Helping a Nervous Cat: a Catmart Guide

helping a nervous cat

There are certain situations in life during which we expect our furry friends to be a little anxious. Big life events, like coming home for the first time or a new baby arriving, are nerve-wracking for any kitty. However, when you’re dealing with anxious cat symptoms every day, it’s a different situation altogether.

As the owner of a nervous cat, you probably wonder “why is my cat so skittish?” or “why is my cat scared of everything?” on a daily basis. Some cats are more prone to anxiety and nerves than others. For some, it’s simply a matter of genetics. For others, scared cat behavior comes from how they’ve been treated in the past. Abuse, neglect and insufficient socialization as a kitten can all have an impact. Some triggers, which may not affect more confident cats at all, can wreak havoc with our nervous kitties.

The bottom line is that a stressed cat is an unhappy cat, no matter what’s causing it. If you’re an animal lover, this will rub off on you, too. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to calm cats down – to give you both the chance at a happy life. Today, we’ll be exploring cat anxiety in depth. We’ll guide you on how you can tell if your cat is nervous, and the main triggers to watch out for. We’ll then look at various methods of calming scared cats, from changing your behavior to products which can help.

Anxious Cat Symptoms: How to Tell if Your Cat is Stressed

First off, let’s take a look at how you can tell that your cat is anxious. Being able to quickly spot scared cat behavior will make it easier for you to nip it in the bud. Many of the symptoms are pretty self-explanatory. However, others may not be as easy to recognize unless you know what you’re looking for.

Escape Behavior

nervous cat

Image courtesy of PxHere.

This is the classic sign of a scared cat, which I’m sure you’ll instantly recognize. When something is freaking your cat out, their first instinct is usually to get away from it. If something is making your cat nervous, they’ll retreat to somewhere they feel safe, and hide. For most cats, this will be a small, quiet and dark space. So, if your cat spends a lot of time hidden under the bed, or tucked away in a closet, this is a sign they’re an anxious cat.

As an example, when you bring your new cat home for the first time, they’ll feel overwhelmed and frightened. You can’t blame them – after all, you’ve brought them into an entirely new, unfamiliar world, full of strange sights and smells. Once you’ve let them out of the cat carrier, they’ll likely run and hide somewhere. A new cat hiding is a standard response.

Fearful Body Language

A cat’s body language can tell you a lot about how they’re feeling. Research in the Journal of Veterinary Science outlines how to recognize a nervous or stressed cat’s body language.

nervous cat tail up

Image courtesy of Flickr.

  • Ears: Their ears will be lying flat against their head, and may be pointing sideways or back.
  • Eyes: A nervous cat’s eyes will be as round as saucers. Their pupils will be dilated, and they’ll fix their gaze upon whatever is frightening them – until they run away, that is. This is called hypervigilance – the cat is on high alert.
  • Tail: If your cat is anxious, they’ll hold their tail low to the ground, or between their legs. If they feel threatened, their their tail may bristle and puff up to twice its usual size (piloerection). An agitated cat’s tail may twitch at the tip.
  • Posture: A cat who’s feeling scared may crouch low to the ground, cowering. They may hug the wall if near to one. Their body will be tense. Alternatively, if they feel alarmed or threatened, their hackles will go up and they’ll try to make themselves look as big as possible.

Aggression

A fearful and nervous cat will often show some signs of aggression. Like us, cats display the fight or flight reaction in response to something potentially threatening or dangerous. A cat’s first instinct, when faced with a frightening scenario, is to either run away (flight) or to confront the danger (fight). Most cats will opt to run and hide initially, as we covered under ‘escape behaviors’. If they can’t get away, they’ll enter fight mode.

Signs of aggression in cats include:

  • Spitting
  • Growling or yowling
  • Hissing
  • A stiff, tense upright posture, often with an arched back
  • Violently swishing their tail
  • Raised hackles
  • Flattened ears
  • Staring without blinking
  • Swatting or biting

Toilet Troubles

nervous cat litter tray

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Nervous cats often have trouble controlling their bowels or bladder. If your cat is suffering from nerves, you may notice that they sometimes urinate or defecate outside of the litter tray. This may be for a straightforward reason – for example, they share their litter box with another animal that they’re afraid of. Sometimes, though, it’s simply a nervous reaction. Your cat may not be able to control when or where they eliminate if they’re nervous.

