You want your cat to be happy and content, so observing behaviors that suggest otherwise can be upsetting. Cats can experience anxiety ranging from mild to severe. Your cat will communicate her anxiety, visually and vocally. Some of this communication is easy to see, such as hiding under the bed when a stranger walks in; other signs can be more subtle or even confusing until you understand what they mean.
You may have heard your cat howl loudly and sound somewhat melancholy when you’re in one part of the house and she’s in another. She maybe doesn’t know where you are, or can’t get to you. If she is elderly, she may be disoriented, even in her once-familiar home. She may use this vocalization during thunderstorms, or if exposed to an event that triggers a memory. Feel free to find and reassure her when you hear these pleas. On the other hand, if she is growling or hissing, she may lash out at you; don’t attempt to grab her. She may be afraid, but she also could be angry and aggressive.
Your cat has two ways to communicate physically: visible changes in her face and body, and physical actions. If she’s anxious, she may have her ears sideways or back, and have her tail tucked between her legs or hanging low. She may find someplace to hide. If you can get close enough to her, you likely will see her dilated pupils. If she’s frightened, she may exhibit the same signs, but also will have an arched back with her fur standing up. Her whiskers may even be back. Some anxiety may be temporary, but if it leads to stress, she may urinate inappropriately, or have diarrhea. You also may notice inexplicable lesions on her skin caused by licking and biting.
Causes of Anxiety
Your cat may be able to tell you how she’s feeling, but unable to tell you why. Knowing her history can offer some clues: Cats not sufficiently socialized to new situations, people and animals by the time they are 14 weeks old are naturally more anxious than those with adequate socialization. Ideally, kittens have had adequate socialization before they reach 7 weeks old. She may have been weaned too early, depriving her of her mother’s socialization skills. If this is your cat, she can be anxious about everyday things such as strangers, thunderstorms or other animals. However, if she’s had socialization and still exhibits anxiety, she may have inherited an anxious personality, or suffered a traumatic experience.
What to Do for the Anxious Cat
If anxiety is making you or your cat uncomfortable, and particularly if she is hurting herself, talk to your veterinarian. There are medications for treating anxiety. The medication may allow you to work with your cat to help her cope with fear. Gradually expose her to situations that have caused her anxiety and reward her with treats when she exhibits positive behavior. Teach her to react to anxiety-creating situations in a different manner, such as sitting instead of fleeing. You’ll need to train her to sit in a situation that’s not stressful. After she’s mastered it, ask her to repeat it in the stressful environment and reward her with treats. Unlike dogs, cats don’t respond to crate training. They also don’t respond to punishment. If you're not comfortable with the training, or unsuccessful, look for professional trainers and classes.