about 30 minutes of playtime each day, so make sure you fit that into your schedule. Giving your cat new surfaces to climb on or scratch can also help with enrichment as they could be getting bored with their current environment. 

Graphic shows 5 enrichment ideas for cats

Medication

Medication can be an important part of the overall treatment plan to bring relief to your cat. Anti-anxiety medication can be a very effective treatment for your feline friend to help calm their anxious brain and allow them to be more susceptible to behavior changes. 

There are various different types of anti-anxiety medication for cats. Some work quickly, while others need a couple of weeks to kick in. Antidepressants, for example, take several weeks to work as they modify your cat's brain chemistry to reduce stress. Antidepressants are best for cats who have longer-lasting anxiety, while quicker-acting anxiety meds are ideal for cats whose anxiety is triggered by specific events. For example, if your cat’s anxiety is fearful of car rides or veterinary visits, you may want to give them quick-acting meds to quell their nerves for that day.

Before you can just go ahead and treat your cat’s anxiety with medication, you need to see a vet. A vet will have a better idea of the severity of your cat’s anxiety and if medication is the right course of treatment. 

If you’re looking for an easy and effective way to get your pet prescriptions sent directly to your door, check out Dutch.com. Dutch.com is an online telemedicine service for pets where pet owners can connect with licensed veterinarians without actually having to physically bring their pet to the vet. With Dutch, your cat will be assessed and prescribed the best treatment method for their needs, which may include anti-anxiety meds shipped right to your door.

Cat Anxiety: Frequently Asked Questions

Having a cat with anxiety is stressful and worrisome for the both of you. This is why it’s so important to figure out the proper course of treatment to ease your cat’s anxiety and help them live a better life. 

If you think your cat might have anxiety, your mind is probably flooded with tons of questions about their symptoms and how you can treat them. We’ve compiled a list of the most frequently asked questions about cat anxiety, so you can find an answer to all your worries:

How do you know if your cat has anxiety?

There are a few telltale signs that should indicate a cat has anxiety. These signs include pacing or restlessness, decreased appetite, excessive meowing, aggression, hiding, and more. If you see your cat start to exhibit one or more of these signs, they’re likely suffering from anxiety. 

Why is my cat so anxious all of the sudden?

Various circumstances could trigger anxiety in a cat out of the blue. Maybe you moved homes. Maybe your partner moved in with you. Or maybe someone in your house moved out. A change of environment could easily make your cat stressed and anxious. You might not think that these life changes have an impact on your cat, but they definitely do. 

Physical pain or illness could also make a cat anxious, so if you’ve gone through no life changes and your cat starts acting out, bring them to a vet as soon as possible.

What calms a cat down?

If you notice your cat is experiencing anxiety, there are a few things you can do to calm them down. Keep noises low around them as loud sounds could be making them stressed. You can also try playing soothing music to calm them down. Give them space and let them come to you when they’re ready to be touched. Use a soothing voice and remain calm yourself, as your cat can sense stress in humans.

How can I relax my cat for grooming?

One way you can relax your cat for grooming is with a sedative. There are various types of cat sedatives out there that your vet can discuss with you.

Final Notes: Easing Your Cat’s Anxiety

Anxiety is something that can affect people, dogs, and cats. But whether it’s an animal or a human, anxiety is frustrating and can be quite debilitating. Since your cat can’t go to the doctor and fix their anxiety themselves, it’s your responsibility to do it for them. Finding the proper treatment for your kitty is the only way they’ll be able to go on living a happy and healthy life.

Fortunately, there are various different courses of treatment for your feline friend, including giving them medication. Dutch.com is a great way to have your cat evaluated quickly and if advised, get the medication they need to feel at ease. With Dutch, you can virtually connect with licensed veterinarians who will determine the best treatment plan and if medication is right for your kitty. 

If they do decide it’s the right course of treatment, they’ll prescribe the necessary medication and you’ll get it delivered directly to your door within 7 days. Dutch eliminates the need to physically go to a vet’s office, which is more efficient for both pet owners and veterinarians. Check out Dutch so you can help your anxious kitty go back to their sweet and cuddly ways as quickly as possible.

Dr. Evans is the Clinical Director of Dutch and the owner of Coastal Animal Hospital.

References

  1. Domschke, Katharina, and Eduard Maron. “Genetic factors in anxiety disorders.” Modern trends in pharmacopsychiatry vol. 29 (2013): 24-46. doi:10.1159/000351932