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Anxiety in cats: Causes and how to help a stressed feline

Anxiety in cats: Causes and how to help a stressed cat
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Anxiety in cats can be a serious problem. When kitties are constantly feeling worried, fearful or uneasy, it will start to affect their overall wellbeing. An anxious cat may tremble, salivate or suffer changes to their heart and respiratory rates. They could also lose their appetite, develop erratic sleeping patterns, lose interest in themselves and their environment and even become destructive.

One thing is certain, anxiety can affect any feline, even if you have one of the calmest cat breeds. The important thing is to spot early warning signs – unusual ongoing behavior such as tail flicking, dilated pupils, excessive vocalization and learning away. You then need to take action because ignoring the problem will only cause it to worsen.

Trouble is, it's not always that easy to pick up on the signs. Our feline friends can be easily spooked, whether that's by a vacuum cleaner switching on or even the crumpling of a coat. They can also become anxious due to a change in their lives including moving home, a new addition to the household or even a change in litter type. 

Causes of anxiety in cats

Although there are many reasons why a cat can become anxious, including illness or pain, anxieties that formed early in their lives due to improper socialization or situations that a feline found traumatic, a growing cause in recent times has been separation anxiety.

There's an old saying that “dogs have owners and cats have staff” which suggests kitties have the upper hand and dictate when and how much social interaction they want with us mere humans. Yet a study published in the journal Current Biology (opens in new tab), however, has suggested cats do actually see us as more than their providers of food. They seek comfort and security in us as well.

“Research suggests we may be underestimating cats’ sociocognitive abilities,” the authors of the study wrote. What's more, it opens up the suggestion that cats suffer from separation anxiety which means they may display disruptive behavior when we are away from home. 

This was confirmed in 2020 when a study by researchers at the Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora in Brazil found 13.5 percent of cats exhibited behavioral issues when they were apart from humans.

In those cases, most were more vocal than usual or they urinated inappropriately. About half had become depressed or apathetic and a third were aggressive or agitated. What was interesting is that the problems seemed to worsen in single-pet households and those with no cat toys. 

This suggests getting a second cat or, if that's not possible, investing in quality cat toys could be a big help.

How to help a cat with separation anxiety

Establish a routine

There is also evidence that establishing a routine works wonders. Cats like predictability and, in some cases, anxiety is not being caused purely by you being away but by you being unexpectedly absent. Cat owners may have noticed this more during the Covid-19 pandemic. Working from home has meant many people have been around their cats more than ever before. Now there is a return to the office, cats have become needier, wondering why their situation has changed.

Experts already know that some cat behavior problems are due to a disrupted routine so the important thing is to re-establish a pattern. Get up at the same time each day. Pay as much attention to your cat if you're working from home as you would if you were at work. Show that when you do go out, you will always be coming back.

A good way of doing that is by leaving your home and returning in a very short space of time, then extending the period gradually to build up trust. But if you do go away a lot, consider buying the best interactive toys. They could help you to bond from afar.

Music for cats 

Another way of trying to keep felines calm is by playing music specially composed for cats. Numerous studies suggest that music has a positive effect on cats with anxiety, with researchers from Louisiana State University, saying felines who listened to specially-written cat music had “significantly decreased” stress when compared to those who were exposed to silence. 

Cat music even performed better than classical music which has, on numerous occasions in the past, also been shown to calm cats. So what music should you buy? David Teie's Music For Cats (opens in new tab) seems to be top of the pops. 

One of the tracks, Scooter Bere's Aria was used in the Louisiana University study and the overall album gets a heap of praise from cat owners. One said, “I was at my wits end with my anxiety-ridden cat. Then I found this and figured one last try. It worked!”

Cat calming treats 

If such music isn't quite to your taste, or if it fails to work, then consider giving your cats a treat that can manage everyday stress. Certain ingredients such as Thiamine (or vitamin B1), the amino acid L-Theanine and a mix of bioactive proteins called Colostrum Calming Complex have certainly been shown to help cats to relax. 

In fact, Thiamine is used to deal with anxiety and boost positive feelings in humans by improving scores on the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale. L-theanine, which is found in green, black tea and some mushrooms, has been shown to be beneficial for a good night's sleep. 

VetriScience Compusure Chicken Liver Flavoured Soft Chews (opens in new tab) is among a number of products containing such ingredients. You could also try Pet Naturals Calming Cat Chews (opens in new tab). There is no harm in giving them a go. 

Cat anxiety medication

But if your cat's anxiety is advanced, then your vet is likely to consider medication. There are two types – short-term and long-term. Short-term medications only provide relief for a few hours whereas long-term medications will take a few weeks to take full effect but they can be used for several months until the anxiety settles.

There are some home remedies that you can buy off-the-shelf, though, such as the ThunderEase Multi-Cat Calming Diffuser for Cats (opens in new tab) which plugs into the wall and mimics a mother's natural nursing pheromones. You could also consider Richard's Organics Pet Calm – drops that provide short-term relief and are particularly useful ahead of stressful events such as a trip to the vet.  

Conclusion 

The main thing is that you do seek ways of helping a cat with anxiety. There are some big no-nos: never punish a cat if they are anxious and don't try to confine them either. Be comforting without smothering and provide plenty of stimulation. Reducing stress will be good for your kitty's overall wellbeing and make for a happier household too. 

David Crookes has been a journalist for more than 20 years and he has written for a host of magazines, newspapers, websites and books including World of Animals, BBC Earth, Dogs and Canines, Gadget and The Independent. Born in England, he lives in a household with two cats but he’s also keenly interested in the differences between the huge number of dog breeds — in fact, you can read many of his breed guides here on PetsRadar. With a lifelong passion for technology, too, he’s always on the lookout for useful devices that will allow people to spend more time with their pets.