Behavioral problems

How Can You Tell if Your Cat Is Anxious?

María Besteiros
By María Besteiros, Expert veterinary assistant and canine/feline hairdresser.. June 6, 2024
How Can You Tell if Your Cat Is Anxious?

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Cats are animals that can be prone to anxiety. Since felines can be prey for numerous predators, they are very alert to their environment and are ready to flee at a moment's notice. While this is a normal and healthy response, some cats can have high levels of anxiety which cause problems in the domestic environment. If a cat is very anxious, they can respond to almost any stimulus, regardless of whether it poses any danger to them. This can be generalized, but some certain situations can make cats more anxious than usual, such as moving house, a new cat entering the home or even minor changes to their routine. Signs of anxiety in cats include panting, dilated pupils, urinating outside the litter box or changes to their diet.

At AnimalWised, we learn more by looking at how can you tell your cat is anxious? In addition to the symptoms of anxiety in cats, we look at what treatment options are available.

You may also be interested in: Why is My Dog Anxious All of a Sudden?
  1. What is anxiety in cats?
  2. Causes of anxiety in cats
  3. How can you tell if your cat is anxious?
  4. How to treat anxiety in cats
  5. How to calm a cat with anxiety
  6. Home remedies for anxiety in cats

What is anxiety in cats?

Cats experience moments of stress in their daily lives that allow them to adapt to various changes. In this way, stress is a healthy response to better ensure survival in their environment. The fear response is necessary to evade dangers such as predators or human activities which pose a threat. These are immediate responses. Their reaction should be appropriate to the stimuli and subside once they are safe.

Chronic stress evolves into what we know as anxiety, which we can define as an exaggerated fear response to a stimulus that the cat perceives as dangerous. This is especially the case when their perception is wrong and there is no imminent danger.

It must be kept in mind that anxiety does not only depend on external stimuli. The experiences that the cat has experienced throughout its life will also condition its way of reacting to the different elements it must face. In other words, not all cats have the necessary tools to adapt to changes. These cats develop clinical signs of anxiety in an attempt to relieve tension. There are different types of anxiety responses in cats, including:

  • Generalized: when the cat is permanently stressed without a specific identifiable cause.
  • Territorial: events such as moving can can mean the markings with which the cat has delimited its environment disappear and result in anxiety.
  • Interspecific: occurs when the cat loses the rituals and routines which provide security in the home. This can be a big change such as a move, but even minor changes such as moving the furniture can cause a cat some anxiety.
  • Intraspecific: in this case the problem occurs with other cats, not with people.
  • In closed places: refers to indoor cats that live in environments lacking sufficient stimuli.
  • Sickness: the cat does not understand the changes which are happening in their body and become stressed as a result.
How Can You Tell if Your Cat Is Anxious? - What is anxiety in cats?

Causes of anxiety in cats

Cats stand out for being very sensitive animals to the introduction of any change in their environment. There are multiple causes that can result in feline anxiety. Many are perceived easily, but others can go completely unnoticed for a prolonged time. This delays diagnosis and its subsequent treatment. It is advisable to observe carefully to know what factors can trigger anxiety attacks in cats. We highlight the following causes:

  • Poor environment: a cat needs to carry out the activities that are natural to their feline nature, such as climbing, hiding, scratching or guarding. A home without environmental stimulation for cats can be at the origin of anxiety.
  • Hygiene: an inadequate litter box that does not meet the cat's expectations means they will not use it. It may be due to defects in the litter box itself, such as being very small or dirty. Placing it in areas with heavy foot traffic or noise can also cause stress. If we ignore brushing or other hygiene needs, this can influence anxiety.
  • Feeding: insufficient number or poor placement of feeders or water in homes with more than one cat. There may be conflicts when it comes to accessing basic resources and these fights are a cause of anxiety.
  • Domestic changes: all types of changes in the home may cause anxiety in a sensitive cat. New members in the home, especially if they are feline, can be major causes of anxiety. Minor changes such as scratching post placement can also be a cause.
  • Improper care: even if we have the best of intentions, not understanding feline psychology, not respecting their nature, punishing them or providing insufficient interaction can lead to signs of anxiety in cats.
  • Organic pathologies: various diseases can cause symptoms in the cat which result in anxiety. The cat does not know what is happening to their body and a stress response is common. It is also true that cats with anxiety are more prone to health issues. This is for various reasons, such as hairballs from excessive licking to reduce stress or lowered immunity from the stress on their body.

Learn everything you need to know about hairballs in cats with our related guide.

How can you tell if your cat is anxious?

The clinical signs of anxiety can be physical and/or behavioral. The stress response in the cat will depend on the individual and their circumstances.

