When you look at your cat snuggled up on your bed, or your sofa, being fed to order, with toys to play with and the love of a good pawrent, you might wonder what they’ve got to be anxious about.
The truth is that cats are a pretty anxious species. The reason for this is that although we might think of them as a top of the range predator, tormenting and mutilating the local wildlife, they themselves are in fact prey to larger mammals, such as foxes, other cats, dogs and dare I say it, us.
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This means that when they’re not sleeping, eating, playing, grooming or snuggling up to us, they’re usually on the look-out that for anything that might be a threat to their survival.
This is type of anxiety is quite natural and helps them keep ‘on top of their game’, but some cats experience anxiety on a level that can be a much more serious issue.
Here are the reasons why some cats might be more anxious than others:
A genetic predisposition to anxiety. Every cat has a unique personality shaped by their genetics.
Cats are born with two basic character types, slow and quiet or reactive and excitable. Other characteristics can also be inherited such as boldness and sociability.
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A cat’s personality is also influenced by environmental considerations. The earliest environmental influences take place between the ages of two and seven weeks when cats are most receptive to learning about their surroundings and forming social bonds with other species. This is called socialisation. If they don’t receive appropriate socialisation to humans, or other species they can grow up being frightened of them.
Likewise, if kittens aren’t habituated to normal household noises such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners, shouting and other loud sounds, these will likely make them feel anxious throughout their lives.
It’s also possible for a cat to have a genuine phobia related to a negative early experience or one-off event.
If a female cat is doesn’t have enough food or the right food or is in poor health when pregnant this could mean that the kittens in her womb don’t receive the important nutrients they need to develop, both physically and mentally. In such cases it’s possible for the kittens to literally be born anxious and find normal every day events frightening.
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So how can you spot the signs that your cat is suffering from anxiety? Cats have a number of strategies that they use when they’re feeling anxious. Most commonly they’ll try to avoid or escape from the situations that make them anxious. They’ll usually have a favourite hiding place to go to where they can calm down and feel safe. However, in some cases, this isn’t always possible, especially if the anxiety relates to feline housemate. Another favourite tactic is to climb up somewhere high, out of harms way!
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Other signs that your cat might be chronically anxious include:
– Eating less or more than usual. – Grooming less or more than usual – Urinating and/or defecating outside the litter tray – Urine spraying indoors – Resting more or feigning sleep – Either becoming socially more or less dependent on your – Using defensive aggression towards you or other cats – Being hypervigilant and having a heightened startle response – Disinterest in playing – Changing his normal routine for example spending significantly more time indoors, irrespective of normal seasonal changes – Increased facial rubbing, scratching – Ambivalent behaviour such as approaching you and moving away from you almost simultaneously How you treat your anxious cat very much depends on the cause of the anxiety and how long it’s been present, but here are some general guidelines:
If your cat is anxious around a feline housemate it’s really important for him to have some kind of sanctuary that only he can access and where he can feel relaxed and get some good quality sleep. This might even mean giving him a room in the house with an internal microchip cat flap to allow him in and keep others out!:
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And it’s just as important for your cats not to have to compete over their important resources such as litter trays, high places, hiding places, resting places toys and food. This means making sure there is plenty of each to accommodate the numbers of cats in your home.
By nature cats are solitary hunters and can feel stressed eating in the presence of others, so it’s always a good idea to feed your cats in separate locations.
If your cat is anxious around you, his self-confidence can be gently built up in the following ways:
Redefine your relationship with your cat and start from a point where your cat is completely in control. This means giving your cat the freedom to move around your house ‘unseen’. By not focussing on your cat (effectively ignoring him!) you will be allowing him to feel less threatened by your presence.
Avoid the temptation to reassure your cat, it might just reinforce his anxiety. For anxious cats our human way of focussing and nurturing may be the last thing he wants at this stage.
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Try not to disturb your cat when he is hiding. Hiding is a positive coping strategy, and he should be allowed to benefit from it.
Behave normally around the house. There’s no need to over-compensate by moving around on your tippy-toes!
Avoid using ‘flooding’ techniques on your cat to try and cure a phobia.
Promote self-confidence in your cat through environmental challenges such as giving him opportunities to climb, play, forage and puzzle feed. Offer him toys with different textures and smells such as those containing catnip, valerian, silvervine and honeysuckle. When your cat is confident enough to play interactively with you, make sure you play with him at a distance using a long-handled rod type toy. Put yourself at ground level and use gentle movements that mimic those of his natural prey.
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Cardboard boxes make great camouflage and can also offer nice surprises such as treats and/or toys!
Use a calming diffuser in the room your cat is likely to spend a lot of time in.
Speak to your vet regarding supplements or specialised food specifically for anxious cats.
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This isn’t an exhaustive list of recommendations and as with any behaviour issue, it’s important to remember that the situation that each cat and each owner finds themselves in is unique to them and strategies need to be tailored accordingly. If you are worried about your cat’s emotional state, in the first instance contact your vet and if appropriate, consult a Behaviourist.