Alongside this, you may find that your cat uses the toilet less often or more often than usual. Some cats may find themselves too nervous to “go”, whereas others may go with increasing frequency. As in humans, diarrhea in cats can also be a sign of a nervous stomach.

You may also notice your cat “spraying” their urine around the home. This is a cat’s way of marking their territory, and is a typical feline response to feeling threatened and anxious.

Compulsive Behaviors

A nervous or anxious cat may engage in compulsive behaviors as a coping mechanism. These may include:

  • Obsessive grooming, to the extent that bald patches may appear
  • Pacing
  • Chasing their tail
  • Chewing on objects such as furniture, clothes or their own paws
  • Excessive and repetitive vocalizations
  • Sleeping too much (more than 20 hours per day)
  • Following their owner from room to room

Changes in Appetite and Weight

nervous cat

Image courtesy of PxHere.

A cat suffering from anxiety may display some changes in their appetite. This can go either way. According to the Journal of Veterinary Science, stressed cats often show signs of food and water refusal. If your cat isn’t interested when you offer their favorite treat, they may be suffering from axniety. This may be accompanied by weight loss, if it goes on for a long period of time. It can also result in dehydration, if your cat is also refusing water.

Alternatively, your cat may eat obsessively, leading to potential weight gain. Regular vomiting can also be a sign of anxiety.

Causes of Stress in Cats: Why is My Cat So Nervous?

Now that we’ve looked at the anxiety in cats symptoms, it’ll be easier to recognize it in your own feline. But in order to learn how to calm your nervous kitty, you’ll need to have some idea of what’s causing the problem.

There are hundreds of potential reasons why your cat may be exhibiting nervousness or fear, so we can’t possibly identify them all. However, we will examine the six main triggers of anxiety in cats.

1. Moving Home

Moving home is one of the most stressful things that humans go through – and at least we know what’s happening! If you relocate, your poor cat won’t have a clue what’s going on. No matter how much you try to reassure them, understanding English likely isn’t one of your cat’s strong points.

Cats are very territorial animals. Like us, they have an understanding of where “home” is, and they bond closely with their territory. Cats who are allowed outside use their home as a safe base to return to when they feel threatened. It’s where they are most at ease, as they know they’re not in any danger there. The home is covered with your cat’s scent, which makes them feel at ease.

It’s therefore understandable why moving your cat from their territory into a new and alien environment can be stressful. This goes double for a kitten being taken away from its mother and brought to its “forever home”. Along with the stress of a new environment, kittens have to deal with new people, too.

2. Introducing a New Family Member

nervous cats

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Whether a new cat, dog or baby arrives on the scene – new family members are bound to trigger anxiety in most cats. Though cats are generally sociable animals, their social structure is very different to dogs’. They don’t accept new members anywhere near as quickly.

To your cat, a new animal signals a potential threat to their territory. That’s why when two cats meet, their first reaction is hostility. A turf war needs to take place before each cat knows its place. This may equal days, weeks or months of stress for your cat. If you’re introducing a dog, your cat may react similarly. Most cats are instinctively wary of dogs because they don’t “speak cat”. Dogs tend to dive straight in to a meeting with a new animal, which goes totally against feline etiquette.

A new baby is a source of stress for different reasons. A baby brings with it a whole range of strange smells and sounds (including the dreaded crying). You’ll likely have purchased new furnishings and rearranged the house in preparation for the baby’s arrival, which can unsettle a cat too. Cats are also very in tune to their owners’ emotions. When you bring a baby home, you’ll likely be tense, stressed and acting strangely. You’ll also be getting up at all times of the night, and likely showing your cat less attention than before. All of this may contribute to your cat’s anxiety.

3. Changes in Routine and Surroundings

Cats appreciate routine. Just like being in a familiar territory, regular routine helps a cat feel secure and safe. Your cat is used to you getting up, going to bed, coming and going at roughly the same times. They’re also used to being fed and shown attention around the same time each day. Everything in your home is there in its place, and your cat knows the score.

If you’ve recently started a new job, or for some reason have had to alter your routine, your cat could be suffering. Getting up earlier, leaving the house more frequently or for longer stretches can confuse and worry your kitty. From their perspective, something is wrong, and not how it should be. It’s impossible to communicate the reasons why, so they’re in the dark. This can lead to stress and anxiety. A study by Ohio State University found that changes to a cat’s routine often result in the cat becoming stressed and sick.

