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10 Calming Tips for Anxious Cats
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10 Calming Tips for Anxious Cats

Cats
Health & Safety

1. In order to help an anxious cat, you first need to be absolutely sure that she is indeed anxious, and that any unusual behaviour is not manifesting as a result of pain. Although a trip to the vet can be stress inducing in itself, it is very important to rule out medical conditions because the symptoms of anxiety can be very similar to some of those displayed by a cat that is physically unwell. These may include vocalising more than usual, hiding and showing a reluctance to indulge in normal behaviours such as playing. Excessive grooming, pacing, sucking and inappropriate urination may all be signs of anxiety, but they can all be symptomatic of other conditions such as allergic skin disease (over-grooming), disorders of the nervous system (pacing), hyperthyroidism (sucking) and urinary tract disorders (inappropriate urination) being just a few examples. Once your vet has diagnosed anxiety, referral to a qualified feline behaviourist may be suggested. This can be very beneficial especially if you are not sure what is the root cause of your cat’s heightened stress.

2. Look at all possible reasons why your cat may be feeling anxious. Keeping a diary can be helpful. Have there been any changes to her daily routine? Sometimes it can be easy to establish why a cat is stressed; e.g. the arrival of a new pet or a new baby. Other times it can be difficult because the stressful events may be happening out of sight; e.g. a new cat in the neighbourhood threatening an outdoor cat’s territory. Sometimes a single event that frightens the cat whilst she is eating, urinating or defecating can leave her feeling very unsettled when she carries out these activities in the future. It’s really important to ensure your cat feels safe when passing her waste because this is when an animal is at her most vulnerable. You may find that providing a litter box indoors for an outdoor cat who does not usually use one, moving the litter tray to a more secluded location or providing a covered tray can help. It’s really important to reduce stress because it can increase the risk of urinary tract problems including cystitis and crystals.

3. Diet can affect feline behaviour. Have you changed your cat’s usual food lately? Just like dogs; cats digest, metabolise and utilise different diets to different degrees of efficiency and sometimes a product with alternative ingredients and/or a different nutrient balance (the way in which the protein, fat and carbs are balanced) will alter the blood sugar, serotonin levels and rate at which energy is released. If your cat was previously behaving normally on her original food, try changing it back to see whether her behaviour reverts back to normal. Irregular food intake can also cause fluctuations to the blood sugar, so make sure your cat is not missing meals or other animals are not finishing her food off before she has eaten enough. Certain chemical colourants and preservatives have been proven to contribute to learning difficulties and hyperactivity in humans. Just like very sensitive children reacting badly to certain additives, cats can suffer from some adverse responses (although this is largely based on anecdotal rather than scientific evidence).

4. Pheromone therapy can be an effective way to help appease an anxious cat, although it must be emphasised that this does not negate the need to try to establish the root cause of the problem and eliminate or minimise where possible the stressful events. Pheromone sprays and diffusers work by mimicking natural feline facial pheromones, which make your cat feel calm and safe when she inhales them. Pheromone therapy is very safe, and undetectable to the human nose. On the subject of pheromones, hormones are a little different, but both are involved in reproduction. If your cat has not been neutered, this may be advisable as it will help reduce sexual frustration.

5. Some cats develop anxiety simply because their home is not sufficiently feline friendly. Inadequate space and a lack of areas to exercise, scratch, stretch and climb without fear of reprimand can cause stress. Make sure your cat’s food and water bowls are easily accessible and positioned out of the way of any dogs if they also share the household. Ensure also that your cat has plenty of stimulating, safe toys and that any plants both indoors and in the garden if she goes outside are non-toxic.

6. Although separation anxiety is more common in dogs, some cats can suffer from this too. Make sure you are spending adequate quality time with your cat. This means setting aside special time for grooming and playing games, but don’t focus your attention on the cat all the time you are home as this can make the problem worse. It may help to leave your cat for short periods if possible to start with, and before leaving the house or returning home, ignore your cat. Although cats sleep a lot of the time (a comfortable bed is essential) environmental enrichment as per point 5 is very important. Some cats like to see outdoors, and some may feel more settled if a radio is left on low for some quiet background noise. Help from a behaviourist may be required if your cat suffers from separation anxiety, and medication could aid in conjunction with this. A well socialised kitten is less likely to suffer from this condition. In a cat who already suffers from separation anxiety, helping her to become less dependent or fixated or one person (if she has a favourite family member) may be beneficial, so if there is someone else who can take over feeding and grooming duties sometimes, this can strengthen bonds between the cat and other members of the household and help increase her confidence with them.

7. Feline anxiety is serious because of the health risks it poses (urinary tract infections and crystals) and also it is an unpleasant condition for both the cat and owner to have to deal with. In cases where a cat is suffering from prolonged periods of stress, or she is demonstrating problem behaviours such as aggression or inappropriate urination; prescription veterinary drugs can be very beneficial. Medication must only be used under your vet’s guidance, and may not be suitable for cats with hepatic or renal dysfunction. Some drugs (e.g. benzodiazepines) are only suitable for short term use as they can affect the memory and cause lethargy. Benzodiazepines reduce the cat’s fear response, and have an immediate calming effect. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) take longer to work (up to 4 months). These affect the cat's serotonin production and can be helpful for compulsive behaviours and aggression. Drugs should be used in conjunction with, not instead of behavioural therapy.

8. The efficiency of natural remedies is debatable, and evidence is largely anecdotal. Some owners however have reported reasonable success using flower remedies such as Bach Rescue Remedy, chamomile and valerian. All of the Bach remedies are available in an alcohol-free formulation and there is even a pet version of the ever popular Rescue Remedy. Non cat specific products may require dilution, so it is sensible to consult the Bach Centre for directions for use first. It is also imperative to ask your vet’s professional opinion as to suitability because although no prescription is required, some may interact badly with conventional medicines and others may be contraindicated in the event of a concurrent medical condition. Flower remedies are short acting, and are most suited to periods of unavoidable stress such as travelling or a trip to the vet rather than cats suffering from long-term anxiety.

9. Some cats can be perfectly happy most of the time, but may not cope with certain stressful situations that happen irregularly. Examples may include firework phobia, fear of storms, travelling or visiting the vet. It goes without saying that it’s vital to keep your cat safely indoors when there are firework displays or stormy weather. Behavioural modification and/or medication may be necessary if your cat becomes severely stressed. Mild stress can be dealt with by providing a safe place to hide. Desensitisation is effective for many dogs, but its success rate in cats is low. When travelling, try to minimise stress beforehand. Keep the travel box well out of sight and mind until it is time to load your cat, and avoid rushing and stressing yourself. Some cats settle well at a cattery, but others find this extremely successful. This is a case where avoidance may be the better option, and a cat sitter who can live in, or at least visit your cat several times a day could be considered as an alternative.

10. Try to keep calm yourself. Compulsive behaviours in particular in cats can worsen if you are stressed. Cats are very sensitive creatures and soon pick up on how their humans are feeling. Try to ignore any unacceptable behaviour as much as you can, because attention in itself is a reward. If you can, try to pre-empt your cat’s behaviour and nip it in the bud before it happens, this can really help as the familiarity of a set routine can reinforce certain behaviours. By doing something different (instigating a new game or feeding her) rather than simply anticipating the behaviour can be beneficial. Punishing the cat will not work, and may make things worse because this increases the unpredictability of the environment and can result in heightened fear, which in turn can damage your cat’s trust in you and cause or worsen aggression.

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