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Signs of Cat Anxiety and its Solutions

Veterinarians.org Team

By

Medically reviewed by

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Is your cat chattier than usual? Spending most of the time hidden and acting lethargic? Or perhaps more tenacious when it comes to self-grooming? If you answered yes to these questions, your feline friend is probably anxious.

Anxiety is a common issue among modern cats. Based on a survey conducted among veterinarians, around 20-25% of cat patients suffer from some form of anxiety.  

Anxiety signs in cats can be easily overlooked or misidentified. Therefore, in this article, we will give helpful tips on recognizing anxiety-triggered changes and behaviors. Then, we will talk about potential solutions.   

Signs of Cat Anxiety

Anxiety is a complex state and consequently it triggers a complex clinical manifestation. To be more precise, anxiety causes both physical reactions and behavioral changes.

Anxiety-Related Physical Changes

From panting and lip licking to dilated pupils and staring – there is a wide specter of physical changes associated with cat anxiety. For easier understanding, we will classify the physical changes in three distinct categories, based on severity.

Mild Signs of Cat Anxiety

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Frequent lip licking
  • Holding the tail close to the body
  • Slight flicking with the tail
  • Shifting the body
  • Partially dilated pupils 

Moderate Signs of Cat Anxiety

  • Moderately dilated pupils
  • Ears set aside
  • Holding the tail against the body
  • Crouching or leaning away
  • Increased respiratory rate 

Severe Signs of Cat Anxiety

  • Fully dilated pupils
  • Holding the ears back
  • Erected hair
  • Escapism efforts of freezing
  • Starring
  • Aggressive outbursts

Anxiety-Related Behavioral Changes

The physical signs are accompanied by behavioral changes like hiding, grooming, vocalization, etc. Let’s have a quick look at the most common behavioral signs of cat anxiety. 

Kitty Hides

Some cats are naturally less social than others. However, if an otherwise center-of-attention type of cat starts hiding and spends most of the time under the sofa, the probable culprit is anxiety. 

Hiding is actually a logical response to fear and anxiety. Luckily, stress-hiding is a relatively short-termed issue and tends to go away as soon as the cat starts feeling less anxious.   

Kitty is Noisy

Meowing is the primary means of communication between cats and sometimes between the cat and the owner. Cats tend to meow at the owners when they want to get their undivided attention and say something.

Increased meowing is a common sign of anxiety. However, stress-meowing is characteristic and according to iHeart Cats it sounds “very troubled, something like a distress call.”

Kitty is Unusually Aggressive

A happy and relaxed cat will not strike unless provoked. However, a kitty in distress is likely to act out and express its discontentment in an aggressive manner. 

The aggressive outbursts can be directed to other household cats or pets and sometimes to the owners. Anxiety-triggered aggressiveness is in fact a compensation method and stems from the inability to cope with the stressor. 

Kitty is Over Grooming

Cats are fastidious when it comes to hygiene maintenance and grooming. To be more precise, studies show that cats “typically spend between 30 and 50 percent of their day grooming themselves.” 

However, the behavior is probably linked with stress when a cat grooms itself excessively to the point of losing hair and inflicting licking-triggered sores. 

Kitty Won’t Leave Your Side 

Having a cat that follows you everywhere can be an endearing experience. Anyway, the truth behind this behavior is rarely benign. Namely, if your cat seems glued to you, chances are it has separation anxiety.

Defined as “dislike of solitude,” separation anxiety is extremely frequent among cats. Interestingly, studies suggest that certain cat breeds are more likely to develop separation anxiety. 

Kitty Avoids the Litter Box

There are three alternatives when an otherwise house-trained cat starts avoiding the litter boxes and does its business outside.

One – there is something wrong with the litter (new litter type, poor hygiene, changed location), and the cat is protesting. Two – the cat has a urinary issue. And three – the cat is stressed and anxious. 

Kitty is Restless 

Studies show that adult cats sleep an average of 15 hours per day while kittens up to 20 hours. When a pet that generally spends so much time napping becomes restless, the behavior change is easy to spot.

A stressed and restless cat will constantly pace, frequently change its position, or simply be unable to find a comfortable sleeping spot.  

