Anxious cat holding on to owner’s arm

Key takeaway

Cat anxiety can be caused by separation anxiety, trauma, and physical health issues. Cat anxiety treatment is dependent on accurate diagnosis from a licensed veterinarian. Treatment options may include counter conditioning, desensitization, enrichment activities, and medication.

Ensuring your pet's mental well-being is a crucial step in pet keeping. This article will guide you through the different causes that can trigger anxiety and the various symptoms it can manifest. You'll also learn how to help a cat with anxiety and the different cat anxiety treatments available.

Domestic pets such as cats can suffer from anxiety, and it makes them prone to several medical problems. Anxiety is the body's natural response to stress. It is the anticipation of future danger or threat that elicits a fearful response and induces emotional distress. 

Symptoms of Anxiety in Cats

Anxiety can present in cats in various ways, either suddenly or after changes in their environment. Here are some symptoms you should observe for early cat anxiety1:

Symptoms of anxiety in cats

Decreased Activity Levels

An anxious cat avoids normal activities, doesn’t engage in playtime, and stays away from toys that it used to love.

Your furbaby may be lethargic most of the time and might show symptoms of hypervigilance and become highly fearful of surroundings.

Change in Mood

Cats are generally known to have different personalities but a slow or rapid mood change that does not return to normal over time can be concerning.

An anxious cat manifests physical symptoms, such as sideways or backward facing ears, widened eyes with dilated pupils, and an increased respiratory rate. You may also notice your cat standing still with an arched back and raised hair. Sometimes, your cat might run away, tuck paws underneath, and wrap its tail around the body.

Changes in Social Interactions

Stress can also cause your feline to become moody and avoid looking your way. Other noticeable changes in social interactions include hiding from pet parents and avoiding play with other animals.

Avoiding Their Litter Box

If your cat suddenly starts avoiding the litter box, rule out possible medical conditions and check the state of the litter. If your cat still hesitates to use its litter box and starts urinating and defecating in different spots around the house, your cat may be experiencing anxiety. This can also be a psychological or physical problem, so it’s best to take your cat to the vet.

Becoming Aggressive

Friendliness to sudden aggression is a sign of anxiety in cats. An anxious cat views its surroundings as a threat and constantly feels the need to protect itself. Symptoms of aggression can be recognized by pulled-back ears, constricted pupils, bared teeth, swatting, biting, and hissing. Your cat may even bite, scratch, hiss, or growl when afraid of its surroundings.

Excessive Meowing

Even though meowing cats are adorable, a cat that meows excessively can be concerning. Your cat may be anxious if there’s an increase in vocalization, especially at times when they normally don’t meow . This is your cat's way of getting your attention. 

Vomiting

Just like humans, anxiety can cause vomiting and diarrhea in cats. To determine if anxiety is the root cause, rule out possibilities of illness or poor diet. Anxiety-induced vomiting and diarrhea can also lead to loss of appetite.

Refusing to Eat

A sudden loss of appetite and avoidance of food and water can be an indicator of anxiety. Cats should never be kept hungry for more than 48 hours since it can lead to urgent medical problems. However, they shouldn’t be forced fed either since it can cause distress. Early screening will help your feline receive the proper cat anxiety treatment and prevent the worsening of symptoms.

Changes in Weight

There could be various reasons behind a cat's weight loss. One of the main reasons is anxiety. Since anxiety leads to withdrawal from feeding and induces digestive imbalance, these effects can cause your cat to lose weight and experience fatigue.

Compulsive Behaviors

Anxiety can develop compulsive disorder in cats. You might notice your cat showing compulsive behaviors such as exaggerated grooming that causes bald patches, sores, and lesions on the skin. Furthermore, your cat may exhibit excessive swallowing, nose licking, and pacing around the house.

Compulsive disorders can also take the form of destructive behaviors such as scratching furniture or repeatedly chewing on fabrics.

Causes of Anxiety in Cats

Now you might wonder about how to help a cat with anxiety? Before we jump to cat anxiety treatment and specific cat anxiety medications, let's look at the possible causes of feline anxiety:

Causes of anxiety in cats

Seperation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is thought to develop from genetic and environmental factors. It commonly occurs in female cats, orphaned cats, and lonely house cats that are left alone for longer periods. Certain breeds, including Siamese and Tonkinese cats, are more likely to develop anxiety.2 Separation anxiety can worsen when your cat's routine is disrupted by moving into a new house, change of ownership, or change in your routine as well. This gradually makes your cat dislike solitude and begins showing compulsive attachment. 

Physical health Issues

Physical health issues such as an acute or chronic illness, injury, infection, or toxic conditions can develop or exacerbate anxiety in cats. Age-related neurological changes, such as dementia and visual disturbances, can also increase anxiety in cats. Diseases such as hyperthyroidism and hyperesthesia syndrome can also lead to behavioral changes, including increased vocalization. Distress symptoms can also occur during episodes of gut disturbances as they make your cat's health vulnerable.

