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Managing Feline Fear and Anxiety Issues

We recently examined the main causes why your cat could be feeling anxious, stressed or fearful and also looked at their natural coping mechanisms in part 1 of our series thanks to Vet Behaviourist Dr Eleanor Parker from Pawly Understood.

This article will focus on assessing if your cat's behaviour is normal or abnormal and what strategies you can put in place to assist them. For serious behavioural problems, we also cover what treatment options are available.

How to help your cat be less stressed  

The natural behavioural repertoire and behavioural needs of cats need to be considered if we are to provide them with a happy and healthy life. 

The need for appropriate environmental enrichment and mental stimulation is often not as well publicised or addressed in cats as in dogs but is just as important to ensure optimal mental health and reduce incidence of behavioural disturbances. 

Cats need outlets to express their innate highly motivated behaviours and closely follow their natural preferences

Cats are naturally most alert and active at dawn and dusk – with periods of sleep during the middle of the day and night. Cats evolved to fluctuate between several periods of rest and several brief periods of high arousal and activity during a day. 

Their periods of activity should be followed by a small meal i.e. the pattern of their natural hunting. They prefer to work for and eat 10-12 small meals each day. This is in stark contrast to a twice a day feeding schedule that many modern cats have to make do with. 

Access to vital resources such as food, water, hiding places, scratching places and toileting spots are super important to cats. They can easily become stressed if they do not feel they can safely access desirable resources.

Cats like to be able to hide in dark quiet spots so boxes or enclosed sleeping areas such as igloos are recommended. 

Cats love to be able to get up high to monitor their environment from a secure location. Allowing access to shelving or other spots up off the ground is usually appreciated. 

Generally, cats like to have their food and water segregated in different locations and often prefer to drink from novel or running water sources

Cats can be very particular about their toileting and often need or want a lot more space and options that what we provide with the modern litter tray. Inadequate toileting resources can commonly manifest problems with undesirable urination and defecation in cats. Providing multiple litter trays with different litter substrates in different locations can be a huge help to cats.

Cats should never be expected to share litter trays with other cats, although sometimes they will tolerate it if they are in the same social group. 

What should I do if my cat is anxious? 

Ideally, a behavioural consultation is needed for cats that are showing signs of fear or anxiety. Cats showing abnormal behaviour should always be assessed by a veterinarian to rule in or out contributing medical causes. 

Many conditions such as hormonal imbalances, metabolic or organ problems, discomfort or pain can cause or worsen behavioural and mental health issues. A full history collection, examination and blood and urine analysis is a minimum database to collect for cats suffering behavioural disturbances. 

Diagnosing normal vs abnormal behaviour in cats 

Once medical causes have been ruled out and a behaviour is considered psychological in origin, the first step is to triage behavioural complaints in cats and ascertain whether they are a “problem behaviour” or a “behaviour problem”

A “problem behaviour” is of concern to the owner and is considered undesirable but is actually normal for the cat. In this case, the cat is not mentally unwell. For example, a cat scratching furniture to maintain its claws and mark

A “behaviour problem” is abnormal and is a sign of poor mental health and psychological malfunction. It is diagnosed where behaviour is abnormal in regards to one or more of 4 parameters

1. Context – in what situations and at what times does the behaviour occur? 
2. Frequency – how often does the behaviour occur? 
3. Intensity – when the behaviour does occur, how severe is it? How escalated is the emotional state of the animal? 
4. Duration – when the behaviour occurs, for how long does it happen? How difficult is it to distract, redirect or stop the behaviour? 

If the behaviour is abnormal in regards to the above parameters, then there is an underlying diagnosis of a mental health disturbance – usually an anxiety disorder of some sort. 

Treating behaviour problems in cats

Once a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder is made, then treatment can begin.

Treatment always needs to be multi-modal. A three-pronged approach involving MEDICINE, MODIFICATION, and MANAGEMENT (the 3 Ms) is required. 

These three interventions address the three underlying causes of behavioural problems: Genetics, Experience and Environment discussed in our previous article (see Understanding Fear, Stress and Anxiety in Cats).

#1. Medicine

It is used to alter genetic disturbances as much as possible. Just like in human psychiatry, medical treatment in anxious cats aims to correct abnormalities and disturbances present in the brain and body of the patient. 

Anxious cats have abnormalities and impairments of many systems such as neurochemistry, stress, emotionality, arousal, reactivity, impulsivity, learning and information perception and processing. To put it bluntly, their brains are diseased and not working properly. 

Anxiety and stress also negatively affects the immune, hormonal and metabolic systems of the body to harm health. 

The aim of medicine is to render the brain and body as normal, optimal and functional as possible to improve health, quality of life and longevity. This is no different to the principles and goals that apply to treating any other disease process such as diabetes or kidney disease.

Fortunately, medicine will often quickly help cats become far more calm, relaxed, rational, functional, happy and healthy. Medicine can also include intervention with nutritional support and pheromone therapy.

  • Zylkene is a great anti-anxiety calming supplement for cats which can be effective and is now commercially available in Australia at last.
  • Feliway pheromone can also assist some cats to feel more calm.

#2. Management 

It is used to address the environment. The environment must be made optimal so the cat’s stress can be reduced and they can be set up for success. 

Triggers must be avoided and all of the cat’s needs must be provided for. This often involves assessment of resources as discussed above. 

Feeding, play, activity, social and resting programs should be established that best mimic the cat’s natural preferences and engage their mind and bodies in productive healthy ways.

#3. Modification 

This is used to address learning and experience. The aim of this is to teach the cat to relax and feel better. Modification tries to establish a new emotional response and behavioural pattern to a trigger i.e. teach the cat to feel less afraid, cope and remain calm.

For most cats a program of counter-conditioning and desensitisation (involving high value food) will be the most successful way to acclimatise the cat to the stimuli that cause the fearful response. This needs to be done very carefully in a controlled way to ensure no further harm is done.

A behaviour modification plan should be devised and implemented with the help of a suitably qualified vet or force-free behavioural trainer.


Cats are a unique and special species that share our lives. Their evolutionary history has given rise to certain behavioural traits which can predispose them to fear and anxiety and cause conflict with people. 

Cats have been left a legacy of behavioural needs which are often poorly understood or met by people in a domestic setting which further contributes to anxiety and emotional problems. 

We need to endeavour to be mindful of their mental health and be equipped to recognise when they need assistance. In this way we can improve our long-standing relationship and with them and be worthy cat companions. 

written by Dr Eleanor Parker, February 2019 for Australian Cat Lover (all rights reserved)

For questions, clarifications, further information or if you know a dog with separation anxiety who needs help, please contact Dr Eleanor Parker of Pawly Understood. 

About Dr Eleanor Parker
BSc BVMS (Hons) MANZCVS (Behaviour)

Elle graduated from Murdoch University in 2010. Starting out in emergency and critical care, she quickly found her passion for behaviour and mental health in animals.

Fascinated by this blossoming field, Elle undertook further study through the University of Sydney in 2015 and sat her membership exams in veterinary behaviour in 2016.

Elle's behavioural mantra is "compassion, communication, co-operation, cohabitation". She offers private veterinary consulting services to people needing assistance with their pets' behaviour through her practice at Pawly Understood.

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