Owner helping cat having panic attack

Key takeaway

Panic attacks and anxiety in cats can occur as a result of illness or disease, psychological triggers, and pain. Recognizing symptoms of cat panic attacks and using medication, therapy, and training to treat them is the best course of action for cat owners.

If your cat has been behaving strangely, you’re probably having trouble figuring out what’s going on. Is your cat sick? Can cats have panic attacks? Should you visit a vet?

Just like humans, cats can experience anxiety that results in a variety of physical symptoms. Sometimes these cat panic attacks are caused by physical pain or an illness your cat may be experiencing, but anxiety may also result from psychological problems.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to recognize the symptoms of a cat panic attack, which can make them difficult to treat. Keep reading to learn more about cat panic attacks, including cat panic attack symptoms, how to recognize them, and how to treat them.

How Does Anxiety Present In Cats?

Recognizing cat anxiety symptoms is one of the most difficult parts of treating cat panic attacks. While there isn’t a veterinary medical term for panic attacks in cats, severe anxiety may cause cats to exhibit behaviors similar to humans who are experiencing a panic attack. Some of these behaviors and symptoms include changes in mood and activity level, loss of appetite, and vomiting. We’ll go into detail about these symptoms and what to watch out for below.

Symptoms Of Cat Panic Attacks & Anxiety

Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the cat anxiety and panic attack symptoms you should keep an eye out for:

  • Significant change in activity level: Has your cat been less energetic than usual lately? A significant change in activity level is a sign that your cat may be dealing with a medical or psychological medical problem.
  • Significant change in mood: Cats suffering from anxiety may also have a sudden change in mood, such as decreased sociability, isolating, and new or worsened aggression. While a sudden change in mood may also indicate an illness or another physical problem, it can also be a sign of anxiety.
  • Avoiding their litter box: Cats who are trained to use a litter box will typically use that litter box unless it’s dirty or something else is wrong. If your cat is avoiding the litter box, that could be an indicator of anxiety.
  • Becoming aggressive: Increased or new aggression can also be an indicator of cat anxiety and other health issues. 
  • Excessive meowing: Cats may meow to get your attention, because they’re hungry, or for numerous other reasons. Excessive or new meowing, however, may be a sign of distress. If your cat is meowing more than usual, it may be experiencing anxiety.
Excessive or new meowing can be a sign of distress in cats
  • Vomiting: While vomiting in cats is typically a sign of an illness, it can also be an indicator that your cat is experiencing a panic attack.
  • Refusing to eat: A loss of appetite in cats may be due to an illness or pain, but it could also be a result of anxiety. This issue can become dangerous very quickly for a cat so don't wait. If the cat isn't eating for even a day, time to go in.
  • Changes in weight: Weight loss is a common result of a loss of appetite or vomiting in cats. If your cat has been losing weight, you should take them to a veterinarian to make sure they don’t have a serious illness.
  • Compulsive behaviors (link to aggressive grooming post when live): Grooming is normal, but compulsive behaviors such as aggressive grooming may be a sign of feline anxiety or a skin condition that makes your cat itchy.

If your cat is experiencing any of the above symptoms, visit your veterinarian for a consultation.

Causes Of Anxiety In Cats

Understanding what causes anxiety in cats can help you differentiate between illnesses and cat skin conditions and cat anxiety. Here are some factors that may contribute to anxiety in cats:

  • Change in environment: Sudden changes in environments can be a big problem for cats. Some of the changes cats may have difficulty dealing with include: moving to a new home, adding another human or pet to the household, new furniture, visitors to the home, changes to your schedule (like starting to work from home or going back to work in an office), or even taking a trip and spending time away

If you’re going to make a serious change that could affect your cat, there are steps you can take to prepare them. The idea is to take these changes slow and start small, keeping an eye on your cat throughout the process to make sure they’re adjusting.

  • Systemic health problems: When your cat has an illness or disease, it may experience behavioral changes in addition to physical symptoms. Pain, skin conditions, and other medical issues may lead to anxiety in cats. Timely treatment of medical issues is an important part of preventing panic attacks in cats, so it’s smart to visit a vet if your cat is exhibiting symptoms of a health problem.
  • Trauma: Just like humans, cats can experience traumatic events that may lead to anxiety. This is particularly common in rescue cats since they often come from worse homes or the outdoors. You can help relieve some of this trauma by creating a safe, calm environment for your cat.
  • Separation anxiety: Cats who are overly attached to their owners may experience separation anxiety when apart. There are steps you can take to treat separation anxiety, but it may lead to panic attacks if left untreated. However, it’s important to be able to leave your cat alone without it experiencing anxiety.
  • Socialization problems: Your cat may have socialization problems if they weren't socialized with humans and other animals during the socialization period, which lasts from 3-7 weeks of age. It’s best to socialize your cat at a young age; the door doesn't slam shut at 7 weeks, and they should continue to have positive experiences with the same and other species through the end of social maturity (around 1 year).
The socialization period for cats occurs from 3 to 7 weeks of age
  • Genetics

Treatment for Panic Attacks in Cats

While your cat may experience moments of intense anxiety only occasionally, regular treatment may be required:

Graphic shows three methods of treating panic attacks

  • Behavior modification
    • Counter-conditioning
    • Desensitization
  • Environmental management
    • Enrichment activities
  • Medication

Your veterinarian can help you determine which of these (or a combination of all three) should be used to help your cat overcome panic attacks and anxiety.

Anxious cat sitting in owner’s lap in car

Cat Panic Attacks: Frequently Asked Questions

What do I do if my cat is having a panic attack?

If your cat is having a panic attack, it’s important to take things slow and leave your cat alone unless they seek you out for comfort. You can start by slowly getting low to the ground, then calling your cat over. If it comes, pet it slowly while keeping an eye out to see how your cat reacts to what’s happening around it. Watching your cat’s reactions can help you eliminate the causes of anxiety.

What happens when a cat has an anxiety attack?

When a cat has a panic attack, its eyes will typically widen and its behavior will change. Your cat may be hesitant to come to you and may respond quickly and sharply to stimuli. These panic attacks may develop life threatening conditions like hepatic lipidosis.

Cat clawing at owner’s leg while meowing

What causes sudden anxiety in cats?

So, why do cats have panic attacks? Sudden anxiety in cats may be caused by several factors, including illnesses, pain, trauma and psychological problems, changes in environment, separation anxiety and more. Understanding what’s causing your cat’s anxiety is key to deciding on the right treatment option.

Final Notes

Cats may experience panic attacks as a result of an illness, a sudden change in environment, or several other causes.

Fortunately, there are ways to get help if your cat is experiencing anxiety or a cat panic attack. Dutch can connect pet owners with licensed veterinarians, so you can get your cat the treatment it needs from the comfort of your home. These licensed vets can even prescribe treatment for your pets and deliver medicine to your door in as little as 7 days. With Dutch, getting veterinary care for your pets has never been easier.

References

  1. Treatment of Behavior Problems in Cats, Merck Veterinary Manual, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/behavior-of-cats/treatment-of-behavior-problems-in-cats

  2. Behavioral awareness in the feline consultation: Understanding physical and emotional health

    Debra F Horwitz, Ilona Rodan, April 30, 2018, Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, https://journals.sagepub.com/eprint/tQt3ueaFug2WEPpwqppX/full