A veterinarian discusses how to recognize cat stress and the ways to proactively manage and decrease separation anxiety in cats, cat stress when you must travel away from home, and cat anxiety for an upcoming move.
Recognizing Signs of Stress in Cats
Cats do not exhibit their stress readily and easily in a manner in which most people even recognize they are stressed. They naturally hide their stress, illness and pain in order not to be seen as prey. Medical illness causes stress and vice versa too – enough stress can cause medical illness in your cat. Thus it is very important to recognize signs of cat stress and cat anxiety in order to best support and assist your feline companion.
Common signs of cat anxiety or cat stress:
- Failure to use the litter box: Absolutely the most common sign of stress in cats is failure to use the litter box. This is also the sign MOST often mislabeled as anger, spite, jealousy or any host of other human emotions and motivations. They can urinate (pee) or defecate (poop) outside the box during high stress periods.
- If you are experiencing cat litter box problems please check out our articles on: Evaluating Litter Box Problems in Cats and Guide to Eliminating Stress in Multi-cat Households
- Increased vocalization: Sudden increase in yowling or meowing constantly for no apparent reason is often a sign of stress, anxiety or pain.
- Hiding or Withdrawing from Normal Social Activity
- Pacing or patrolling the perimeter of the house: Can be a sign they are physically unable to get comfortable or territorially stressed
- Changes in appetite and water intake: This can be less easting than usual or more
- Destructive behavior: Excessive scratching, or shredding of objects that is beyond their normal play.
- Aggressive behaviors: Growling, hissing, fighting with others in the house, generally showing a lack of normal tolerance for other animals or people- all of these can be signs of stress stacking.
- Decrease in overall activity: Even if not hiding, refusing to participate in normal levels of activity can indicate a problem
- Vomiting or diarrhea: Can be illness or stress
- Excessive grooming: resulting in bald spots or sores
It is very important to learn about cat body language to help you recognize the signs of stress in cats early on so you can determine what their stress triggers may be and help address the problems sooner rather than later. One of the very best ways to avoid litterbox problems in cats is to become expert at recognizing the signs of a cat stress. You cannot assist what you do not recognize in the first place. Nor will you assist properly if you mislabel cat anxiety as some human motivation or emotion. Check out our resource article on Cat Body Language for more information.
Cat Separation Anxiety
If the signs of stress in your cat are occurring primarily when you are away, or out of sight (perhaps it night when the bedroom door is closed or an office door is closed during the day when you are at work) then you should consider whether your cat is suffering from separation anxiety. There can be different levels of cat separation anxiety anywhere from mild to severe. And in the moderate to severe cases it is truly a case of actual panic attacks in varying severity.
Cats often begin to show stress when you leave for trips upon the luggage coming out of the closet. And they will recognize very easily routines that you go through to get ready to leave for work as well.
If you are unsure if the cat is anxious while you are gone then consider a nanny camera type set up to provide video while you are gone. This will help you see if they are anxious or not when you are away, and provide a clear picture of signs of stress in cats when you are away, as well as how long they stay stressed after you leave which will help inform the best way forward.
Mild cases can often be handled with over the counter supplements/interventions and a great enrichment plan. Moderate to severe cases will often benefit from a daily long acting anxiety medication while a complete plan of treatment is instituted. So you should talk to your veterinarian about medication options. For cats requiring medications, different drugs can be compounded in cat friendly liquids (think fish flavored) in order to make administration easier.
With severe cases, you should always consider bringing on a feline experienced behaviorist or trainer to assist you in order to get the best help for your pet. The more severe or long standing the problem has been, the more complete the treatment approach must be to achieve a successful resolution. And a professional behaviorist can provide you a complete assessment, and a complete plan as well as appropriate follow up and modifications to that plan. Piece meal attempts are seldom as successful as a complete supported plan.
You can use search tools available at national veterinary behavior sites to search for one near you (or able to teleconference): DACVB or AVSAB at these links. Another useful link to search for certified behavior trainers is in numerous countries is IAABC. Or ask your local veterinarian if they have a recommendation.
Interventions for Mild to Moderate Cases of Separation Anxiety in Cats
Enrichment is Vital to Help Separation Anxiety in Cats
Anxious cats are often more intelligent on the grand scale of things. And if they do not work out their mental muscle and burn off some of that excess mental energy then anxiety can start to kick in more and more over time. So one of the very best things you can do for an anxious cat or a stressed cat is to work on creating more environmental and mental enrichment for them.
Creating a truly engaging enrichment plan goes way beyond just having a bunch of toys laying around getting old and uninteresting. For an in depth look at how to create a truly engaging environment for your cat, consult our article on Feline Enrichment Principles.