Physical signs of an anxious cat

  • Tachycardia (increased heart rate)
  • Tachypnea (rapid breathing)
  • Panting
  • Loose stools or diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Dilated pupils
  • Wide open eyes
  • Ears folded back
  • Hypersalivation
  • Continuous swallowing of saliva
  • Lip smacking
  • Tremors
  • Crouched when walking
  • Flicking their tail
  • High-pitched meows

Behavioral signs of an anxious cat

Clinical behavioral signs can both be behaviors that are intensified with anxiety or making them occur less frequently. The latter can be a sign of its passivity in the face of an environment that it considers a threat or in the face of a lack of stimuli:

  • Poor appetite
  • Overeating
  • Pica (eating non-food substances)
  • Increased self-grooming (causing hair loss and wounds)
  • Poor coat condition
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Marking with urine, feces and scratching
  • Aggressiveness.
  • Hyper alert state
  • Hyperesthesia syndrome (spasmodic contractions in the muscles of the back)
  • Chasing their tail
  • Lethargy

While we may assume an anxious cat is one which is on high alert and running around, anxiety can also cause them to shut down. They may sleep more, stop responding to calls or sit in the same place for prolonged periods. This is often in an attempt to have control over their environment, despite feeling very anxious.

Learn more with our article on why my cat is lethargic and won't move.

How Can You Tell if Your Cat Is Anxious? - How can you tell if your cat is anxious?

How to treat anxiety in cats

If you can tell your cat is anxious due to the above signs, you should consult a veterinarian. They will be able to assess the cat and provide a diagnosis. This is important for physical diseases leading to stress. Before starting the treatment of anxiety in cats, organic diseases must be ruled out. If we do not do so, the cat may be not receive treatment and their health can be seriously affected.

Once a physical cause of stress in cats is ruled out, we will need to address their emotional well-being. This will depend on the cause, something which is not always easy to do. For this reason, we should consult a feline ethologist. They will be able to assess the cat's individual circumstances and best determine the source of their anxiety. Even if this is not possible, they can provide a practical guide to reduce the cat's anxiety. This may include:

  • Environmental enrichment: incorporate interactive toys with hidden treats, vertical scratching posts, shelves to climb on and, in general, any element that allows the cat to develop their natural behaviors. We need to think of the home as a three-dimentional space which allows the cat to explore, rest and have their own quiet time when necessary.
  • Accessories: have appropriate feeders, water sources, litter boxes, beds, scratchers and anything else which will help the cat meet their needs. These need to be appropriate for the individual cat, but it is imperative we respect basic factors such as appropriate placement and having the right amount of litter boxes in the home. Learn more with our article on whether two cats can share the same litter box.
  • Attention and affection: cats are more social than we often give them credit. They need positive interactions with their guardians to develop a bond and feel secure in the home. Some cats need more attention and affection than others, so ensure you provide the right amount. This is largely dictated by the cat themselves.
  • Pheromones: appeasing synthetic pheromones in spray or diffuser can help to relax the cat and reduce anxiety.
  • Diet: provide foods that contain ingredients known for their anxiolytic properties, such as alpha-casozepins or tryptophan, or beneficial for the damage that the cat is inflicting on itself, such as fatty acids for skin disorders.

Medications for anxiety in cats

Some cats have such serious symptoms of anxiety that it is not enough to implement measures in their environment. To help them overcome this phase, a professional veterinarian may prescribe anxiolytic drugs to reduce their anxiety. Examples include benzodiazepines, tricyclic antidepressants or fluoxetine. These will need to be prescribed by the veterinarian and in no circumstances can you give human anxiety medication to a cat.

Even anxiety medication for cats can have side effects. They may only be used under the orders of the veterinarian. Only give as long as necessary and monitor any physical or behavioral changes in the cat. Providing the right medication for the cat may involved some trial and error.

How to calm a cat with anxiety

The advice provided above gives some ways to help a cat overcome chronic anxiety. However, it is also possible a cat will be anxious in the moment, something often precipitated by a specific change. For example, it is very normal for a cat to be anxious when they enter a new home. If you observe any of the signs that mean you can tell a cat is anxious, you should step back and let them adjust on their own.

Provide everything they need in a room, including a bed, litter box, toys, food and anything else. Let them get used to their new space before approaching them. Tentatively, you can start to approach and see if they want interaction. Do not force interaction and adjust to their demeanor.

Speak softly or not at all. Move slowly and avoid fast movements. Do not yell or scold the cat, but use positive reinforcement. This will help the cat to feel secure and you can start your bond.

Learn more about this process with our article asking how long does it take a cat to adjust to a new home?

How Can You Tell if Your Cat Is Anxious? - How to calm a cat with anxiety

Home remedies for anxiety in cats

As we have seen, the key to treating anxiety in our cat is that we ourselves implement at home the measures and management advice that the professional recommends. The home remedies we suggest are guidelines about how to approach an anxious cat. Only the veterinarian can prescribe treatments for medical conditions such as anxiety.

It is true that we can help calm the cat with some natural products, but just because they are natural does not mean that they are harmless. You should also ask the veterinarian before giving them anything to treat their anxiety. Examples are valerian or catnip, but you should consult a veterinarian before giving them to your cat.

Learn more with our article on natural scents to stop a cat spraying.

If you want to read similar articles to How Can You Tell if Your Cat Is Anxious?, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.

  • Baciero, Gemma. «Stress in the cat». Veterinary axon 21. pp. 20-26.
  • Carballés, Vanessa. How to recognize and treat anxiety in cats. Argos 122. pp. 60-64.
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How Can You Tell if Your Cat Is Anxious?