By Lorie Huston, DVM
It may be strange to think that your cat might suffer from anxiety. However, a stressed out cat is much more common than you’d think. Even worse, stress and anxiety can affect your cat’s health negatively, manifesting itself in a variety of ways including illnesses like cystitis and inappropriate elimination.
If your cat’s behavior changes suddenly in any way, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. He or she can rule out any underlying medical issues as well as make suggestions to help lower your cat's stress level. But why wait? Here are some basic cat needs, and tips for creating a stress-free environment in your home today.
Litter boxes are a necessity for all pet cats, but simply providing a litter box is not enough. Consideration needs to be given to the size of the litter box, the location, the type of litter used, and the daily care of the litter box. There are also many choices of litter available. Choose the one that your cat prefers. In general, heavily fragranced litters are not appreciated by most cats and should be avoided.
In a multi-cat household, there should be at least one litter box for each cat plus one extra. Litter boxes must be kept clean. They should be large enough for your cat to fit comfortably in the box and the boxes should be placed in quiet areas of the home where your cat will not be disturbed while using them.
Food is another cat necessity, but which cat food is the best? Consult your veterinarian to choose a high quality, complete and balanced food that is best to keep your cat healthy. Most cats prefer to graze and should be fed small quantities several times daily. This can be made more difficult in a multi-cat home. Cats in a multi-cat household should be fed measured amounts and not free fed, to protect them from becoming overweight. You may also need to provide more than one feeding station if you have a cat that guards the dish or bullies the other cats at meal-times. A cat that has to worry about defending himself from another cat while eating may become stressed and anxious, and may not eat adequately as a result.
Water is one of the most important nutrients for your cat. However, many cats don’t drink enough water and live on the verge of dehydration, which may contribute both to disease and undue stress. Encourage your cat to take in moisture by feeding a canned diet (at least in part). Some cats also enjoy drinking from a flowing water supply, so water fountains and/or dripping faucets may be helpful for encouraging your cat to drink more water. Separate water stations may be necessary for multi-cat households.
Most cats enjoy perches because being in an elevated position allows them to survey the surrounding area and see any approaching danger (like an antagonistic feline housemate) before the danger becomes a threat.
There are many forms of cat perches, including cat trees, cat shelving, or other objects on which your cat can climb or jump. Consider placing a cat bed, blanket, or towel on the perch for your cat’s comfort. Placing a perch near a window will allow your cat to survey the outdoors, which many cats find entertaining. Again, there should be ample perches for all cats in the home. If you have multiple cats, don’t expect them to share.
Scratching surfaces are important for your cat’s health and well-being. Deny your cat a scratching post or scratching area and you deny your cat the ability to mark his territory as he prefers. This, in turn, may result in stress and even anxiety. Your cat may even choose his own scratching area — like your furniture or carpeting — which will annoy you and create a more stressful environment for your cat.
Provide your cat with both vertical and horizontal scratching surfaces. Make sure there is at least one scratching post/surface for each cat in your home. Additional scratching surfaces cannot do any harm and may be appreciated.
Your cat requires a private place where he can retreat to feel safe when overwhelmed or threatened. Failing to provide such a place will add stress and anxiety to your cat’s life. Hiding places can be a box or even a carrier in which your cat can seek shelter.
In a multi-cat household, blocking the line of sight between cats with a solid barrier can be useful, especially when one cat tends to bully or aggravate the other.
Keep your cat’s mind stimulated and help reduce stress with exercise and interactive games. There are many types of toys available, so experiment and find out what type of toy your cat likes best. Some cats prefer toys with feathers that mimic a bird, while others prefer those that more closely resemble a mouse or small rodent. Laser pointers can be entertaining for some cats as well.
Spend at least 20-30 minutes a couple of times a day actively engaging your cat in play. Your cat will appreciate the time with you, get more exercise (helping to keep him fit), and be less anxious.
Attention from their owners is something that most cats enjoy. Spending some time with your cat on a daily basis, whether it is cuddling or some other activity, can also be a great stress reducer for most cats. This time will also allow you the time to observe your cat’s behavior for any changes.
Cats typically do not care for change. In fact, changes in environment or routine can be quite stressful for your cat. Trying to keep changes to a minimum in your cat’s environment and keeping your cat’s daily routine constant can be useful in preventing or alleviating stress and anxiety.
Consult your veterinarian to see if pheromone products, which work chemically to relieve stress and calm anxiety, would benefit your cat.