Even if you don’t change your routine, a change in surroundings can also provoke stress in cats. Moving your cat’s litter box or bed to a different area, introducing new furniture, and home renovations can all cause a cat to become anxious.

4. Separation Anxiety

You may have heard the old myth that cats are “solitary creatures”, and don’t need attention in the same way that dogs and people do. This is far from the case. It’s true that most cats are quite independent, and tend to do their own thing a lot of the time. However, all cats require some degree of love and attention from their humans.

A study by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences found that cats interact more with, and are more affectionate with their owners after they’ve been gone for longer periods of time. This is evidence that our cats miss us when we go away. If you go away on vacation, start working longer hours or stop paying your cat attention, it will affect them. Being lonely can be quite damaging to a cat’s emotional state,  just as it would be for a human. Just like humans and dogs, cats can suffer from separation anxiety. Consider whether you’ve been spending enough quality time with your cat recently. If you haven’t, this may be your answer.

5. Loud Noises

Noises that seem loud to us may be even more startling to your cat. This is because of two main reasons.

Firstly, cats have extremely sensitive hearing. They can hear all the same low-pitched sounds as we can, and far more higher-pitched sounds than us. According to Louisiana State University, a cat’s hearing range is 1.6 octaves higher than ours, and 1 octave above a dog’s.

Secondly, most loud noises have a perfectly reasonable explanation to us. However, we can’t communicate that reason to our cats. If there’s a firework display, a thunderstorm or a party next door, your cat won’t understand what all the noise is about. This can cause them to panic and become extremely nervous. They’ll be on high alert at least until the noise has passed, and may suffer for some time afterwards.

6. Unfamiliar Smells

nervous cat

Image courtesy of Pexels.

As we’ve already mentioned, cats are sensitive to smell. They recognize their own home and territory primarily by its scent. This could include the cat’s own scent-markings, the smell of you and other family members.

If a new, strong scent arrives on the scene, it runs the risk of dominating the normal household fragrance. Cats’ eyesight isn’t very good, so they rely on their nose to tell them what’s what. If they can’t identify a scent, they may become stressed or anxious.

If you’re a particular fan of colognes, perfumes, scented candles or diffusers, this may be upsetting your cat. The same may apply if you use strongly-scented cleaners around the home, such as bleach. Your cat may not be able to identify the familiar home smells that they depend on to feel safe and secure. Have a think about whether you might have changed anything lately, such as the type of laundry detergent you use.

How to Calm a Stressed Cat: A Guide to Helping your Kitty Feel Safe

By now, you should have some idea of what might be causing your cat’s nerves. However, as we know, not all cats are the same. Some, with more laid-back dispositions, may be entirely unaffected by many of the stress triggers that we’ve identified. Other cats may be naturally more prone to nerves, and become unsettled at the smallest thing (like a knock at the door, or introducing a new type of food).

Whether or not you know the cause, here are some tips you can try to help soothe your stressed-out kitty.

1. The Household Routine

First of all, take a look at your household routine. Do you have one? Do you get up, go to bed, feed and play with your cat at the same times each day? If not, this could be causing undue stress for your kitty. Cats love and thrive on routines, a bit like young children. Knowing what will happen at any given point in the day will help them feel more in control, and less nervous.

Start by setting yourself an alarm for waking up every morning. Stick to the same time, even on weekends and days off. Aim to get into bed at the same time every night, too. Your cat will appreciate the consistency, and as an added bonus, you’ll sleep better.

Next, decide on dedicated feeding times and play times. It’s less possible to schedule time for petting, as this is up to your cat. Once your cat has settled into a new and consistent routine, they’re likely to feel more calm. This will help them to feel more confident, and react less severely to potential anxiety triggers.

2. Quality Time with Kitty

Another way in which you can help your cat feel safe and confident is to spend quality time with them. This will especially help if you suspect your kitty’s nerves come from improper socialization. Spending one-on-one time with your furry friend will help them realize that they’re safe with you, and allow them to relax. It will also help them to feel more confident around humans in general.

