Concepts, Terms And Signs Of Anxiety In Cats

Anxiety in cats is common but when left untreated, it can lead to problematic behaviors and medical issues. For these reasons, it is important to recognize and understand the signs of anxiety in cat behavior. Part one of this article will help you get started by explaining the concepts, terms, and signs of anxiety in cats. 

When discussing feline anxiety, experts use many terms that can be easily misunderstood or confused. Words such as fear, anxiety, and stress are often used interchangeably, but they actually mean different things. While fear and anxiety refer to emotions, stress describes a response to the various stimuli that a cat may encounter.

Understanding fear, anxiety and stress

What is fear in cats?

Fear in cats is an emotion that includes an adaptive response to a potentially dangerous situation. When animals perceive changes in their surroundings that appear threatening, they will experience fear and respond by protecting themselves. Fear is a normal, appropriate, and healthy emotional response for cats that are encountering a situation that makes them feel unsafe.

What is anxiety in cats?

When a cat experiences fear and cannot escape from or avoid the situation that is causing it, chronic anxiety may result. Anxiety, like fear, is an emotion. However, unlike fear, anxiety is more generalized and the cause is unidentified. Anxiety symptoms in cat behavior include inter-cat aggression and various forms of marking.

What is stress in cats?

Stress refers to complex learned, emotional, and bodily responses to various stimuli. The purpose of stress is to help cats maintain a sense of normalcy and stability during times of change and disruption. Cats can experience stress in both positive and negative situations. Emotions such as fear and anxiety activate stress in order to help animals cope with change.

In most cases, stress is a normal and healthy response to change. Cats respond to stress in different ways. Stress causes physical responses in cats that make them either move away from a situation or defend themselves.

However, stress can be detrimental when cats feel like they don’t have a way to eliminate the sources of their fear and anxiety for long stretches of time. When stress is prolonged, it can become chronic and pathological. Fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce stress in cats. First of all, you need to know how to identify signs of anxiety in cats.

Signs of anxiety in cats

If you think your cat might be suffering from anxiety, there are several signs to watch for. A chronically stressed cat often wants to hide most of the time, seems hypervigilant or high strung, and might act unusually withdrawn. Changes in appetite, sleep patterns, and sociability are other red flags to look out for. Anxiety can also lead to behavioral issues such as aggression and marking.

Inter-cat aggression

Inter-cat aggression is a common behavioral problem caused by fear, anxiety, and stress. Physical fights are the most obvious forms of inter-cat aggression, but cat owners might miss out on more subtle signs of distress. A cat that feels threatened might become passive and inhibited. Visual signs of stress include moving away slowly from the aggressor and avoiding eye contact. 

Marking behaviors

Cats who exhibit marking behaviors should be evaluated in order to rule out medical causes, Feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC), and primary environmental and social factors. The next step is to create a house floor plan diagram that identifies locations of interaction and marking. This is used to identify causes and solutions for marking behaviors. 

One of the most common causes of marking behavior in cats is a stressful environment. Finding ways to reduce fear and anxiety helps to decrease both marking and inter-cat aggression.

Urine marking

When a cat sprays urine, he assumes a standing posture with his tail up and twitching. He sprays a small amount of urine usually on a vertical surface. The frequency and volume of spraying vary. 

Urine marking can be sexually related or caused by anxiety. Changes to a cat’s environment might provoke urine marking. Cats get used to a collective household odor that consists of the scents of themselves, other pets, and the people who live there. When new pets, people, or furniture enter a home, the odor changes and this can lead some cats to spray.

Anxious cats tend to mark in order to reduce their anxiety by making an area smell familiar to them. Confident cats mark in order to convey their presence to others. Some cats spray the same areas repeatedly because the odor changes over time. Things that change temperature might be targets of repeated spraying because the cooling or warming affects the odor. 

Cats might spray new items that enter into your home and have unfamiliar odors, such as suitcases, packages, or shoes. If a cat sprays near windows or doors, the perceived threat might be from outside. Spraying inside of the house indicates that the threat is within the household.

Rubbing and scratching

Other forms of marking include rubbing, scratching, and middening. Scratching furniture or other household items deposits scent from the glands at the base of footpads throughout the home. It also leaves visible marks on objects signaling the cat’s presence. When cats rub against people, other animals, walls, or furniture, they are using the glands on their cheeks and chin to deposit their scent. 


Middening is the least common form of marking. It occurs when cats deposit their feces outside of the litter box throughout the home in strategic and open areas. The approach to dealing with this behavior is similar to urine marking. First, medical causes are ruled out, and then, the house floor plan is studied.

Some possible causes of middening include overcrowding, limited access to the litter box, fear of the litter box, or a poorly maintained litter box. 

How to address cases of house soiling

Urine marking and middening behaviors in cats are best addressed by reducing or eliminating the factors that are causing stress and anxiety. Reconsidering the placement of litter boxes might also be helpful. 

Litter boxes should be placed in quiet areas away from cat doors and flaps. Cats should be able to access a litter box without having to encounter other cats. They should be placed in different locations throughout the home, at least one on each floor of multi-level homes.

Cats have different preferences when it comes to types of litter boxes and kitty litter. Some prefer covered litter boxes, while others like open ones. While some urinate and defecate in the same box, others prefer to use different boxes. A litter box should be at least be 1.5 times the length of the cat from head to tail base.

Final thoughts

Excessive stress and anxiety can cause many difficulties for cats and their owners. Marking and aggression are two of the most common behavior problems that result from chronic stress. 

Once you understand the concepts and terms and can recognize the signs of stress and anxiety in your cats, you will be well on your way to identifying the causes of anxiety and finding solutions that will help everyone breathe a sigh of relief.