Cat Anxiety

Cat anxiety is a topic I thought I'd address here in conjunction with litter box problems. Litter box problems are often a response to stress, and anxiety certainly can be a factor.

A little background is in order here. This discussion actually started with a problem submitted by Gail with regard to her Maine Coon cat defecating outside the litter box.

One of the comments on that submission, posted anonymously, was also about a Maine Coon (but younger) who defecates outside the box whenever her owner goes away for an extended period.

In reading the comment, it occurred to me that this young cat might be suffering from "cat anxiety" in the form of separation anxiety. I think that it's possible that many cats are suffering from some sort of stress or anxiety as a response to stress.

As I was writing the response to the comment, I thought that the topic deserved its own page. Here we go...

Here is the original comment, reposted, so you can follow along...

Cat defecates outside of box when I leave

I have a similar problem with my 2 year old Maine Coon. The first year after I got her we stayed in the same apartment with two other cats with whom she got along well. Then we moved in with my parents and their two cats and two dogs which she got along well with also.

Two months ago we moved again and now she is a single cat in an apartment with six people. Everyone is very nice to her and pays her ample attention but when I (her person) leaves to go on a trip (even if it's just for 24 hours) she poops in the living room.

She has never displayed this behavior before and I know it's an emotionally based problem but I don't know how to remedy it.

Here is my response.

It sounds like so far, your young cat has had a lot of change in her life. Cats are very territorial and moves can be very traumatic.

It can take some cats up to 6 months to get settled in. Getting to know both the new territory and the players involved (both humans and other animals) is very stressful, even if your cat doesn't show it. Removing a cat from a house where she has formed a bond with other pets can increase the stress even more.

It also sounds like the only thing that has remained fairly constant for her is... you! I'm not a psychologist, but I'm guessing that if this were a human child, we'd probably say that she suffers from abandonment issues. When the only constant in her life doesn't return home in a timely manner, she stresses.

In pets, this is often referred to as separation anxiety. Many people may not realize it, but cats do suffer from separation anxiety just as dogs do.

Dogs are usually pretty obvious about this behavior with whining and barking, and scratching at the door when you leave, and soon after. Sometimes they destroy the house while you're gone.

Cats are often more subtle (although some will chew wires, shred toilet paper, and so on), but your cat (if I'm right) is expressing the stress in the form of inappropriate elimination.

I've seen separation anxiety in my own cats (although never to that extreme). What often happens is that everything seems normal until you get ready to leave the house, and then the "bad" behavior comes out. Your situation is a bit different, but it's the same idea.

So, assuming that the inappropriate elimination is due to "cat anxiety" I have some ideas, and as usual, it's all trial and error until you find what works:

  • The first thing to remember is that anything you can do to make your cat feel more comfortable and more secure is likely to help. So, giving her a secure environment, lots of attention, bringing out her hunting behavior, and so on is all good.
  • Does your veterinarian handle cat behavior problems well? If so, see what the vet recommends. I know that in some cases they're prescribing anti-anxiety medication, and put your kitty on Prozac. I'm not a big fan of this, but it may work, and it may only need to be used temporarily.

    Prozac (Fluoxetine) is an antidepressant for humans. Some vets are using it, however, off-label, for cats. In humans, Prozac is often prescribed for people with anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and depression. These behaviors often go together.

    Some cats don't do well on human medication (plus they're small creatures and metabolize some drugs differently), and there are side effects and drug interactions. So, this should be carefully controlled. 

    I'm not sure what the current status is, but I know that cat and dog versions of anti-anxiety medication are at least being worked on. If one is available, I'm sure your vet will know.
  • If your vet can recommend an animal behaviorist (pet psychologist), preferably one that specializes in cats, that may help. Often, they can recommend changes to your environment or your cat's routine, and give you step-by-step instructions.
  • Always praise, never punish.
  • Make sure she has plenty of cat toys. Something like the Tick Tock Teaser or Peak-A-Prize can keep her entertained when you're not around.
  • Stimulate her. Leave treats around the house for her to find. This will satisfy her hunting behavior. Get a fishing pole type toy like Da Bird and have one of the others play with her with it every day while you're gone.
  • Does she have a scratching post? These are big stress relievers.
  • Make sure she has a "safe spot" in the house. Does she have her own bed? It's best to set up a well equipped cat sanctuary where she can go to be safe. If space is a concern, cat trees and kitty condos are usually well liked by most cats.
  • Try scenting up a blanket with your scent and placing it in her cat bed just before you leave the house every day.

    Then, gradually extend the number of hours that you're gone over a period of days. Each time, before you leave, scent up a blanket with your scent and place it in her bed, and place her on it. Each time you return home, praise her and play with her. Give her treats.

    Over time, she may get used to your being gone longer and longer and will learn to like the leaving and returning experience.
  • Are you the only one who feeds her? Cleans her box? Can you choose one or two of the others in the house to both give her special attention and feed her/clean her box? If you can get her to bond more with the others, it may ease her anxiety.
  • Try Feliway. Feliway is synthetic cat cheek pheromone and has been known to reduce anxiety. You can buy the diffuser and have it fill the house with it, as well as use the sprayer. Spray the pant legs of everyone who enters the house with it.
  • Finally, can you leave her at your mother's house when you leave for more than a day? I would normally say that this would add stress (and it will), but it may be less stressful than what she's experiencing now since she didn't do this when she lived there.

    Some cats adjust to living in two locations, as long as they have spent enough time in each to get used to them. I wouldn't make this my first choice, but it's an idea.

If it is, in fact, simply a case of "cat anxiety" at work, I hope that helps, and please let us know what you try and what works.

Comments: What do you think?

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