Anxiety in Cats: How You Can Help Your Anxious Cat Thrive

Does your cat totally freak out when you leave or return? It might be separation anxiety. Here’s what you should know.

Lonely cat is not amused. By: lindsayloveshermac
Lonely cat is not amused. By: lindsayloveshermac

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 in Cats

Separation anxiety is something that we associate with dogs, not with cats. Dogs are pack animals and need that “pack,” be it human or canine, with them. Alone, they howl, whine, urinate and/or soil and chew chair legs. Nobody’s happy.

Cats — so runs the conventional wisdom — are loners. They’re more attached to places than to people. They subscribe to “cupboard love.” In other words, your cat doesn’t care if you’re around so long as his food bowl is filled.

As usual, conventional wisdom has the wrong end of the catnip mouse.

Not all cats fit the loner profile. Some are, as veterinarian Dr. Arnold Plotnick observes, “truly social creatures, and they developed strong bonds with people and other animals. When these bonds get disrupted in any way, cats may exhibit signs of separation anxiety.”

These signs can range from clinginess and poor appetite to over-grooming and outside-the-litter-box behavior. And — brace yourself — “outside the box” frequently means your bed.

Separation anxiety in cats can have 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 is one big difference between the feline and canine varieties of separation anxiety, says Dr. Amy Marder of the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.

“Cats demonstrate separation anxiety primarily when their owners are away for a few days,” she says. “Unlike dogs, they hardly ever show signs when their owners are gone a regular workday.”

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: 

YouTube player

Helping to Relieve Separation Anxiety in a Cat

You may never know the exact cause of your cat’s anxiety. But there are things you can do to alleviate it:

  1. Behavior modification. You can alter your routine and your behavior a bit. Don’t fuss over your cat. In fact, Drs. Foster and Smith advises ignoring her for 15 minutes before leaving and doing the same when you come home. They also suggest “leaving a distracting toy. Other toys the cat especially likes should be taken out just before the owner leaves, and put away once the owner returns.”
  2. The right stuff. Comfortable perches and cat trees/towers with toys attached to them, window-side bird feeders, cat videos…all these things will help keep your feline stimulated while you’re away. Or you can simply keep the radio or television on low for them.
  3. Anti-anxiety medication. Cats with severe separation anxiety may require medication. Skullcap and valerian tablets are a more natural alternative for treating anxiety. With all of these treatments, consult your vet first.
  4. The buddy system. Some cats really do better with a pal. Having somebody their own size around to play and nap with keeps them from pining for their humans.
Moving to a new place can trigger a cat’s anxiety. By: Matthew Bellemare

More 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.”