Anxiety and the Modern Cat

Dr. Lindell discusses how to cope with the behavioral changes of a stressed-out cat.

My clients often present behavioral situations that are interesting and, hopefully, of use to CatWatch readers. Heres the story of Buddy, a cat that shows a high level of anxiety.


I adopted my cat Buddy when he was six months old. He seemed to be a friendly, happy sort of cat. When he was about two years old, he developed a strange behavior. If he does something wrong, even when my boyfriend does not scold him, he crouches down and convulses as though he is about to spit up a hairball. When we pick him up, he becomes very stiff, then tries to run away. I would also like to mention that, lately, Buddy has begun to urinate on things that belong to me – my purse, my slippers. He does not urinate on my boyfriends things. Buddy does live with two other cats. What can we do to help Buddy? I think he is having panic attacks.

Poor Buddy! He does seem to be a frightened fellow. As cats mature socially, over the course of about two years, they often exhibit behavioral changes in social situations. In Buddys case, with maturity came an increase in fear and anxiety.

I probably dont need to tell you that fearful cats need to be treated with extra tender loving care. A reprimand for Buddy may need to be so gentle as to be nearly imperceptible. In fact, he should not be punished unless absolutely necessary. And he should never be struck, chased or restrained as punishment.

Remember punishment should be administered with just enough intensity to stop the behavior. Because this precise intensity is so difficult to determine, punishment is not always a safe and useful tool for modifying the behavior of our pets. For some cats, even a blast from a Super Soaker water gun just barely gets their attention. While for a sensitive, fearful cat such as Buddy, sighing, tensing your muscles or establishing brief eye contact might be more than adequate. The goal is to interrupt, not to frighten.

It does sound as though Buddys anxiety is associated with physiological signs consistent with panic behavior. Do keep in mind that certain medical conditions may predispose a cat to developing convulsive behavior such as you described. It is important that Buddys veterinarian determine that there is no underlying circulatory or respiratory problem which could be exacerbated when Buddy is frightened.

It is interesting that, with maturity, Buddy has begun to urinate on your possessions. Unless Buddy is suffering from inflammation or infection of his urinary tract, this behavior more than likely represents urine marking. This urination reflects passive aggression on Buddys part. Being a fearful cat, Buddy is surely at least a little bit intimidated by your boyfriend. He may also be intimidated by the other household cats. When a cat urinates on an item, he is able to claim it for his own.

By urinating on your personal possessions, he is in a way claiming you for his own as well. These marked items serve to increase Buddys worth, and in turn, his confidence may also rise.

What can you do? First, instead of punishing Buddy for his misdeeds, try to set him up for success. Create a list of the behaviors that you find unacceptable. Then, see whether you can manipulate the environment so that he is unable to gain access to these behaviors.

Next, make it easy for Buddy to do the right thing. Build his confidence by giving him small projects and puzzles that he can solve on his own. You might hide treats and toys for him to discover. You may teach him tricks and reward him, increasing his trust in you and your boyfriend.

Another way to build Buddys trust is to avoid reaching for him and holding him until he freezes and runs. Instead, teach him to come to you. This can be done with a treat or toy. Once he has learned to approach when you call, begin to very gently restrain him. Take your time, using a very gentle touch, then releasing him and rewarding him before he gets the urge to flee. Repeat this several times daily, very gradually increasing the duration of your hold.

As Buddy begins to relax and gain confidence, he may actually stop urinating on your things. Be alert to any aggression among the cats that may trigger urine marking. Do provide plenty of litter boxes in accessible locations -Buddy may be willing to deposit his scent in these acceptable areas.

I should mention that cats that suffer from anxiety do often benefit from the use of anxiety-reducing medication. You may contact your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist to determine whether Buddy would benefit from such a drug.

Meanwhile, steer Buddy toward the things that make him happy. Offer him the type of play and food that he likes. Discontinue using those gestures that frighten him. Try to help him make the right choices.