Start by sitting with your cat, in a quiet room. Bring some of your kitty’s favorite treats with you, and an exciting toy or two. Play with your cat for as long as they would like, and talk to them in calm, reassuring tones. Offer treats as a reward for catching their “prey”. Hand-feed them, if your cat will allow, as this will help them associate treats with your scent and presence.

Importantly, remember that physical affection should always be initiated by your cat. If they’re nervous, picking them up and forcing them to cuddle with you will cause them to panic. Similarly, if they try to walk away from you when you pet them, let them go. Don’t follow them around – they need to know that they can trust you to leave them be if they want alone time.

3. Limiting Noises and Smells

A cat’s eyesight isn’t as good as ours, so they rely mainly on their ears and nose to guide them around the world. Cats prefer a reasonably peaceful environment which allows them to hear the approach of danger, and seek out their prey. If your home is filled with a cacophony of noise, it’s no wonder they can get quite nervous. Similarly, a cat’s nose helps them identify their safe space, by recognizing their own comforting scent. If you use highly scented cleaning products and perfumes, your cat may not feel at ease in its own home.

If you have a nervous kitty, try to limit unnecessary noises and smells as far as is reasonably practicable. Keep the television and radio on a low volume, and encourage household members not to raise their voices. Prop doors open with wedges or doorstops to prevent them from slamming loudly. Of course, if you have young children, some noise is inevitable. However, if they’re old enough, explain to them that kitty doesn’t like loud noises because they scare him.

With regards to smells, switch from highly perfumed laundry detergent to a fragrance-free type. Try a brand which is marketed for sensitive skin, as they are usually the least offensive. Purchase natural, unscented cleaning products instead of things like bleach. Give the scented candles, diffusers and perfumes a miss altogether.

4. Creating a Safe Space

It’s important that all cats have a safe space into which they can retreat if they feel scared. This goes double for anxious cats. If there’s no such space available in their home, it will exacerbate their nerves further. If they’re allowed outdoors, they may even run away from home to escape what’s frightening them.

You don’t need to spend a lot of money to create a safe area for your cat. As long as the area is enclosed, quiet, dark and warm, your cat will appreciate it. Some ideas include:

  • Igloo-style cat beds. Choose a type that has a relatively small hole for entering and exiting. You can also purchase some cat trees with bed compartments near the top. Your cat will appreciate being up high and out the way of people.
  • A spare cupboard or closet that you don’t use often. If you have the means, make a small hole in the door for your cat to get in and out. Otherwise, leave the door open a crack at all times (make sure not to accidentally lock your cat in).
  • Cardboard boxes. Make sure the box is large enough for your cat to fit comfortably inside, and be able to turn around in. However, it should still be small and cozy enough that your cat will feel protected. Make a small hole, just big enough for your cat to fit through comfortably, in one side of the box. Then place it in a low-traffic area of your home.

Whichever type of safe space you create, line it with a blanket that you’ve rubbed your cat with, so that it has their scent. If your cat has a strong bond with you, you can also include some of your old t-shirts. Make sure to wear them first, so that they smell like you.

5. The Litter Box Situation

Though it may seem strange to us humans, your cat’s stress levels are closely tied with their litter box. Like us, cats prefer to do their business in a private, secluded area, and uninterrupted. The location and number of boxes, how often you clean them and the type of litter you use can all impact your cat’s emotional state.

To be sure that your cat’s anxiety is not tied to the litter situation, try the following:

  • Increase the number of litter boxes in the home. As a general rule, you should have at least one litter box per cat, plus one spare. So, if you have two cats, there should be three litter boxes. Your cat should always have access to a clean box, even if another cat is using one.
  • Move the litter boxes. If the boxes are currently in a busy part of the home, such as a hallway or kitchen, this may be a source of stress for your cat. They should be in a quiet area such as a spare room.
  • Empty the litter boxes more frequently. Cats can become nervous and stressed if their litter boxes are dirty. According to a study in the scientific journal Behavioural Processes, cats strongly prefer a clean litter box to a dirty one. You should also give each box a thorough wash at least once a week.
  • Change the type of litter you use. There are many different varieties available: clumping and non-clumping clay, recycled paper, silica gel crystals and more. Cats have individual preferences for litter, so play around with the type until you find one that your cat likes. Your cat will most likely prefer an unscented kind.

