How to Understand and Naturally Help Your Scared-y Cat
October 2, 2019
Understanding Anxiety in Cats
In the human world, people are realizing the impact anxiety has on their day-to-day life and are taking steps to improve their mental health. Cats, too, can suffer from feeling frequently anxious. While it’s completely normal for cats to take fright at sudden sounds or movement and flee, staying in this fight-or-flight mode long-term is unhealthy. Feline anxiety can be caused by a range of things, and can express itself in a range of ways. Luckily, I’ve got the matching range of tips and methods to help identify and root out causes of anxiety for your scaredy-cat.
Is My Cat Anxious?
Any major changes in a cat’s normal behavior can indicate that they’re feeling uncomfortable, so play detective if you notice something amiss! Many of these could also be as a result of hidden physical pain, so it’s a good idea to see your vet to rule out other ailments.
Increased aggression (or submission) - If your cat has started to pick on other cats in the house, or to swipe or bite at human hands, something has changed for them. Confusingly, increased submission is also a sign, so watch how they interact with other cats, if possible.
Destructive behavior - Scratching is completely normal behavior for a cat, but take note if yours starts scratching at furniture or bedding that it didn’t before. This is them trying to relieve stress in one of the only ways they know how.
Inappropriate urination (or defecation) - Going outside the box is a common indicator of stress or anxiety. This can be simply using another surface as a toilet, or can take the form of vertical urine spraying.
Compulsive behavior - By this I mean repeated behavior for no apparent purpose. Pacing constantly is one example. Excessive grooming, to the point of developing bald patches, is another.
Increased neediness - It’s nice to feel needed, right? However, if your cat suddenly starts following you everywhere, or meowing a lot more than usual, this can be separation anxiety at work. Hiding - Cats enjoy a good hiding place. But a normally social cat becoming withdrawn and hiding away for extended periods is a sign that something is up.
Why is My Cat Anxious?
Again, lots of different reasons. Here are some things that can contribute to feline anxiety:
Changes in the home - This could be moving to a new house, or even just moving the furniture around. It could be a family member leaving, or a new one arriving. Cats like familiarity and routine, so big changes obviously disrupt that.
New pet - While ideally your original cat will enjoy the company and make fast friends with an additional animal, sometimes this can cause your cat to become anxious. Their territory is suddenly invaded by an outsider and if they haven’t had time to get used to the newbie’s presence and scent before total immersion, it can be overwhelming!
Separation from owner or friend - A change in job, or simply the end of a vacation, that results in you having different hours out of the house may affect your cat unexpectedly. Similarly, if a companion animal is no longer with them (gone to ‘the farm’, perhaps) then this change can trigger separation anxiety too.
History - Sometimes anxiety can be caused by something in their past. This could be a traumatic event at any point in their life. It can also be due to a lack of socialization as a kitten. Those with shelter kitties especially may need a lot of patience in overcoming a potentially stressful start to life.
Things You Can Do Around the House
Hiding and perching places - Places where your cat can feel safe will help them feel at ease. They often like to be up high, where they can watch what’s happening below and easily defend their space. They may also like a box in a quiet place, where they know they will be left alone and no hands will come in to pull them out.
Improve the facilities - Make sure their litter box is cleaned daily. Cats are clean creatures with sensitive noses and a dirty toilet can make life very unpleasant for them. There should be at least one litter box per cat in the house.
Leave them alone - Let your cat dictate the love you lavish on it. If it is happy with lots of cuddles, great! But like there are people who just aren’t huggers, some cats prefer a more arms-length approach. Picking a cat up and insisting on holding it when it’s clearly nervous will increase stress rather than settling it. You can introduce more physical contact at their pace, but gently does it!
Toys and exercise - Playtime should become a familiar, reassuring part of their day. It can distract them from what is upsetting them. The endorphins released as a result of the exercise has the bonus of helping them to feel good and relax, too.
Give them time to adjust - If something big is changing, take your cat into consideration. Make sure any household move takes with it things your cat knows and likes. And if you’re introducing a new pet, allow the OG to get used to the new animal’s smell before the newbie is let into the shared space.
Be calm - Acting as normal will reassure your cat that everything is actually okay. If you start tiptoeing around or trying to speak in more hushed tones, you’ll probably just give off signals of your own discomfort. By chilling out, you help them to do the same!
Diet and Supplements
There are things that can be introduced into your cat’s diet or environment that can have a soothing effect and reduce anxiety.
Edible supplements - These range wildly from whole diets to treats. Anti-anxiety cat foods contain ingredients that support behavior and cognitive function, reducing their stress. An ingredient you’ll often find is tryptophan, which comes from turkey and is linked with sleepiness. Alpha-casozepine is another, also helpful in supporting mood and stress management. Feline Calm Dry Cat Food is one well-regarded example from Royal Canin. As a supplementary tablet, capsule or powder, Zylkene is sourced from natural milk proteins and is recommended by vets as a way of managing stress in cats. For treats, which are tasty and therefore not a battle to get down, options like these chews from Vetri-Science also don’t promote drowsiness. This means your cat will be calmer, but not zonked!
Essences - I’m sure you all know of a little thing called rescue remedy, right? Well, they have it for cats too! It’s fantastic since it’s all natural and can administered as drops in water, or dabbed onto paws or ears. Bach Rescue Remedy Pet is safe to use in your choice of dosage and works pretty much instantly. It won’t make them drowsy either, just chilled.
Herbals - Mother Nature, in all her wisdom, saw fit to bestow upon us a variety of natural relaxants that are safe for cats. When you’re using them in a dried form (rather than a spray, for instance), pop them inside a toy to avoid them being heavily ingested. Catnip and valerian are two that have a dramatic effect on cats. They will bounce off the walls for a while, then relax entirely. Hops and chamomile are good for their soporific effects, essentially meaning the herbs will make them sleepy and content.
These wonder products deserve their own write-up, as they are one of the most proven effective cat-calming products that exist. They contain a synthetic form of pheromones; these are hormones cats release when calm or happy. Some mimic a mother cat’s pheromones, evoking the comfort and safety of being a nursing kitten. Others rely on facial pheromones, creating a sense of familiarity and well-being in any environment. They can be used for preparation for any one-off stressful event, like going to the vet or moving house, or for long-term anxiety management.
Wipes - These can be useful for wiping over the inside and outside of a cat carrier, prior to any form of transportation. Feliway makes a range of pheromone products, and their wipes have often topped product lists curated by vets.
Spray - Sprays are good for quick, spot treatments of areas or cars. You can find sprays from Feliway as well, but another option is this one from Pet MasterMind.They are known for being an ethical company and use all-natural products. And the spray won’t stain surfaces. Win!
Diffuser - Just like an essential oil diffuser you might have at home, these diffuse the scent of the pheromones throughout the room, or house. This one from ThunderEase comes as a handy plug-in.
Anxiety is no fun for any who suffer from it, and a cat isn’t equipped to ask for help the way a person can. It’s up to you as its loving owner to spot the signs and do something to help your kitty feel more at ease. Here you’ve got a bunch of ideas on where to go first, or next. And keep your vet in the loop. They can give up-to-date advice relevant to your situation. While not every technique will work for every cat, with persistence you’ll both be able to lead more relaxed lives, happy and comfortable in each other’s company.
I’m an Environmental Ecologist and creator of TofuKitty! Like you, I wanted to make a difference for people and the planet (and of course, for kitties…I love kitties!). After becoming frustrated with the lack of easy, safe, earth-friendly litters, I decided to create my own. My litter is totally safe for the planet, your kitty, and you!