What about a new kitten to help cat separation anxiety?
This is a common suggestion. Can it help? Yes. Will it help? Maybe.
In other words it is never a sure fire solution to fix separation anxiety in cats. The answer to that questions depends on the age and personality of the current anxious cat. Younger cats adapt much better to new cats being added to their territory. There are exceptions to every rule (however you do not plan based on exceptions if you are smart), but in general, cats that are 2-4 years of age or less adapt better to a new addition. Kittens almost always are pretty good about accepting new young cats or other kittens.
The older a cat gets, the less inclined they are to remain pleased about accepting a new cat into their territory. Older cats become naturally less socialized to meeting new cats over time and they are naturally disinclined to like sharing their territory and resources with new ‘strange’ animals. Furthermore young kittens or energetic young cats are flatly plain annoying to elderly cats and seldom well received. Chances are more likely that by bringing in a new kitten to constantly assault your elderly cat, you will stress the old lady or gentleman highly.
So bear your cat’s age and general attitude in mind when considering a new addition to help alleviate stress. Extremely territorial cats seldom enjoy a new addition either. You want to make sure that any new addition does create more stress than they solve!
Prepare for your departure
Cats do not always initially have a frame reference for when you will return when you leave. That can be scary for them and certainly can be a cause of cat anxiety. In time most cats will learn the routines that indicate when you leave briefly versus for a longer work day, and most will adjust to that over time on their own.
However, some cats need help during that initial learning period! You can condition cats for short departures in the same manner that you do with dogs (article on this coming soon). But fear not, if the thought of training a cat induces anxiety in you, many times the situation can be greatly improve by enrichment and some basic planning for your away times.
Cats can and do stress out when suddenly and unexpectedly (to them) left alone, so anything you can do to occupy their bright little minds is helpful to reducing cat stress and avoiding a return to clawed up things and stress urination outside the litter box. Stresses tend to stack for people, dogs or cats. The more stressful things go on at once, the lower the threshold of tolerance becomes for the stressed or anxious individual.
Consider a woman that finds her husband’s jaw popping when he eats mildly annoying but she adores him otherwise. Maybe there is a worldwide pandemic, then they both lose their jobs, and she gets sick. She is sitting there coughing on the couch and he comes in and wants to know when supper will be ready. She gets up and makes some food. He gripes about the food being too salty while he is chewing and that jaw is popping…popping… popping…. and then she suddenly snaps ‘out of nowhere without warning’ and kills him with a dull butter knife. Stress stacks and tolerance for little things gets very low.
That translates into, if you know you are leaving and there will be cat stress then prepare to remove or mitigate as many other stress factors as you can. What might that mean for the average cat? Clean the litter box before you go for the day, make sure they have been fed, make sure you are using a litter box and litter that THEY prefer, make sure there are no communal living bottlenecks to resources to fight over when you leave, and make sure they are not bored out of their active minds. Part of preparing to help decrease cat stress is to learn to avoid and remove common stress points in the household.
More information on common cat stress points in a household can be found here: our Guide to eliminating stress in a multi cat household and Guide to Evaluating Common Litter Box Stress Points
Suggestions for routinely leaving your stressed cat for the day or evening:
- If this is a new change of schedule then anything you can arrange for to help engage them once you go out the door would be ideal to focus on for the next 3-4 weeks. This will help decrease cat stress while they adjust to the new state of being and schedule.
- Plan and prepare some new toys to change out each day when you leave. You do not need to buy toys unless you wish to, because you can save some toilet or paper towel rolls and fill them with new things to explore. Try treats, some of their kibble, cat nip, a sprinkle of some new spice, little crinkle balls, etc. Then fold or tape the ends and poke holes in the tube if needed to let stuff fall out as they attack the roll and bat it around.
- Bring over new boxes to explore from a friend’s house if you do not have any coming in yourself.
- Leave talk radio or tv on a conversational channel (no loud westerns for instance).
- Set the TV or a tablet up on some You Tube bird call channels. Cats are usually very fascinated by the sound of the bird calls especially and many of those channels show birds hopping to a feeder as well. Put the tablet on the floor so they can get up close and personal to stare it.
- Get some motion activated toys that do NOT stay out constantly (recall we want new and interesting, a toy does not stay new and interesting by sitting out all day, every day). That way there are things left behind to encourage them to be active when they pace by all stressed out.
- Look over the Feline Enrichment Principles article for more suggestions to help reduce cat anxiety.
