Most cat owners are extremely familiar with their cat’s normal day-to-day habits, yet witness the occasional moment of unpredictability and surprise.
However, when a cat’s normal behavioral patterns suddenly change and do not quickly return to normal, the change should never be ignored. Sudden alterations in your cat’s behavior can be indicative of serious medical or psychological issues requiring prompt veterinary attention.
As you may already know, cats are masters at hiding their pain and illness. Because they are both predators and prey, they adapted this as a crucial survival strategy. Cats may seem perfectly normal even when they are not feeling well, and can remain outwardly stoic until their suffering becomes intolerable. It is only then that they will start showing symptoms of distress.
Aging and Stress May Change Your Cat’s Behavior
When cats are sick or emotionally distraught, they can act depressed, become withdrawn, overly quiet, anxious or even extremely vocal. They may display unexpectedly aggressive behavior towards their owners and other animals in the household.
Sudden behavioral changes are usually triggered by the aging process or stress caused by any abrupt environmental change or variation in their schedules.
To learn more about these behavioral changes and some of the possible underlying conditions that may cause them, we reached out to Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, a specialist in animal behavior at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
Dr. Borns-Weil began our discussion with a short history about how these diminutive predators came to live with people thousands of years ago. “Because cats are skillful mousers, they controlled rodents and the other critters that were consuming the grain crops of farmers. In return for their hunting prowess, people fed them, and allowed them to come and go in their barns and homes, thus developing a symbiotic relationship,” explained Dr. Borns-Weil. “Even though cats were considered ‘friends,’ they were not yet invited to remain as indoor cats in households until the fancier cat breeds were developed. These cats were kept strictly indoors since the people who owned these purebreed cats were afraid that their valuable pets would be stolen.”
However, this indoor lifestyle has also required pet cats to adjust to our surroundings, a habitat that is by nature quite alien to them. As a result, they can develop a variety of physical and emotional problems.
1. Your Cat Stops Using the Litter Box
Dr. Borns-Weil explained that it is unnatural for cats to simply stop using the litter box. Although some people believe that this behavior is a sign of anger or spite, she reminds owners that cats are not vindictive. Cats that stop using the litter box are communicating to their owner that they are distressed in some manner.
She emphasizes that cats are fastidious about their “toilet habits,” so when a cat suddenly starts urinating or defecating outside box, this is a red flag that tells the owner that the cat needs veterinary attention. Certainly, it could be a matter of paying more attention to the cleanliness of the box itself, its location or the type of litter being used — but a medical workup is strongly advised first.
For example, Dr. Borns-Weil explained that cats who start urinating outside of the litter box may be doing so due to the pain of a urinary tract infection, kidney stones, feline interstitial cystitis or even a blockage. Some cats can start to associate the litter box with their pain, and therefore avoid using it. Stressed and insecure cats may start spraying urine on objects to mark their territories. If constipated, cats can also associate the litter box with pain and start defecating outside the box. Dr. Borns-Weil stressed that it is crucial that owners have their cat examined by a veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical problem before assuming this is simply a behavioral problem.
2. Changes in Your Cat’s Sleep Patterns
Adult cats generally spend 16 to 18 hours a day cat-napping and sleeping. Most cats will normally awaken when their owner enters the room, or when it is feeding time. Failing to react to these stimulations may indicate that something is wrong. Any significant illness may cause cats to sleep for longer or shorter periods of time.
Obese cats may sleep more due to pain or low energy levels. Changes in the areas where cats usually sleep can be indicative of pain from arthritis, or a fearful cat may suddenly choose to get away from another cat by sleeping in high places. To avoid contact with humans or other pets, cats who are in pain may start sleeping under the bed or in the closet, for example.
3. Your Cat Declines or Drastically Increases Grooming Habits
Cats are meticulous about their grooming habits and spend considerable time cleaning themselves. But dirty or greasy coats, hair loss, bald patches, not grooming at all or over-grooming can be signs of an underlying medical condition, or stress and anxiety. Excessive grooming can indicate a skin condition caused by allergies, fleas, dry skin and neurological conditions. Stressed cats may groom excessively because licking or grooming releases endorphins (the body’s own anti-anxiety hormone), causing the cat to feel soothed.
