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Developed in collaboration with Katie Berlin, DVM, CVA | Veterinary Content Strategist | AAHA
Last reviewed: December 07, 2023
Cats can suffer from anxiety for many reasons, but with an understanding about why cats feel stressed, we can prevent or treat cat anxiety in many cases. Let's look at some symptoms and causes of anxiety in cats as well as ways to help reduce cat stress. With time, patience, and medication, if necessary, you can help your cat take life in stride and avoid the uncomfortable state of being anxious.
Anxiety is common in companion animals, and cats are sensitive. Knowing when your cat is nervous, stressed, or scared, or has a medical condition, requires observation on your part.
In some cases, a cat's body language is an obvious sign that they are feeling stressed. Hissing, clawing, arching of the back, and growling are instinctive defense mechanisms. You may see them when taking a car trip to the veterinarian or when another animal invades their territory.
But most signs of anxiety, including less obvious changes in body language, are subtle. Sometimes stressed cats freeze, sit in a tight ball with their tail curled around them or twitching slightly, or show other behavior changes that can indicate severe anxiety even without growling, hissing, or lashing out. You need to watch your cat closely to pick up on cues that your cat’s anxiety is triggered or that they have a serious medical problem.
Take note of your cat’s daily routine. If you notice changes in their activity, these changes may be a sign of anxiety. Look for behaviors like:
Signs of an Anxious Cat
Remember that these behavior changes are natural consequences of stress and anxiety in cats – they are not rebellious responses to situations cats are unhappy about. Cats should never be punished for any of these behaviors, as punishment will only lead to more fear and anxiety.
Pay attention to the physical signs of anxiety in your cat. These outward clues may include:
Stress can affect your cat's physical health. It is especially hard on your cat's immune system and can affect their ability to fight disease.
Most subtle signs of anxiety can also be symptoms of a medical condition, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the two.
If you think your cat may be suffering from frequent or chronic anxiety, make an appointment with your veterinarian. They can piece together the symptoms along with a physical exam and blood tests to properly diagnose your cat and suggest a treatment plan. If they feel your cat’s signs are due to frequent or ongoing anxiety, they may recommend behavior/environmental modification, medication, or a combination of both.
Just like in humans, it is not fully understood why some cats suffer from frequent or chronic anxiety and others do not. The most common reason for cat anxiety is a sudden change in their environment or routine. Events like adoption, the addition of a baby, a new cat or other pet or human to the household, a family moving to a new home, or anything else that disrupts what is familiar and comfortable to them can cause significant stress for your cat.
Other common triggers are:
In some cases, like moving to a new house or going to the vet, cat anxiety can be very normal and expected, just like it would be for us. But it’s still important to make sure steps are being taken to protect your cat from feeling uncomfortably stressed.
After you have visited your veterinarian and underlying medical conditions are ruled out, identify, and remove your cat’s triggers, if possible. For instance, if your cat is stressed out when neighborhood cats invade your yard, use deterrents to keep them away or block your cat’s view of that area of the yard.
Some triggers can’t be removed or avoided. In those cases, slowly introduce your cat to the new situation and make sure they have a safe space they know they can always go to get away. To introduce a baby or new pet, start with giving your cat the new pet’s blanket or a onesie the baby wore and allow them several days to get acquainted with the unfamiliar scent.
If moving to a new home, keep your cat in a smaller room and then gradually introduce them to other areas of the house over a course of days or weeks until they are familiar with their new surroundings.
Sometimes, cats feel anxious when bored and inactive. Exercise and mental stimulation are fun and calming for cats. Give them opportunities to distract themselves, spend time playing with them, and encourage them to use their instincts to keep themselves entertained.
Calming products like sprays and diffusers that release a natural cat pheromone sometimes help. Synthetic feline facial pheromones like Feliway® replicate the scent that cats use to mark their territory by rubbing their cheeks on objects like couches and corners. The scent creates a state of familiarity and security in the environment, which helps to calm some cats.
Sometimes training and other remedies aren’t enough to ease your cat’s anxiety. In those cases, your veterinarian may prescribe medications like gabapentin, amitriptyline, fluoxetine, or melatonin. These medications modify your cat’s brain chemistry to help them better cope with stressful situations.
Remember that cats don’t know if a stressful situation is serious or not, or if it will be threatening and scary forever – so they can’t moderate their anxiety on their own the way we can when we know what to expect. A cat may be just as anxious when you move the furniture around as it is when they go with you on a long car ride. This is why medications can sometimes be indicated even for temporary stressors, like trips to the vet or if you are having company over for dinner.
It’s extremely important not to give your cat any medications or supplements or change any doses without consulting your veterinarian first.
Anxiety in cats is common and often even expected, but it can be a threat to your cat’s health and wellbeing. Luckily, most anxiety in cats is manageable. Calming your pet’s fears takes time and patience – you may have to go through trial and error to find the best remedy for your anxious cat. If re-conditioning, exercise, or mental stimulation doesn’t work, if you’re preparing for a short-term event where anxiety is expected, or if your cat is too stressed to be able to relax enough to play or recover once their daily life has changed, medication may be the best course of action.
Your veterinarian may prescribe a customized, compounded medication to treat your pet’s anxiety. These medications are mixed by trained, licensed compounding pharmacists and often come in dosage forms designed to make giving or applying the medication easier and more accurate.
For more information, visit our medications for anxiety page for a complete list of compounded medications available.
Symptoms of anxiety in cats vary for each pet. The most common symptoms are:
Stress affects cats both emotionally and physically. Anxious cats can feel fearful, frustrated, or even depressed. Those feelings may lead your cat into unwanted behavior like not using the litter box, aggression, hiding, and destructive and compulsive behavior. Your cat may stop eating or vomit, resulting in poor nutrition which compromises their immune system.
Calming products like Feliway® that release a synthetic feline facial pheromone – the scent cats use to mark their territory – sometimes help. The scent creates a state of familiarity and security with the environment, which may help to calm them.
Cat behavior is complex and some of the cues may be subtle. Look for things like trembling or shaking, rapid breathing, avoiding eye contact, tail flicking, hair standing up, flattened ears against their head, or licking their nose frequently.
This article is meant to provide general and not medical advice. We strongly recommend that a veterinarian be consulted for the specific medical needs of your animal.
The Rescue Vets
Katie Berlin, DVM, CVA, is the Veterinary Content Strategist at AAHA. Previously, she was Veterinary Office of Marketing Services at Brief Media and an associate veterinarian in an AAHA-accredited, Fear Free®-certified private small-animal practice in York, Pennsylvania. Her primary clinical interests include pain management, internal medicine, and senior pet care, and she is passionate about veterinary team wellness, client communication, and hospital culture and branding. Previously, she had been an associate veterinarian at practices in Central Pennsylvania since 2009.
Through her podcast, The Vet Reset, she shares conversations with colleagues both in and outside of veterinary medicine who are finding their own paths to sustainability in their profession while prioritizing their mental and physical health.
She holds a BA degree in Art History from Williams College and a DVM degree from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
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