Suggestions when leaving your stressed cat with a sitter for several days:
- Be sure to introduce your cat to the sitter before you leave a couple of times, especially if your cat is shy to help reduce cat anxiety when you are gone. Be wary of extremely territorially aggressive cats being left with a sitter they do not know!!
- Anything you can arrange for your cat sitter to do to help engage your cat would be ideal – so show them the way the cat usually prefers to play and have them use the techniques and toys that the cat prefers.
- Whenever possible have them try and match their normal feeding times, and normal litterbox cleaning frequency in order to help reduce signs of stress in cats. (Remember the discussion of decreasing stress stacking)
- If the sitter is a friend or amenable to helping decrease the cat’s stress – then prior to your leaving, have the sitter also bring over an old t-shirt or towel they have slept with/in, and that way your cat can get used to their scent in their territory ahead of time
- And use any enrichment techniques that your cat favors while you are gone to keep them occupied.
- For long trips away, if your cat is easy for a sitter to medicate, you may want to ask your vet about using gabapentin when you leave or when you return (if the sitter cannot medicate them easily) for a few days to help them settle down, decompress, and decrease cat stress.
Decreasing Cat Stress During a Move
If you are planning a move and will be blending households, be prepared to isolate and separate the cats from new cats or new dogs after arrival. We have two in depth articles discussing how to introduce animals coming together in a blended home once they are in the same space (Successfully Introducing Cats and Dogs and Successfully Introducing Cats). There are numerous things you can do ahead of the move to help the introduction get a positive helpful head start which will help decrease cat stress.
Scent swapping helps dogs and cats that have not met get to know one another and begin to anticipate one another. So if you have the opportunity before actual moving day try some of the following:
- Have the animals in each house sleep on some old towels or t-shirts and swap them out to the opposite house. Likewise for the people so the animals get used to the new people’s scents as well.
- Take an old towel or wash rag and softly brush it across the different animals and swap those out in teh different houses.
- Give the animals a small feeding or some great treats near the swapped scent towels to start building good associations with the new ‘strange’ animal scents.
- If dealing with different sets of cats, consider trading the litter boxes. Empty them but do not clean them perfectly, bag up the boxes and then switch houses and refill them with litter.
- If you are moving into one home that one half of you already occupy, be sure to place the scent towels in ALL the rooms in the house where you will be coming together. Let all the animals get used to the new smells being found in the entire home.
- If you are in the same area then be sure each new person spends plenty of time with each other’s animals prior to the move. The more time the better. Feed them, play with them, walk the dogs. Make yourself known and liked prior to the move whenever possible. If you need help on introducing new people to your dogs check out our article: Greeting Dogs.
- If you do not already know what sort of enrichment activities your animals prefer – prior to the move you need to work on developing a great enrichment plan. It will be key to helping decrease signs of stress in cats after the move. More info on that here: Cat Enrichment Principles and Dog Enrichment Principles
Prepping for Moving Day and Making the Move
Next talk to your vet and ask them about an anti-anxiety medication such as gabapentin for your cats. Dosing it the night before the move and the morning of the move can help reduce cat stress a great deal. A few days extra on hand is always nice as well if they do not settle down quickly on their own in the new place. Bear in mind that medications can be compounded by a pharmacy into a liquid flavored in a cat friendly way if you cannot give tablets or capsules in feline pill pockets.
Likewise for dogs, if they are the extremely anxious sort, consider talking to your vet about some trazodone to assist during moving day and a few days afterward. Likewise there are multiple canine flavors and sizes of pill pockets to help with med administration.
With the cats, make certain they are safely confined in their own rooms when loading and moving start. Many an indoor cat has been lost when doors are left open. Set them up safely and securely so they can remain ‘locked in’ while things are coming in and out. Their different areas should be set up completely with all their stuff that they recognize so they can settle in safely.
Once everyone is all in the same place, keep following the plan for slow introductions and positive association building between the animals and with the new people in their lives. And don’t forget, keep that enrichment plan building, growing and changing during the initial high stress period.
Over the Counter Aids for Decreasing Stress in Cats
There are many that can assist decently in mild to moderately anxious animals. You need to have a realistic expectation of them though. They tend to assist your other efforts nicely, NOT magically make for a calm cat on their own. The more severe the anxiety, the less obvious the assistance of OTC supplements will be. Some things to consider are:
- Feliway or Comfort Zone Diffusers – good for a room
- Feliway or Comfort Zone Sprays – good for use at specific areas like by a separation barrier
- Purina Calming Care Probiotic – accepted readily by most cats sprinkled over their food.
- Vetriscience Composure treats for cats
- Zylkene for cats
- CBD – not particularly effective thus far in my experience with truly stressed cats.