How You Can Help Your Anxious Cat Thrive

It doesn't take much for some cats to get stressed out, so learn what you can do to create a calming, safe environment for them.

Moving to a new place can trigger a cat’s anxiety. By: Matthew Bellemare

Mavis wasn’t doing too well at the new house. The move had triggered a number of anxieties for this sensitive cat.

Her housemates, Yvette and Toukhee, had had outdoor privileges at the old house, which had left Yvette with the lion’s share of their human’s attention. Here at the new place, however, the other 2 cats stayed inside, too. So now Mavis had to share Tracy, her new human, a lot more – also, Toukhee would bully Mavis at times and chase her off Tracy’s bed at night.

So Mavis did what most unhappy cats do: She stopped using the litter box. Fortunately, she had a patient human who was willing to work with her.

Anxiety Triggers

A lot of different scenarios can set off anxiety in a cat.

Moving is high on the list. The commotion, familiar furniture disappearing, getting swooped down upon and unceremoniously stuffed into a carrier — any of these things is enough to agitate a cat. Put them all together, and you’ve got the stuff of feline nightmares.

If at all possible, transfer your cats to your new home before the big day. Otherwise, you end up driving back to the old homestead in the dark and taking however long it takes to coax your pet out from under the porch, as my oldest brother did many years ago.

A move is an obvious change. But it’s important to remember that any kind of change can upset the feline equilibrium. Or, as Naomi Millburn puts it, “Cats and change go together about as well as peanut butter and spaghetti — that is to say, not well at all. Felines are very routine-oriented and because of this are very vulnerable to stress, anxiety and depression amid unfamiliarity.”

Give your anxious cat a safe space to hide when they need some quiet time. By: shira gal

Separation Anxiety

This can be a biggie for cats, and it, too, has lots of triggers:

  • You go away on vacation.
  • You’re getting home later from work.
  • Or you’re preoccupied and not making as much time for your cats as you normally do.

There was a lot of this particular anxiety at work in Mavis. Tracy, concerned about her cats getting stressed out and/or escaping, while the old house was being shown, had moved them to the new one before the final push. Naturally, she went back and forth daily to give them food and attention. Mavis, however, began to get more anxious because her human wasn’t around as much as usual.

Anxiety and Nerves

It’s true that you can’t “put a cat on a couch and say, ‘Tell me about your mother,’” as veterinary behaviorist E’Lise Christensen says. But you can use your powers of observation and make a few good guesses about the wherefore and why.

After years of working with cats, I’m inclined to believe that some are just more anxious than others. Maybe yours lived on the streets and foraged in a dumpster for food before they came to you. Maybe they were abused or ran with a feral cat colony.

The people at International Cat Care (ICC) argue that a cat is more likely to acquire “its nervousness through its genes, lack of early socialization with humans or both.” They do allow that “[i]f your cat progresses, even slowly, you are likely to be dealing with an animal which is overcoming a fear rather than one which has missed out on its socialization period as a kitten.”

Here are some things to look out for in a stressed cat: 

Tips for Working With Nervous Cats

With a new and nervous arrival, you may well want to give them “a feeling of invisibility, to allow it to move around the home without being the focus of attention. This sense of relaxed cohabitation involves no direct eye contact, verbal or physical communication unless the cat directly initiates it by its own behaviour,” as the ICC suggests.

But what about a cat who has been with you for a while? Then I think you have to tailor your behavior to the individual cat. Some cats may require medication (please consult your vet first) or calming collars. Others may need more environmental stimulation: cat trees and perches, interactive toys, fish tanks, and bird feeders outside the windows.

Or simply give them some quiet reassurance without overwhelming them. That’s what Tracy ended up doing with Mavis, who now “is much more approachable. She has found a place she likes in the closet for her day-naps, very quiet and secure. She’s been stealing less food and is very happy when I pet her.”

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