Kitty Refuses to Eat or Overeats

Like people, some cats deal with stress by refusing to eat, and others by overeating. Sudden and unexplained changes in the cat’s appetite are often attributed to stress and anxiety.

However, appetite fluctuations are common consequences of a plethora of medical issues. Therefore, before blaming the always full or always empty food bowl on stress, you need to ensure there are no underlying ailments. 

Kitty Vomits and has Diarrhea 

According to new research, “even healthy cats act sick when their routine is disrupted”. Digestive upsets in cats – vomiting and diarrhea often stem from stress.

Some studies suggest that there is a connection between microbial alterations in the gut and the incidence of diarrhea. 

Diagnosing Cat Anxiety

There is no specific test for determining anxiety in cats. Therefore, when presented with a potentially anxious cat, instead of diagnosing anxiety, the vet will have to rule out all other potential causes.

To do this, the vet will perform a thorough and complete physical examination, including some more specific tests like blood work, urine tests, radiographs, and ultrasounds.

Then the vet will ask a bunch of questions regarding recent changes in the cat’s environment, diet, and habits. The vet will also require a more detailed description of the signs – when they present, how long they last, and whether there is something specific about them.

Once again, this is not to diagnose anxiety but rule out medical issues. Differentiating between underlying medical ailments and anxiety is critical since many signs and symptoms can be overlapping.

Some of the most common anxiety signs include excessive grooming, frequent meowing or increased vocalization, and peeing outside the litter box. However, they can also be related to medical issues.

For example, excessive grooming can be a sign of food allergy or atopic dermatitis. Frequent meowing and increased vocalization can develop due to thyroid dysfunctions. And peeing outside the box can stem from urinary tract infections or the inability to enter the box because of arthritis.

Once the vet concludes there are no physical problems, it is safe to attribute the cat’s signs and symptoms to anxiety. Then, based on the severity of the situation, the vet may recommend consulting a feline behaviorist. 

What to do When Your Cat is Anxious 

When your cat is going through an anxiety episode, you can either keep her focused on something else or pull a “magic trick” and offer a calming cat chew.

More precisely speaking, in addition to calming supplements, the modern market offers various anxiety management products like thundershirts and pheromone collars or diffusers.

However, recently the popularity of calming cat chews is on the rise. Our Honest Paws Calm Cat Soft Chews are a high-quality product made of carefully selected, all-natural components like chamomile flower powder, passion flower, full-spectrum CBD oil, and silvervine.

The ingredients are sourced globally and manufactured in the US. The Honest Paws Calm Cat Soft Chews are non-GMO, soy-free, and salmon-flavored. They help maintain calmness, manage behavioral problems, and promote normal brain activity. 

Cat Anxiety Treatment Options 

In the long run, you should consider behavior modification as a treatment option. The goal of behavior modification is to change your cat’s perception of the stress trigger. Behavior modification is an effort and time-consuming but rewarding process. 

There are two behavior modification methods – desensitization and counterconditioning. Both approaches rely on the ability to understand your cat’s body language and recognize the early signs of stress. 

Desensitization 

The desensitization approach includes repeated but controlled low-level exposure to the stressor. For example, if your cat is afraid of specific noise, you can play the noise several times but in low volume. 

As your cat gets used to the sound, you can slowly increase the volume. Before increasing the volume, you need to make sure your cat is 100% comfortable with the current level of exposure. 

Counterconditioning 

Counterconditioning focuses on transforming the stressor response from negative to positive. Depending on the circumstances, this can be easier said than done and requires patience and consistency.

For example, if your cat feels anxious when you have guests over, you should offer her favorite treats every time a guest visits. Over time, this will change the cat’s response to seeing unfamiliar people from feeling scared and threatened to feeling happy and eager to enjoy her favorite treats.  

Our Final Thoughts

As with most pets, cats can be unique in the way they express stress and anxiety. Therefore, being a responsible cat parent is not an easy task.

Cats tend to put on the big game but are, in fact, stress magnets. If you suspect your feline friend is anxious or simply acting unusually, do not wait for things to worsen. Call your vet and schedule an appointment.

Erring on the side of caution and making an unnecessary trip to the vet’s office is much better than letting your cat’s anxiety go unmanaged.