Why Do Some Cats Become Anxious or Phobic?

Generalized anxieties and phobias in cats can manifest in a number of ways. Symptoms may include defensive aggression, litter box problems, fur pulling, excessive grooming, fabric sucking, and in some cases, failure to engage in self-maintenance behaviours such as eating and grooming.

Defensive aggression

An anxious cat may withdraw from social interaction with other cats or people. He may avoid others or become aggressive, hissing and even clawing or biting with little provocation.

Aggression caused by anxiety tends to be defensive and results from fear rather than hostility. A defensive-aggressive cat may have been mistreated as a kitten, he may be phobic of a specific individual, or he may be distressed about a present situation, such as a new pet or some other major change in the household.

Specific phobias

Aggression toward or avoidance of specific people or animals is usually caused by a phobia rather than generalized anxiety. A cat may become fearful of an individual who has mistreated him, but he may also develop a generalized phobia of a certain type of person (i.e., children, men with facial hair, people wearing hats, etc.).

Kittens that don’t encounter many different types of people during the critical socialization period (the first few months of life) are more likely to develop generalized phobias. For example, a kitten that only interacts with female humans may develop a phobia of male humans later on. Also, a cat that has been mistreated may develop a general phobia of all those who resemble the abusive individual in some way.

Litter box problems

A cat may regularly urinate or defecate on the floor rather than using the litter box due to medical problems, generalized anxiety, anxiety related to a specific ongoing situation, or a litter box phobia. Litter box phobias are usually caused by traumatic events while using the box, such as being attacked by another animal or being punished for having an accident and then brought to the box directly afterward.

Fur pulling

Anxious cats often engage in repetitive, stereotyped behaviours to comfort themselves. These behaviours increase the production of the body’s natural opiates, which decreases stress.

One of the more common repetitive behaviours is fur pulling. Fur pulling is not necessarily a sign of psychological distress, however. It can also be caused by fleas, mites, allergies to food or airborne substances, skin infections, or other medical disorders. When cats pull out chunks of fur due to anxiety, the condition is called psychogenic alopecia.

Excessive grooming

Like fur pulling, excessive grooming or licking may be caused by parasites, allergies, or infections. Cats will often lick a spot obsessively if it’s itchy or painful, so this behaviour can also indicate a medical problem such as an abscess under the skin. A cat that is pulling out his fur or grooming obsessively should be brought to a veterinarian to rule out medical problems and parasite infestation before treating the behaviour as a sign of psychological distress.

Cats on low-fat diets may develop flaky dry skin, and the subsequent irritation can lead to excessive grooming as well.

Sucking on fabric or wool

Cats suck on fabric, wool, their owners’ fingers or earlobes, or their own paws or tails as a self-comforting behaviour, similar to a toddler sucking his thumb. These behaviours occur most often in cats that were weaned too early. In most cases, the behaviour is harmless, but if there are other signs of distress, a visit to the veterinarian is recommended.

Failure to eat, drink, or groom

A cat that is anxious or depressed may cease to eat, drink, or groom. However, cats may stop eating for reasons other than distress or illness, such as being run off the food bowl by another pet or not wanting to eat because the food is in a noisy, high-traffic area of the house.

Because failure to eat, drink, or groom can be signs of a serious medical problem, consult a veterinarian to rule out medical conditions before assuming the cause is psychological. Cats that stop drinking should receive medical care quickly, as they can become dangerously dehydrated in as little as 12 hours.

Treatments

There are a number of effective treatments for anxiety and related behavioural problems. Spending more quality time with the anxious cat and identifying and eliminating sources of distress will often solve the problem. However, it’s not always possible to remove a stressor. A veterinarian-prescribed anti-anxiety medication can be used as a last resort, but most anxiety problems can be treated with behavioural therapies such as desensitization (gradual, supported exposure to the individual, thing, or situation that is feared) and conditioning (providing treats or praise and affection in the presence of the feared thing to replace negative associations with positive ones).

For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.

References:

    • Fox, M.W. (2007). Cat Body, Cat Mind. The Lyons Press.
    • Plotnick, A., MS, DVM, ACVIM, ABVP. (2 September 2006). “Hair Loss in Cats.” ManhattanCats.com.

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