How to spot anxiety in cats - BC SPCA
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How to spot anxiety in cats

May 21, 2024

Cat in carrier at vet clinic

A vacuum cleaner, a car ride, a fun party with friends. These things might seem innocuous to pet owners, but they could trigger anxiety for your cat.

This might explain why, upon switching on the vacuum cleaner, your cat’s ears go back and they slink away to hide underneath the couch. Or why they hiss and meow whenever you attempt to take out their carrier to go to the vet. While deemed a purr-snickety species at times, if your cat is displaying these behaviours, he or she isn’t being “difficult” or “weird” but is reacting defensively because they are feeling afraid or stressed.

“The thing about recognizing stress in animals is that individual animals handle it differently,” says Kim Monteith, BC SPCA manager of animal welfare. “Some cats are going to run and hide underneath the bed, while others will attack the scary thing to make it go away. There’s a lot of diversity in behavioural responses to stress. Similarly, while most cats purr when they are happy, there are some that have been known to purr if they’re scared or sick, so it is important to know your cat’s individual behaviour and signals.”

Monteith says it’s key for the pet guardian to learn how to detect anxiety in their cat because, in addition to behaviour varying from cat to cat, anxiety triggers also depend on the cat. Some triggers can be traced to how the cat was socialized, while others can be part of their personality.

sick or scared cat hiding in green blanket

Common triggers and signs of anxiety in cats

While anxiety triggers depend on your cat, common triggers can include:

  • parties with unfamiliar people
  • unfamiliar animals
  • an unfamiliar environment
  • vacuum cleaner
  • vet visits
  • certain types of body handling, such as hugging
  • the travel carrier
  • car rides
  • nail cutting
  • fur brushing

Similarly, while every cat is different, there are common physiological responses that indicate anxiety in cats, including:

  • dilated pupils
  • elevated heart rate
  • elevated blood pressure
  • breathing faster

Additionally, common body language signs that indicate anxiety in cats might include:

  • ears back
  • whiskers forward
  • some vocalization, like growling or hissing
  • hunched body language
  • walking with their belly close to the ground

When feeling anxious or fearful, common behavioural responses in cats include:

  • looking for places to hide
  • looking to get up high where they might feel safe or under furniture where they feel like they’re covered
  • acting aggressively when they feel threatened and enter ‘fight or flight’ mode

Think twice before scaring your cat for “Likes”

Social media video clips show people scaring their cats for entertainment value. Scaring your cat intentionally is not only cruel, but it can also have serious consequences for your cat’s well-being, leading to long-term stress, anxiety, and even physical harm.

Additionally, such actions can erode trust and make it harder for your cat to feel safe and secure in their environment. Cats may also become wary or aggressive towards their owners, impacting the bond between them. It’s important to remember that cats are sensitive creatures and should be treated with respect and compassion. Building trust with your cat takes time and patience. Intentionally scaring them can significantly reduce progress and cause undue harm.

What to keep in mind when dealing with an anxious cat

Monteith points out that while cats are predators, they are also a prey species. This means that when they become truly afraid, they tend to act like they’re fighting for their life. They may lash out at familiar people. They may act very out of character and they need time and space to calm down after a fright.

For example, Moneith often hears pet owners complain when they have tried to pick up their cats to console them after a scary event only to receive an aggressive or extreme escape behaviour response from their cat in return. “That’s because the cat is in defence mode and still feels like they’re in danger, even if the guardian knows that danger is over,” she says. “When you’re dealing with a truly terrified cat, they don’t need to be coddled or picked up to calm down. They need to be placed in a safe environment and given time to calm themselves and recover, which can take as much as 24 hours.”

Scared cat hiding under covers

Signs that your cat might need to visit a vet

Fear and pain can be very difficult to differentiate behaviorally, says Monteith, since a cat who is in pain might act in the same manner as they would if they were afraid. If a cat isn’t feeling well, they might socially withdraw and hide, which can easily be mistaken for anxiety or fear.

According to Monteith, the way to tell the difference is “that a normal anxiety response can be linked to an environmental trigger. So the cat would remain anxious as long as the trigger is present and return to baseline behaviour after it’s gone. When the trigger is not present, they should be acting normally, i.e., eating and drinking, being social, and keeping with a normal routine.”

A healthy cat can take minutes to hours to calm down and resume normal behaviour. Longer periods of hiding or the presence of other symptoms, such as lethargy, inappetence, changes in drinking or litter box behaviour, reduced social behaviour, etc., could indicate that your pet has a health issue.

“If your cat is showing signs of profoundly inhibited behaviour, like withdrawing or isolating themselves, and you can’t find a trigger within their environment that could explain their behaviour, that could mean your cat isn’t feeling well,” says Monteith. “Talking to your veterinarian is a good idea.”

More tips

How do I welcome a new cat into my home?
How can I make my cat/kitten’s first visit to the vet a good experience?
How do I introduce my new cat to my old cat?

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