Changes in environment, illness, and past history can all contribute to your cat's anxiousness. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to minimize its impact.

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tabby cat with anxiety sitting next to her owner
Credit: Mint Images / Getty

Some kitties are notoriously stoic about how they feel physically, so imagine how challenging it is to determine the state of their mental and emotional health. For instance, is biting an indication of cat anxiety, or simply a message to cease whatever you're doing that they don't like?

And if your cat does have anxiety, is it due to a change in environment, problems with you being gone all day at work (or, in some cases, not gone enough), a trip to the v–e–t, or what? We turned to the experts for help understanding this complicated emotion.

What Is Anxiety?

Haylee Bergeland, KPA-CTP, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, is the founder and executive director at Animal Assistant Professionals and a Daily Paws Advisory Board member. She says one factor often misunderstood about anxiety in animals (humans, too) is what it actually is. "Anxiety is the apprehension or anticipation of/associated with a perceived threat. It's the worry, the concern—all the feelings about what could happen."

For example, Bergeland says with cat separation anxiety, kitties begin to feel adverse emotions when they pick up on signals that indicate their human parent is leaving. (Some dogs have a similar anxious response). Or your favorite feline might feel anxious when they see their carrier pulled out of the closet: the carrier is a perceived threat. "It could mean they're going to be put in there or go to the vet, groomer, or wherever. But they don't know which it is, or when, or how," she says. So, apprehension turns into anxiety. Poor kitty!

What Causes Anxiety in Cats?

Tarina L. Anthony, DVM, is a longtime practitioner of feline-exclusive medicine, and owner and medical director of Aurora Cat Hospital and Hotel in Aurora, Colo. She says cats can develop anxiety with any change to their routine. "Travel, new people in the house, new pets, and so on. Fireworks and other loud noises might also trigger anxiety and fear in cats."

Other potential reasons for cat anxiety include:

"Most likely, it's a combination of things, such as genetics plus trauma and a lack of socialization," Bergeland says.

Some theories suggest cats that become more attached to their humans might experience greater instances of separation anxiety. While this is challenging to pinpoint specifically by breed (because of the above potential causes), DVM 360 suggests the following cat breeds as being really super sweet on you: Burmese, domestic shorthair and longhair, Maine coon, ragdoll, and Siamese.

Additionally, VCA Hospitals notes that "the effects of aging may lead to an increase in fear or anxiety in situations where there was previously little or no problem. These changes may alter the way a pet perceives or responds to a stimulus." So senior cats might need extra love and attention to help ease aspects of transition within their environment, along with a double dose of patience when dealing with any advanced health conditions.

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety in Cats

Cat anxiety symptoms vary, but Anthony says these are some of the most common: 

  • Hiding more than usual
  • Trembling or cowering
  • Defensive swatting or biting
  • Elevated blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as decreased appetite and vomiting  

"Additionally, cats that are anxious often can be predisposed to other medical conditions such as upper respiratory disease or cystitis (inflammation of the bladder), among others," Anthony says.

It's essential to understand the range of your kitty's emotions by learning to decode their unique language and habits. "I find many people lump fear, anxiety, and nervousness together when it comes to an animal—despite the fact that they're very different things," Bergeland adds. "Yes, fear and anxiety look a lot alike in terms of the body language an animal might exhibit when they are experiencing one or the other, but it becomes an issue when they're treated the same."

How To Help A Cat With Anxiety

Anthony recommends talking to your veterinarian first. "Be prepared for a lengthy visit and answer all questions thoroughly so an accurate assessment can be made," she says. "Treatment of cat anxiety is challenging, as it can be very difficult to determine the triggers."

First Treatment: Behavior Modification

Depending on the diagnosis, the first cat anxiety treatment may be introducing better coping strategies. Bergeland advises creating a partnership between your vet and a behavior consultant or a veterinary behaviorist. Together, they'll develop a plan.

For example, Anthony says exposure therapy may help cats fearful of going to the vet. This involves gradual, small steps to develop a reconditioning response with positive rewards.

"So getting the cat used to their carrier by putting treats in it, then taking them to the car until it's less scary, then short car rides, and so on," Anthony says. "The goal of exposure therapy is to get the scary stimulus (in this case the vet) to be less scary. Exposure therapy can result in a cure of that specific anxiety trigger."

Second Treatment: Medication

In more severe cases of cat anxiety, the treatment plan might expand to medication, especially if a kitty:

  • Inflicts self-trauma
  • Affects other cats in the household with their condition
  • Is attacking people

"In these cases, Prozac, Gabapentin, Xanax, Trazodone, and other meds may be warranted," Anthony says. Additionally, she might include supplements such as milk proteins and certain amino acids, as well as pheromone therapy, to help reduce anxiety in cats.

"We're only just beginning to fully understand the health repercussions of chronic anxiety in our companion animals. So there's no one blanket treatment," Anthony says. "Helping your cat be less anxious will take trial and error and a lot of patience. Make sure to be consistent and follow through with the plan."