Does your cat seem nervous? Does she hide to the side of a room, or jump when they see you? Maybe she disappears when friends come over, or maybe you just don’t see her for hours at a time? Cats are famously secluded and individual creatures, so this behavior might seem entirely normal, but being a frightened kitty cat is not the same as being a solitary feline. Cats can suffer from anxiety and this is often shown through scared and nervous behaviors, so what can you do if you have a sweet, little scaredy cat?
Anxiety in Cats
Before you know what to do with your fearful feline, it is useful to know the symptoms of anxiety in cats. Some cats exhibit obvious physical, medical issues and may be genuinely ill when they are anxious, while others only exhibit symptoms in their behavior. If any of these descriptions sound like your cat, it is worth investigating if they are suffering from anxiety:
- Being physically ill and throwing up
- Shaking and trembling
- Having bladder inflammations, peeing outside the litter box, and other unexplained changes in toilet habits
- Similarly unexplained changes in eating habits as either an increase or a decrease could be a coping mechanism designed due to a need to soothe themselves
- Changes in sleeping habits or energy levels, such as pacing, being unable to sit still, or losing interest in activities they used to enjoy.
- Scratching themselves frequently or incessantly
- Excessive grooming, particularly if they are beginning to lose hair, as grooming has a calming affect which your cat may be becoming reliant on
- Unexplained, unexpected or frequent aggression
- Running or hiding often, even for only mildly surprising events or for no discernible reason
- Excessive or distressed purring and meowing, following you from room to room, or otherwise seeming desperate for your attention or protection
- Being a frequent victim of other cats or coming home with unexplained wounds as their fearfulness can both cause them to pick fights and encourage tougher cats to pick on them
- Other ‘bad’ behaviour
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You might think your cat is just a naughty kitten, but the truth is they may be suffering from extreme fight or flight responses due to anxiety. Scientists have proven that a common fear response in many mammals is for the brain to shut down.
This means that when your cat gets scared they genuinely can’t process the situation other than to lash out or hide. So if your cat has ever attacked you or your property when you are simply minding your own business, or if they’ve been found cowering in a small nook in your home, ask yourself, ‘Is my cat suffering from anxiety?’
It is advisable to ask your vet for their input, as many of these symptoms could also be other medical concerns that you should first test for. Once medical concerns, such as kidney or liver problems, are ruled out, there are plenty of things you can do to help your feline friend. Here are five tips to sooth your cat’s anxiety and turn them into the confident kitty they deserve to be!
Making Your Cat Confident
So what do you do if your cat is terrified? What can you do to make them happier and more comfortable at home? Here are five of our best and most useful tips if you want to boost your cat’s confidence around the home.
As you might have guessed, you need to make your home a peaceful and quiet place for your cat. It is a bad idea to socialise with friends in the same room that your cat sleeps. After all, would you feel comfortable if a group of strangers came into your bedroom and started making a lot of noise?
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This might mean your home can’t be the social center it used to be for you and your friends, but if you have enough space, you can try to create an isolated area far away from your social rooms for your cat to call their own. Put their bed, favorite toys and other comforts in an isolated room upstairs and keep the door open so that they can retreat to whenever they need to.
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Invest in perches both for their safe space, and in the social rooms. Cats feel much more comfortable when they are looking at things from above as it gives them more control and power. You should also focus on escape routes from any room. Maybe set up perches that also allow for a human-free walkway to the door. This way, your cat never feels trapped and always has a route to escape when they need to.
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First of all, you need to know what not to do. Going up to an anxious pet to stroke them might be one of the worst things you can do. Fight that urge to approach your pet when they are anxious as they will probably just lash out in panic. Instead, if your cat is hiding, sit calmly in the room doing something quiet, like reading, and wait for them to come to you. The most you should do is talk to them in a happy and reassuring voice. Let their curiosity guide and calm them; when they are ready, they will come to say hi.
Once they have come to you, you can try petting them. Be gentle and calm, you don’t want to frighten them all over again. If this is a success, you might want to try playing with them to take their mind off their anxieties. Make sure you are only rewarding positive behavior. You don’t want to play with them while they are behaving anxiously and unintentionally reinforce the anxious behavior.
