We all imagine cats to be headstrong, independent animals. Most of us assume that they love being "loners" and that nothing ever phases them. However, it may come as a shock that some cats do suffer from what we consider an exclusively human problem: anxiety!
The most common form of anxiety in cats is separation anxiety. However, various other triggers can cause a fear response., and, although it might seem cute and funny when we see our cats get a fright, they might be experiencing high levels of stress.
So, we're going to help you recognise the signs your cat may be suffering from anxiety, and how you can help them deal with it.
What is anxiety?Much like with humans, anxiety is the body's reaction to unknown or imaged stressors that cause a fear response. This fear response causes the nervous system to respond by preparing the body for either a fight, flight, or freeze scenario. Animals instinctively have such reactions, as they have become essential for survival; however, this fear should hinge on the context of the situation.
There are two types of fear responses: normal and abnormal. A normal fear response could be if a gazelle is getting chased by a lion, while an abnormal response could be if your cat jumps after hearing a loud noise. It is safe to say that, with context, you can identify if the reaction was abnormal and inappropriate. With this in mind, we can agree that abnormal reactions can and should be unlearned, as these are triggers that your pet has picked up over time and can lead to increased stress and anxiety.
A cat's anxiety triggers can be related to things such as illness, disease, pain, lack of socialisation, abuse, neglect, a new home, a new pet, a new baby, or a small change to their environment, such as the rearrangement of furniture.
Separation anxiety is a form of stress, leading to a fear response when your cat realises they will be left at home alone. While you are getting ready to go out, you may notice that your cat will follow you around the house and insist on getting your attention. This might seem a bit irritating as you are trying to rush out of the house, but that is how they are expressing their discontent and when you leave, and they may present what you perceive as unwanted behaviours.
Cats are a lot more sensitive than people realise, as any change to their routine can cause a stress reaction. If you are a person that spends a lot of time at home and you suddenly start spending a lot more time out of the house, that is enough to trigger your cat's separation anxiety.
As mentioned above, separation anxiety is the most common form of anxiety in cats, and cats who have been rehomed multiple times and have suffered abuse are more susceptible to separation anxiety.
What to look out for
As our cats can't speak to us and tell us how they are feeling, there are certain behaviours pet owners can look out for to help identity anxiety in their cats.
Some common signs your cat is suffering from anxiety include:
- Escape attempts
- Sores and lesions from overgrooming
Another thing to keep in mind is that high levels of stress and anxiety can instigate repetitive behaviours in your cats. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can cause your cat to harm themselves or their environment. Specific signs to look out for that are associated with OCD are obsessive grooming, constant pacing, obsessive meowing, and obsessive scratching.
Cat anxiety can also be a cause of underlying conditions. Cats do tend to present anxious behaviours if they are ill or in pain, as this contributes to the development of abnormal phobias.
So, if you do recognise the behaviours mentioned above in your pet, the best thing to do is to take them to the vet! When you get to the vet, they will run a couple of tests to identify if there is, in fact, some health factor that can be contributing to your cat's anxiety. The good news is if there is an underlying problem, the anxiety will most likely go away with treatment.
Suppose your vet does rule out the physical possibility contributing to your cat's anxiety and does confirm that it might be a psychological cause. In that case, they will be able to advise you on the best ways to cope and manage your cat's anxieties based on their lifestyle, triggers, and fearful reactions.
Some vets might recommend having your cat take anxiety medication. If that is the case, you should expect frequent check-ups to ensure that your cat's hormonal balance is correct. Some vets might even recommend behavioural therapy.
How can you help?
Environmental anxieties can be minimised; however, it is essential to keep in mind that treating your cat's anxiety is a long-term process. If you recognise that your cat's triggers are environmental, make sure to expose them to different environments in a safe and controlled manner. You want to make sure to offer them positive reinforcement so that they can associate positive outcomes with such action.
If you see your cat starting to show signs of anxiety, avoid scolding them. You don't want to make them feel even more inadequate. Instead, show them that you support them by making them feel safe and loved.
Anxieties that are left untreated will become worse over time, causing your cat's immune system to weaken, increasing their stress levels, and even causing them to develop depression and OCD.
When it comes to anxiety, patience is key! Make sure to understand all their triggers and help them overcome their anxiety in a supporting and loving manner. You want to make sure your cat is relaxed and understands that not all situations are a cause for flight or fight reaction.