Are you worried about the effects of anxiety on your cat? While it isn’t easy to deal with an anxious cat, we have seen that understanding the related terminology and the causes of anxiety in cats can be helpful. Having looked at the concepts and possible triggers in the first two parts of this article, we will now turn our attention to the best ways to help a stressed cat.
In part three of this article, we will look at five things to consider when trying to calm an anxious cat: environmental management, environmental and cognitive enrichment, behavior modification, pheromones, and medications. Then we will describe the five pillars of a healthy feline environment.
Environmental management means making necessary changes to the physical surroundings in which your cats live in order to help them feel more in control of their situations. The recommended changes depend on the particular circumstances and the severity of the problem. In severe cases of inter-cat aggression, especially if one of the cats is in physical or emotional danger, a temporary or permanent separation might be necessary.
Constant exposure to an aggressive cat is harmful both physically and emotionally to a submissive cat. Temporarily segregating them provides the submissive cat with a feeling of control and a way to reduce stress. This makes him less fearful and less likely to develop generalized anxiety and distress.
Segregation isn’t the only way to manage the environment. Other changes can be made that give cats more space and increase their access to resources. For example, installing cat shelves or trees around the home provides an elevated place for an anxious cat to escape to. It also adds space to the environment so that cats are less likely to be in competition for comfortable resting spots.
Making sure there are plenty of hiding places is another good way to help anxious cats feel more in control of their environment. Hiding in boxes lets fearful cats avoid seeing the sources of their anxiety and serves as a temporary respite. However, if you notice that your cat is hiding most of the time, it is a sign that the cat is experiencing generalized anxiety.
Installing cat doors that provide access to certain parts of the home for the victim and keep out the aggressor is another possible strategy. Some cat doors are designed so that only cats with a magnetic collar are able to open them.
Because competition for resources can lead to stress and anxiety, resources should be distributed in a way that ensures access for all cats at all times. Food bowls, water bowls, and litter boxes should be placed throughout the home and in places where cats cannot be trapped inside. Putting an approved quick-release cat collar with a bell on the aggressor ensures that the victim knows where the aggressor is at any given time.
Environmental and cognitive enrichment
Along with environmental management, another approach to try is environmental enrichment. While management focuses on changes that make anxious cats feel safer, enrichment is a strategy aimed at providing distractions for the aggressive cat in order to refocus his attention and keep him occupied. This can be done with toys, treats, and special DVDs or YouTube videos made for cats.
While many people believe that cats can’t be trained, behavior modification techniques and counter-conditioning can work if you put in the time and effort. To reduce inter-cat aggression, the affected cats should be together only in limited and controlled situations.
The progression and success of the desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS and CC) program will depend on the situation and the cats involved. When the physical safety of the cats is at stake, they should be exposed to each other in a way that keeps them safe, minimizes aggression, and reduces anxiety. For example, they can be in carriers or separated by a screen door.
Their time together should be kept as free of anxiety and fear as possible and associated with positive rewards such as food and treats. The goal is to change the association that the cats have about each other to a positive one. By changing the emotions they feel while they are together, their behaviors toward one another should change as well.
As things progress, the cats can be brought closer together during behavior modification work. At all other times, they should remain segregated. The length of time this process takes varies on a case-by-case basis. It can move along quickly, or it may take many months. Sometimes, it does not work, and it is best to separate them permanently.
A sample plan for behavior modification
The best behavior modification plan for your cats will depend on the specific situation. Here is one example of a plan to use for desensitizing and counter-conditioning an aggressive cat.
The first step is to get the cats used to each other’s scents. This can be done by rotating the cats’ litter boxes without completely cleaning them and by rubbing a washcloth on the victim cat’s cheek and letting the aggressor smell it. The smelling should be repeated twice a day until the aggressor’s reaction to it decreases. Then add a favorite food to the routine to create a positive association.