On the other hand, according to Dr. Borns-Weil, “An underlying health problem may cause a decrease in grooming. Overweight cats may have difficulty reaching some areas of their bodies, causing matting of the coat. These cats are also at risk of anal gland problems and urinary tract infections because it is hard for them to thoroughly clean themselves after eliminating. Older cats with dental or arthritic pain may also experience enough discomfort to cause them to stop grooming.”
4. Your Cat Increases Vocalization
Sudden increases in the frequency, volume or characteristics of the cat’s vocalization may be the symptom of an underlying illness such as asthma or an upper respiratory infection. Yowling may indicate a hearing loss, confusion or feeling lost. Persistent vocalization may be an expression of pain, discomfort or stress. Cats who are grieving may start howling and vocalize excessively as they search for a feline companion or family member.
According to Dr. Borns-Weil, “Although separation anxiety is not as common in cats as it is in dogs, cats can also experience separation anxiety. This may cause cats to vocalize excessively. Cats who are accustomed to having their owners at home most of the time may suffer separation anxiety when their owner gets a new job, for instance — suddenly leaving the cat alone most of the day.”
Since there are many reasons for sudden changes in a cat’s vocalizations, it is essential for the owner to seek prompt veterinary attention to ascertain whether excessive vocalizations are rooted in physical or behavioral concerns and to get the necessary treatment.
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5. Changes in Your Cat’s Social Interactions
Most cats are delighted to interact with other family pets and their human guardians. However, cats who suddenly refuse social contacts, are uncharacteristically withdrawn or become aggressive are displaying major flags to which owners must pay attention. These sudden changes in a cat’s affable behavior can be caused by stress and anxiety caused by a new pet (or baby) being introduced into the household, changes in the household makeup, a death or divorce, seasonal changes, moving to a new home or pain and illness.
Dr. Borns-Weil points out that indoor cats often are more sensitive to changes in the household than indoor-outdoor cats. “The world is small for indoor cats, so change affects them more than indoor-outdoor cats. Outdoor cats can get away from things they don’t like. They can hunt, explore and mark their territory. Indoor only cats don’t have that luxury.”
Indoor-only cats living in a feline-enriched environment are much more able to tolerate changes. “Indoor-only cats need regular physical, emotional and intellectual stimulation to help keep them fit and in good spirits. Cat trees, shelves on the wall leading to places on which they can climb, cardboard boxes in which they can hide, window boxes placed in areas from which they can watch birds and scampering wildlife are all essential ingredients that make up an enriched environment,” explains Dr. Borns-Weil.
“Because cats are predatory animals, playing with them interactively with feather toys several times a day not only mimics natural hunting behavior, it facilitates the bonding process with the owner. It’s good exercise, too.”
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6. Changes in Your Cat’s Appetite
Although the prevailing myth is that cats are “finicky eaters,” this is not actually the case. Healthy cats enjoy their meals and look forward to feeding times. Lack of appetite may be a sign of an upset stomach, stress, dental problems, intestinal parasites, a cardiac problem, ingestion of a toxic substance or an intestinal blockage. Separation anxiety and depression are among the leading causes of inappetence in cats.
On the other hand, an unexplained ravenous appetite can be caused by psychological problems or medical conditions such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism, or poor food absorption in the gastrointestinal system. Both of these changes in eating habits can be serious conditions that should be promptly evaluated and treated by a veterinarian.
7. Weight Changes in Your Cat
Sudden weight gain or loss is not normal for cats. Cats can be avid eaters, yet experience unexplained weight changes. Often owners don’t notice weight loss or gain, especially in longhaired cats with thick coats.
Some of the medical conditions that may cause unexplained weight loss are diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, dental problems, upper respiratory infections, cancer, leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus. Changes in diet, schedules or regular routine can also cause appetite loss.
While cats will put on weight from overeating and lack of exercise, unexplained weight gain also can be caused by fluid retention from heart disease, tumors or internal organ disease. Unexplained weight gain or loss should always be promptly evaluated by a veterinarian.