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Nervousness and anxiety in cats

Nervous behaviour is a very common problem among cats. Most of us know of a cat who flees at the sound of the doorbell, disappearing to the darkest corner of the wardrobe or under the bed. The sad thing about nervous cats, is they are easy to ignore - often suffering in silence as sometimes it seems like they are ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Their welfare may be compromised if their nervous behaviour is extreme, and often there are simple things we can put in place to help them feel better.
Nervousness and anxiety in cats

Extremely nervous and anxious cats will often hide away for so long, the owners rarely see them, only venturing out for food, water and to use a litter tray in the dead of night when no one is around. With time and careful interactions, these cats can begin to trust their owner and may spend more time with them, but they may be easily spooked, bolting back to their hiding place until they feel happy again.

They can display problems such as aggression towards anyone coming too close, toileting in unwanted places (they can be too nervous to get to the tray), as well as stress related illnesses such as Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (known as FLUTD).

Their body language is also different to that of a more confident cat. Their eyes can be wide with dilated pupils if they are approached while hiding and when they sleep, they will be curled up or hunched on all four feet rather than stretching out and rolling over as relaxed cats often do. When moving through the environment, their body is held low to the ground as they crouch along with their tail and ears down. They essentially want to be invisible.

There are many potential reasons for such a nervous disposition. One of the most common explanations is a lack of socialisation during a critical period in their development – between 2 to 8 weeks of age. It is during this time that cats learn not to be scared about the type of environment they are going to live in. For example, cats bred in busy family homes will be exposed to all the sights and sounds that come with it, usually meeting lots of people of different ages and being gently handled. These cats are much more likely to live comfortably in this sort of home as adults, than kittens born in a quiet home without children. At 2 to 8 weeks of age, most cats are not with their forever owners at this stage, so it is important to find out about the cat’s experiences during this window to ensure they are going to the right sort of home.

Furthermore, some well socialised cats find their environment too stressful for them to function happily. For example, if they are living with a reactive dog that chases or barks at them for example, they may permanently feel unsafe and unable to relax out in the open. This highlights the importance of matching the right cat to the right environment to give them the best chance of living a happy and stress-free life. For some cats with little or no experience with people, this can mean homing them in an environment with little interference from people, such as on a farm or stables.

Nervous and anxious cat behaviour may also be a consequence of a traumatic experience in a cat’s life. They may have been mistreated and have lost their trust in people. It can take time to overcome these feelings, but can be done with a sensitive owner.

Behavioural treatment for nervous cats involves making their life easier and building their confidence. For example, cats that are hiding excessively need easy access to food, water comfortable bedding and litter tray. So these need to be positioned nearby. Providing additional hiding places around the cat, such as cardboard boxes or igloo beds, can help expand the space they are using. We can begin to gain their cat’s trust is by hand feeding tasty food and spending time them in a very low-pressure way - sitting quietly and not paying them any attention at first while their confidence grows. It’s essential to go at the cat’s pace as they are all different. Finally, it is important to remove or manage anything the cat finds stressful from the environment, which can in some cases mean finding them a new home that better suits their specific needs, if this isn’t possible.

If you are looking for help for your anxious cat, you can find a list of qualified behaviourists at www.abtc.org.uk.

By behaviourist Lucy Hoile

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