The next step is to get them used to each other’s sight. Place the cats in large carriers at enough distance from each other to minimize signs of aggression. Feed each cat their favorite food, and then return them to their separate sections of the home. After a number of short sessions with no aggression, gradually start moving the cats closer to one another.
Next, let the victim out of the carrier with the aggressor still inside the carrier, or let them approach each other through a screen door. Provide them with rewards to keep the experience positive. You may also try allowing them to touch paws through a slightly ajar door. You might need a harness to control the aggressor at first.
Once you have gone through these steps and implemented environmental modifications and medications, you may allow them more freedom during these short visits, but continue to monitor them closely.
Pheromones are chemicals that are secreted and trigger a response in members of the same species. Cats secrete pheromones from their cheeks and use them to mark territory, create familiarity, signal potential sexual partners, enhance bonding, and reduce stress.
Synthetic cat pheromones, such as Feliway products, are designed to simulate cat pheromones in order to calm anxious cats, discourage marking, and decrease aggression among cats. They are available as a spray or as plug-ins.
Felifriend is a product available in England that may help when introducing a new cat into your home, but it is not considered safe for cases of ongoing inter-cat aggression.
Several different medications are available to help calm aggressive cats. Two common medications are tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Using medications on an aggressive cat makes behavior modification more successful. TCA’s might work more quickly and effectively but also have more side effects.
When using medications, it is recommended to start at the lowest dose and to increase it gradually over time, every three to six weeks, as needed. Common medications for aggressors include fluoxetine and clomipramine. Clomipramine works on more transmitters and can be very effective. Fluoxetine is good for impulse control and has fewer side effects.
Medication can be given to victims who show signs of significant anxiety such as hiding, hypervigilance, withdrawal, and changes in eating, sleeping, and social patterns. Medications to consider for victims include benzodiazepines and Buspirone. Both of these help victims feel more confident but might cause some victim cats to become aggressive.
Keep in mind that all of these medications are off-label, or in other words, they are being used for a purpose that they are not approved to treat.
Five pillars of a healthy feline environment
The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and the International Society of Feline Medicine (AAFP) have issued a list of five recommendations for a healthy feline environment. These pillars are designed to keep cats physically and emotionally healthy, to support positive interactions with humans and other pets, and to prevent house-soiling behaviors.
Providing a safe place is the first pillar. This involves creating spots for cats to retreat in secluded locations where they can avoid strange smells, noises, people, and other pets. The ability to withdraw to a safe space helps cats feel like they have control over their environment.
Pillar two is to supply a sufficient number of resources for all the cats in your household and to distribute them throughout your home. This includes food and water bowls, litter boxes, scratching posts, play areas and toys, and resting places. Cats need to have access to resources without the need to confront other cats. The distribution of resources reduces the stress caused by competition.
Providing opportunities to play and engage in “hunting” games in order to reduce boredom is the third pillar. Keeping cats physically active reduces boredom, prevents obesity, and stimulates cats mentally. Activities that stimulate cats include food balls, puzzle toys, small plush toys to attack and carry, laser pointers, and fishing pole toys.
The fourth pillar is to provide consistent, positive, and predictable social interaction with humans. Spending time handling kittens gently from a young age helps to establish a lasting bond and to reduce stress. Most cats prefer these interactions to be kept short and sweet. Cats should be allowed to initiate and stop interactions with humans and should not be handled against their will.
Being mindful of a cat’s sense of smell is the final pillar. A familiar smell in the home helps cats feel comfortable in their environment. Unusual odors might throw cats off and cause them to feel anxious. Marking is a common way that cats respond to smells that they find threatening.
Although creating an optimal environment for your cats does take some time and effort, it is an important way to keep them free of anxiety and to prevent common behavior problems. When cats’ physical and emotional needs are not being met, they are likely to engage in house-soiling and aggressive behaviors.
Understanding the concepts of fear, anxiety, and stress and awareness of their causes are helpful in order to determine the best way to calm an anxious cat. When you reduce cat anxiety, you will create a happier and more peaceful household for you and for your feline friends.