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What are Agitation in Cats?

Cats are generally mellow and laid back, gliding silently across the floor, submitting to human cuddling, and ignoring the family dog. But from time to time, their moods change and they can become restless, agitated and sometimes even aggressive. It’s important to understand the source of this distressing change and how to deal with it. It can arise from separation anxiety, a change in the home, or even physical illness.

Agitation is a behavioral change that always has a cause, whether the cause is evident or not, and is the cat’s response to a negative stimulus. Memories of distress can cause agitation weeks or even months after a stressful experience.

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Symptoms of Agitation in Cats

Since agitation can arise from many sources, there may be differences in how the cat behaves, but there are symptoms that are commonly seen when a cat is agitated. Different cats may react differently to the same stimulus or illness, but just one or a few symptoms may alert the Pet Parent to suspect agitation. Main symptoms of agitation include:

  • Increased and more urgent vocalization
  • Urinary and fecal “accidents” around the home
  • Negative reactions to being touched
  • Irritability
  • Constant wandering, inability to settle down
  • Aggression
  • Repetitive behavior, like walking in circles or pacing back and forth
  • Digging or licking at the same spots repeatedly
  • Self-mutilation - chewing and scratching the skin

  • Drooling
  • Tail chasing or stiffness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dilated pupils
  • Not sleeping

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Causes of Agitation in Cats

Agitation can be caused by a variety of circumstances or as a result of other conditions the cat may have. For example agitation caused by hyperesthesia syndrome features agitation and irritability. If you have noticed agitated behavior in your cat, the cause may be:

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Diagnosis of Agitation in Cats

Agitation may be triggered by several illnesses, so it’s important that a veterinarian do a thorough physical exam including blood tests, imaging, and observation. A neurological exam will help determine whether epilepsy or other seizure disorder is to blame. A medical and behavioral history will be taken from you to uncover underlying causes such as trauma or increased stress. 

Connections between environmental changes or occurrences and agitated behavior should produce a pattern that will provide clues about the cause of the agitation, and may also suggest a path for effective treatment. 

The veterinarian may ask you to keep a journal that matches periods of agitation with what was going on with the cat at the time. It’s also useful to log what measures may have calmed the cat down, pointing to causes and proper treatment. For instance, restlessness at night may be from not enough exercise and play during the day. This knowledge will direct treatments such as incorporating more activity into the cat’s life.

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Treatment of Agitation in Cats

Treatment of agitation in cats is directed by the underlying cause, whether medical or behavioral. 

Medical Treatment

If the cat is experiencing agitation because of a medical condition like hyperthyroidism or a seizure disorder, medical intervention may be needed to treat the disease first. This may involve medication, or behavioral therapy. Hyperthyroidism may be treated with surgery or nuclear medicine to shrink or remove the thyroid. 

Medications may be provided by the veterinarian to fight anxiety and physical symptoms that cause agitation such as pain. Gabapentin may be used to treat pain and, at higher doses, anxiety and stress. A veterinary version of Tramadol can eliminate pain, as can nonsteroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).  

Environmental and behavioral modification

If a cat is agitated because they and their family have moved to a new home, or if they’ve gotten a new cat or dog, positive behavior modification can be helpful in easing the trauma and reducing agitation and aggressiveness. Distracting the cat with treats, praising their first approaches to the new dog or cat, and rewarding positive behaviors like play, are effective in reducing stress and anxiety to help calm the cat. Play and exercise are key to settling a cat so they can become calmer.

Removing or rearranging objects or setups that distress a cat and cause them to act out is another intervention that helps the cat to relax. For example if a cat becomes stressed and agitated because they can see neighbor cats outside, it might help to move their cat tree or perch to another window where they’re not likely to see them.

Soothing a cat may be as simple as holding them and petting them rhythmically and calmly. Of course, this remedy only works if the cat’s in the mood to be petted. If they’re not, the agitation will only increase.

Herbal Remedies 

Some herbs are believed to be effective in calming agitated cats. Catnip is an herb that is known to stimulate a cat to play. Why would you want to stimulate your cat if they’re already agitated? Stimulation may distract the cat from the cause of their agitation and re-set their anxious mood to a different one. Also, catnip tires a cat out, making it more likely that the tired cat will sleep through the night and be more mellow during the day.

Another herb believed to calm agitation is chamomile. As in humans, chamomile may take the “edge” off and relax the cat so they can calm down. It’s important to remember that small doses of chamomile are harmless, but can be poisonous in cats at higher doses. Herbs, like medications, should only be given under the supervision and at the direction of a veterinarian. 

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Recovery of Agitation in Cats

Agitation is a condition that may come up repeatedly during a cat’s life. The cause for one incident may not be the same as another occurrence. For this reason, diagnostic and treatment methods may be different each time. Repeated agitation is not considered a “relapse.” Each incident is unique and must be treated uniquely.

Follow up visits with your veterinarian are important in possibly preventing future incidents, as well as documenting situations surrounding your cat’s agitation. Agitation in cats is often manageable once the cause is determined.

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Agitation in Cats Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

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