How to recognise and manage anxiety in cats

Anxiety isn’t just a human problem, it can be a challenge for cats too. They may look like they live the perfect life, sitting around being fed and watered all day with no responsibilities, but they are sensitive animals.

If you suspect you have a cat with anxiety, we’re going to share some of the signs and what to do about the situation.

By the end, you and your feline companion should have all the information you need to begin making positive changes to your lives!

What is cat anxiety?

Cats are very sensitive creatures. They are heavily influenced by their environment and the people and pets around them. Anything they aren’t comfortable with or don’t like very much can make them anxious.

Cats can be both predator and prey. As a small animal, the instinct to be on their guard and be ready to run at any minute is incredibly strong.

In a stable cat in a stable environment, this will rarely show itself.

Cats that experience a traumatic event or live somewhere that’s constantly changing or unstable can trigger flight mode, which can make them anxious.

We may not want to think about our cats struggling, but for some it’s a reality  and it’s our job to recognise it and do something about it.

How to recognise anxiety in cats

You may see your cat jump up for no obvious reason and tear around the house, but that’s normal. That’s their ‘mad 5 minutes’ and is nothing to worry about.

Anxiety in cats is different and has specific symptoms:

  • Ears back, teeth bared or restless tail
  • Excessive grooming that seems very repetitive
  • Urinating in the house and not their usual toilet spot
  • More aggression or being more vicious in play than usual
  • Hiding away frequently
  • Trembling and flinching when you approach
  • Lack of appetite or unwillingness to eat (even treats)
  • More vocal than usual
  • Hair loss or bald patches through excess grooming or stress

Many of these symptoms could be caused by things other than anxiety. It’s important to watch your cat carefully and compare previous behaviours to know for sure.

If your little friend begins acting strangely, monitor it for a while.

If it’s a one off or quickly passes, it’s likely nothing to worry about. If the new behaviour remains, it’s time to look a little deeper.

Causes of anxiety in cats

As we mentioned earlier, despite looking chilled 99% of the time, cats are very sensitive creatures. They like routine, they like familiarity and they dislike change.

There are a number of specific triggers for anxiety in cats, including:

Changes in routine or environment – Changes such as moving house, building work, getting a new job with different hours, new arrivals such as children or family members, new pets, significant changes to furniture or room layout or new cats next door or close by.

Traumatic event – A traumatic event to you, a family member, a fight with another animal, being hit by traffic, significant illness or an operation. Trauma from a cat’s past can also cause anxiety, which is more common in adopted cats.

Lack of training and socialisation – A cat will never be as trainable as a dog but can be taught right and wrong, what’s acceptable and what isn’t. They can learn this from you, from their parents and from other pets. Any lack of social skills can leave them feeling insecure when they don’t know how to handle a situation.

Then there’s separation anxiety. That’s technically a different type of anxiety but can manifest in very similar ways.

Adopted cats can suffer from this after being rehomed multiple times. Any cat can get separation anxiety.

You would too if you thought nobody wanted you!

For example, after the pandemic when people had to return to the office and stop working from home, separation anxiety became a significant problem for animals.

Cats love being around people and many found being left on their own after so long very hard to get used to.

How to deal with a cat with anxiety

You can take several practical steps to help your friend cope with anxiety. Sometimes, simply recognising the issue and doing something about it can be enough to relax your cat.

Steps include:

Identify the cause of anxiety in your cat – Have there been any big changes lately? Any new family members? New pets? Any big changes in the house or garden? Changes in diet? New cats in the neighbourhood? Take a long hard look at your cat’s life and see if anything has changed or could be impacting their wellbeing.

Address the cause if possible – If you identify something you can change, do it and monitor to see the reaction. If your cat calms, you may have addressed their anxiety. If it remains, look at other factors. Not all causes can be changed and it may just be a case of letting your cat adapt to the new reality.

Give more time to your cat– Spending a little more quality time with your cat can make a huge difference to their state of mind. Play more, cuddle more, talk more and spend more time together. Even if you’re not directly fixing the cause of the anxiety, you are providing respite and reassurance.

Keep a strict routine – Animals love routine, so things like the time you get up, the time you go to bed, mealtimes and the other elements of a typical day should be kept the same. Use an automatic pet feeder, the TV and other small tweaks to keep the cat’s routine the same even if yours changes.

Provide toys and playthings – Cats love to play and we love to watch them play. It’s a way to relax and burn off energy and, in an anxious cat, burn off nervous energy. It won’t fix cat anxiety on its own but it can help your friend cope while you address the root cause.

Leave the TV or radio on – Some cats suffering from separation anxiety don’t like the silence. Leaving the TV or radio on can help with that. It may also offer a signal that you’re coming back soon which, even if you aren’t, can be enough to alleviate the symptoms. Plus, your cat may just like music (if you have good taste that is)!

Visit your vet – If you cannot identify the cause or you cannot address cat anxiety, don’t ignore it. Visit your vet and discuss it with them. While we may know our friends best, sometimes it takes training and experience to identify things we can’t..

Next steps

The only true constant is change. It’s just a shame  our cats don’t realise this!

Nobody wants their pet to be anxious and not their fun-filled self. But it’s nothing to get anxious about yourself.

Consider it a process where you have to identify the cause and do something about it.

Dedicate the time and effort into that and adapt your cat’s life where appropriate and you should have your old cat back in no time!