Controlled socialization is also essential for kittens to teach them to be less anxious. Have friends with cats come over, but don’t overstimulate them. Start with one friend, then a friend with a cat, then a few more friends, and you might even want to try a couple of cats if getting your cat used to other cats is important to you. Take these social sessions slow. Let her observe you all from a perch while you ignore her, and then when she feels less threatened, she will come to investigate.
Lastly, routine and consistency are key for anxious kitties. Play with them often and keep to a strict schedule. This doesn’t just mean you should feed them at the same time every day, but you should also consider how your routine affects your cat. Try to leave for work, watch TV and have your own dinner at a similar time every day. Your cat watches you more than your probably realize, so make life as reassuring as possible for them.
For many cats, anxiety starts after you introduce another cat or kitten to your household. Early socialization is useful to prevent this kind of anxiety, but what else should you do to make this transition as easy as possible?
Either cat may succeed in intimidating the other, so the best thing you can do is ensure they both have their own space and their own resources. Time should allow them to become used to one another, and maybe even friends, but if they are forced to share a litter tray, sleeping area, or food at an early stage, you might foster animosity, bullying, and anxiety.
The safest thing to do is keep their territories in the home very separate. If you have the space, have their beds in different bedrooms, put their bowls on separate sides of the kitchen, and place a number of litter trays all around the home. Even if you don’t have that much space, you need to make sure they aren’t expected to share anything and that their respected resources are not side-by-side to avoid confusion or intimidation.
Using Pet Pheromones
You might think that pheromones could increase aggression as cats often use them to mark their territory or dominance. But some pheromones exist to comfort, such as those from a mother to her kitten. The leading cat pheromone provider uses a facial pheromone which cats secrete when they mark a location as safe by rubbing their cheeks on a surface.
A number of studies have found pheromones to have some real success in reducing anxiety symptoms, such as scratching and spraying urine. However, it should be noted that pheromones often only manage the symptom, not the cause, and so often has only up to a 90% success rate. You aren’t changing your cat’s reactions and behaviors, just reducing the likelihood that they will feel that way.
Pet pheromones are best used alongside behavior modification. They can be an affective short-term solution while you work at encouraging your cat’s confidence. They are a good alternative to medication as there are currently no reports of side effects, don’t impact other species and can also benefit your other cats.
You can train your cat out of their anxiety if they have a specific stimuli that negatively affects them. This essentially involves replacing a negative behavior with a positive one. For example, if your cat dislikes loud noises, you can try to replace their anxious behaviors with sitting calmly.
The first step towards doing this is to train your cat with a positive behavior. This involves you rewarding your cat when they achieve the behavior. For example, if you want them to learn to sit and stay on command, reward them when they sit calmly, then when they sit and stay for several seconds, and finally introduce a command word and reward them when they sit and stay on command. Rewards usually involve a treat and lots of praise.
Once this has been successfully achieved, you can introduce the negative stimuli. It is very important that you command them to exhibit the positive behavior and reward them for that behavior, before they have the chance to exhibit their anxious behaviors. Reward this and repeat, but be very careful not to reward and reinforce anxious behavior.
Taking your pet to the vet is always a good thing, especially if you are unsure. If your vet suggests a prescription solution, however, you should be aware that drugs aren’t usually an easy, fix-all solution for anxiety. Try using their suggested prescription in conjunction with environmental changes and training to make your kitty a cool, confident cat. You might even want to wait to see if you can help your cat without drugs first. Your vet may prescribe your cat:
As discussed above, pet pheromones are also a viable option for calming your cat. Thus far, there have been no reports of side effects, which can make pheromones a better option for some owners and cats.
For most cats, anxiety medication is not meant to be permanent. If your cat is suffering from extreme fear and anxiety, and might be a danger to themselves and others, you must provide a completely stress free environment for them while their medication takes full effect. As this can take weeks, some cats may need to be hospitalized during this time.