Question: “How can I reduce cat anxiety?”
Michele P. writes, “Three months ago we found a kitten of about eight weeks old, and added her to our family with two older dogs. My husband doesn't like "snooty" cats, so from the start I've given her lots of affection and closeness to try to encourage her to be social and loving, and she's become a "shoulder kitty." She seems to have developed separation anxiety, though - vocalizing and seeming very distressed when I leave for work, or even go outside for a minute. Was it a mistake to "love" on her so much? How do I reduce her anxiety? Thanks!”
With any behavior issue, it’s important to try and figure out the underlying cause before offering solutions. Anxiety can arise from many different things, and veterinarians and behavior specialists look at the cat’s physical and emotional health, as well as traits of instinct to help figure out what’s going on and find solutions. I've used the H.I.S.S. Test to discuss and figure out ways to reduce feline anxiety.
Cats that feel bad can react with anxious behavior. Kitties have evolved to be “great pretenders” and never let on that they feel bad. Stoic cats with hidden aches show only subtle signs, if at all. A hurt paw may not cause a limp, but instead prompts the cat to hide or become clingy, for example. Resolving an underlying health issue often relieves anxious behaviors.
For a cat, the unknown equals danger. Wild kitties that failed to honor this truth were taken out of the gene pool, while properly “cautious cats” survived to breed and passed on this “caution gene” to future generations. Being cautious and hiding are survival instincts.
Stress is one of the major causes of anxiety. How cats react to stress, though, depends greatly on their personality, how well they’ve been socialized as kittens, and even genetics. A certain percentage of kitties (and dogs and people and other critters) simply are born prone to be “more nervous.”
Anything has the potential to increase stress and anxiety but environment ranks at the top of the list. Environmental stressors include crowded conditions, climate, resource availability, and especially living and competing with other cats.
S=Symptom, Signs & Solutions
- Cats prefer to hide in dark places where they can’t easily be seen, and inaccessible places they can’t be reached and/or can most easily defend. Favorites include under the bed or other low-to-the-ground furniture; basements; beneath stairs or in closets; inside boxes or piles of clutter. (Note: more confident cats seek out high resting spots, while anxious ones may resort to ground-level hidey-holes).
- Anxious cats urinate outside of the box either with urine sprayed against vertical surfaces, or squatting to wet downward on flat surfaces. This most commonly has territorial/marking aspects, with the cat using the scent to identify “owned” property, warn off other animals, or self-comfort with the cat’s familiar scent. Common targets for urine include property important to the cat: owner-scented objects such as the bed, near windows or other lookouts (where they see stray cats); sometimes doors (where they hear/smell stray cats).
- Cats with anxiety may vocalize more. They do this to either increase distance between themselves and the person/animal (hisses and growls0, or to reduce distance by meow-soliciting owner to interaction.
To address environmental stressors, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Jacqueline C. Neilson recommends creating a cat considerate environment—that is, lots of feline resources that offer legal outlets for normal and typical cat behaviors. Once you figure out what cats do most of the time, you can make those activities even more agreeable which reduces the potential stress and anxiety.
Cats spend 62 percent of their time sleeping or resting, so give them the ideal cat tree. Offer a variety of perching opportunities throughout the house to reduce arguments over ownership. Cats tend to stretch and scratch upon awakening, so place scratch objects near feline resting spots.
Cat Food & Feline Fun
Cats spend 17 percent of their time either hunting or eating, so address both by using food puzzle toys such as the feline Kong®, the Premier Funkitty Twist and Treat® or feline food balls (e.g., SlimCat® ball). Or create a “treasure hunt” with small portions on dishes around the house. Playing and exploration mimics hunting behaviors and can reduce stress and anxiety. Homemade toys motivate cats to explore, and rotating toys increases novelty and interest.
Up to 70 percent of owners reported that their cats have occasional fights. Try placing a belled collar on the aggressor cat(s). That gives the victim warning so the kitty can avoid encounters.
Litter Box Essentials
Provide the best litter boxes possible, situated throughout the home in a variety of locations instead of clustered in one area. The 1+1 rule (one box per cat plus one) reduces anxiety when cats don’t have to share.
Natural Anxiety Relief
Feliway, a synthetic feline facial pheromone, helps ease tensions related to territorial and environmental stress. Rescue Remedy, or one of the other more specific Bach Flower Remedies, can be particularly helpful for anxious cats.
Bravo that Michele has done a marvelous job of socializing! But rather than feline separation anxiety, I suspect that this five-month-old uses these behaviors to manipulate Michele into giving more attention. If Michele comes back inside when the kitten throws a fit, that rewards her anxious behavior. While it isn’t a mistake to encourage her to be more social and loving, it’s equally important for cats have the confidence to be alone at times. Your kitten very likely will outgrow much of this behavior as she develops her adult personality. Meanwhile, the tips about quelling meowing can help.