5. Pheromone Diffusers

If you have followed our above advice and your cat is still nervous, try a pheromone diffuser. Pheromones are chemicals which cats naturally create in their bodies. They secrete them into the environment, giving off a specific message to animals in the area. Some pheromones signal that an animal is ready to mate. Others are warning signs that this territory belongs to someone.

Have you ever seen your cat rubbing its face against a piece of furniture? When cats do this, they’re actually depositing a pheromone through the scent glands located in their cheeks. When cats feel happy and content, they deposit this pheromone, to mark their territory.

There is a product, called Feliway, which mimics this pheromone. It comes in a plug-in diffuser, which fills the home with happy pheromones 24/7. You can also purchase a spray, allowing you to target specific areas of the home (such as your cat’s designated safe zone). When your cat detects the synthetic pheromone, it will help them to feel safe and content, reducing stress.

6. Herbal Remedies

Some people claim that certain herbal remedies can also help relieve stress and anxiety in cats. Although they are not scientifically proven to work, they receive generally positive reviews. Anecdotal evidence suggests that cats respond well to herbal anxiety remedies, especially when combined with other efforts. They may work for your cat, or they may not – but there’s no harm in giving them a try, since they are all-natural and won’t hurt your kitty.

Some of the most popular herbal anxiety remedies for cats include:

  • Bach Rescue Remedy Pet. This is a liquid stress-relief supplement made from flowers such as Rock Rose and Cherry Plum. You can add a few drops to your cat’s water or food.
  • Hemp oil, available from various brands and suppliers. This is purported not only to relieve anxiety, but also to help promote skin and joint health.
  • Herbsmith Calm Shen. Designed for both cats and dogs, this is a pill containing a blend of six herbal ingredients to combat stress and anxiety. If your cat won’t take pills, they can be crushed up and mixed in with food.
  • Pets-at-Ease. This is a chewable pellet, which also dissolves in water. It’s made from various calming flower essences, similar to Rescue Remedy.

Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive. Your veterinarian may be able to recommend alternatives, depending on your individual situation.

7. Anxiety Coats (Pressure Wraps)

Anxiety coats, also called pressure wraps, work to relieve stress in animals in the same way that weighted blankets help humans. They apply a constant, gentle pressure on the animal, helping them to feel safe and calm. The most popular brand of anxiety coat is ThunderShirt, though other brands are available. ThunderShirts were originally developed for dogs, though the company now makes a smaller version for our feline friends.

According to research in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, ThunderShirts are effective at reducing some symptoms of stress and anxiety in dogs. They also help to prevent the heart rate from increasing in times of stress. However, there is no research at the time of writing studying the effect of anxiety coats on cats. Online reviews are generally positive, but results may vary depending on your cat’s personality. If your cat likes being held, and hiding under blankets for example, an anxiety coat may prove beneficial.

8. Anti-anxiety Medication

You should only consider medicating your cat if you’ve tried everything listed above, and failed to see any improvement. Your cat may simply be of such a nervous disposition that lifestyle changes make little difference to their anxiety.

If you’re worried that your cat’s anxiety may be negatively affecting their quality of life, visit your veterinarian. They’ll be able to examine your cat for signs of ill health, such as overgrooming and weight loss. You can take this opportunity to explain the symptoms that you’ve witnessed at home. If your veterinarian thinks that your cat may have an anxiety disorder, there are medications which can help. These include tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) and benzodiazepines.

Your vet will first make behavioral, environmental and routine recommendations based on your lifestyle. They may then discuss the possibility of medication, to make life easier. You’ll have the opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of each. Ultimately, the vet won’t decide anything without your consent.

Don’t Give Up!

You’ve reached the end of our guide, and learned how to calm a stressed cat. You are familiar with the most common triggers and you know how to recognize the signs that your cat is scared or anxious. You’re now ready to make some changes and see the difference they will make to your furry friend’s happiness.

However, remember that the process of calming a nervous cat will take some time. You won’t be able to change anything overnight. If your cat is particularly prone to anxiety, it will take them some time to feel comfortable in the home. After altering your cat’s environment or routine, or introducing a supplement, make note of your cat’s behavior every day. It may be a while, but you’ll eventually start to see the signs that you’re making a difference.

Remember, if you don’t see any improvement in your cat, you should visit your vet. Every cat is unique and without meeting your kitty in person, we can only give you general advice. If medication or behavioral training is necessary, your vet will be able to help you make a decision.