Trauma

Similar to humans, traumatic experiences can leave an impact on a cat's mental health. When trauma is triggered, it can develop into PTSD and cause anxiety. Symptoms of distress may be aggravated by repeated exposure to triggers. Commonly known triggers include physical and emotional abuse, loud noises like fireworks, and abandonment, etc. Traumatic experiences leave an imprint on a cat's long-term memory, and it doesn't heal easily.

Cat Anxiety Treatment: How to Help Your Anxious Cat

So far, we've looked at the causes of cat anxiety and the various symptoms it can present with. This part of the article will guide you on how to help a cat with anxiety: 

During the scheduled checkup, provide your vet with accurate observations you made regarding the changes in your cat's behavior. This will help the vet make a definite diagnosis and provide an appropriate cat anxiety treatment plan.

Counter Conditioning

Counter conditioning is a behavior modification technique that conditions an animal's unpleasant behavior towards a stimulus into a pleasant one. The technique pairs a negative experience with something pleasurable, like a treat or toy, in an effort to replace an unwanted attitude or emotional response such as anxiety with a calmer state. This process requires patience, and rushing it will worsen your cat's anxiety, so working with a veterinary behaviorist and certified trainer is essential. These types of professionals are knowledgeable and can ensure you don’t accidentally make your cat’s behavior worse. 

Desensitization

Desensitization is another behavior modification technique that works by gradually exposing your cat to their triggers until it no longer affects them. This may look like teaching your cat to feel comfortable alone by leaving them in a room for short periods and slowly increasing the amount of time that you’re away. You can also create sanctuary spaces for your pet to provide them with a place where they can feel safe. Like counter conditioning, desensitization should only be practiced under the guidance of a professional behaviorist. 

Cat playing with feather wand

Enrichment Activities

Creating a fun environment to distract your cat can help with mental stimulation and reduce anxiety.

Anxious cats prefer to hide, so adding a cat tree can help your cat feel comfortable in a safe place.

You can also provide your cat with toys that attract its attention and keep it occupied throughout the day.

Medication

Medication can be a great option for cats suffering from behavioral disorders, including separation anxiety. Depending on the potency and duration of action, cat anxiety medication is classified into 2 groups:

  1. Long-term medication: Given daily for a minimum of 2-3 months, and takes about 4-6 weeks for the full effect of long-term maintenance.
  2. Short-term medication: Given only in acute anxiety, takes less time for the full effect that lasts only a few hours. 

To make the entire process convenient, Dutch.com allows pet owners to contact licensed veterinarians and have prescriptions delivered directly to their door!

Some frequently prescribed cat anxiety medications include:

  • Diphenhydramine
  • Fluoxetine
  • Paroxetine
  • Sertraline
  • Clomipramine
  • Buspirone
  • Lorazepam
  • Oxazepam
  • Trazodone
  • Gabapentin

Common side effects of the medications mentioned above are sedation, lethargy, and vomiting.

Cat Anxiety: Frequently Asked Questions

Can Benadryl be Used For Anxiety in Cats?

Benadryl is an antihistamine used to treat allergies in cats. It also acts as an anti-nausea and mild sedative, so it could make cats less anxious while traveling.

Before giving any over-the-counter medications to your cat, check with your vet to confirm safety levels and correct dosage.

Can I Treat My Cat’s Anxiety Myself?

With the guidance and supervision of a trusted veterinarian, you can treat your cat's anxiety by yourself. Counter conditioning and desensitizing them and providing enrichment activities can help your cat towards recovery.

What Can You Give a Cat For Anxiety?

There are many treatment options available for cats with anxiety. Ultimately, the best treatment for your cat will depend on what your vet recommends. Schedule an appointment with your vet to determine an appropriate treatment plan for your cat. 

How Can I Tell If My Cat is Anxious?

If you notice sudden changes in your cat's behavior, such as hiding, aggression, excessive grooming, increased vocalization, decreased appetite, or avoiding litter boxes, your cat may be anxious.

Final Notes

Looking for further guidance with cat anxiety treatment? With Dutch, you don't have to worry about finding a reliable veterinarian for your cat's anxiety treatment. Discuss your cat's medical history with our affiliated veterinarians and get appropriate prescriptions delivered to you within 7 days!

References

  1. “Separation Anxiety.” Separation Anxiety | Indoor Pet Initiative, The Ohio State University, https://indoorpet.osu.edu/cats/problemsolving/separation-anxiety.

  2. Wilhelmy, Jacqueline, et al. “Behavioral Associations with Breed, Coat Type, and Eye Color in Single-Breed Cats.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Elsevier, 8 Apr. 2016, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1.