A change in your cat’s behavior always causes concern. Your cat’s changing behavior may result from illness, injury, pain, stress, or fear, but before you can bring your cat comfort, you must get to the root of the problem.
There are many possible causes for your cat’s changing behavior. These causes include illness, stress, fear, or pain. We have compiled a guide to help you get a better understanding of some of the most common reasons for feline behavior change. This guide includes symptoms you may notice and what you can do to bring your cat comfort.
Introduction to My Cat Is Acting Strange And Scared
Some of the most frequently seen causes for changes in feline behavior include:
- Respiratory infection
- Parasitic infection
- Other health conditions
- Psychological Changes
Illness, Injury, and Pain
Illness, injury, and pain are common causes of behavioral change in all animals. When you notice changes in your cat’s behavior, the first thing you should always do is assess their physical condition. Check for:
- Changes in breathing patterns – are they breathing more slowly or quickly than usual?
- Changes in heart rate – is your cat’s heart rate abnormally fast or slow?
- Changes in gum color – are their gums a healthy pink color, or are they pale or sticky to the touch?
- Changes in tongue color – is the tongue a healthy pink color?
- Signs of illness – is your cat coughing, sneezing, or pawing at a part of their body?
- Signs of injury – do you notice any cuts, abrasions, or puncture wounds? Is your cat lame on one leg or licking or pawing at one part of their body?
- Signs of infection – do you notice any large swellings or any pus that may indicate an abscess? Is there any eye or nose discharge?
- Changes in body temperature – is their temperature lower or higher than it should be?
- Visible signs of pain – are they limping, exhibiting swelling, or licking at a particular area of the body. Do they mewl if you gently palpate a part of the body?
You should also assess your environment –
- Are there any signs of an altercation with another pet?
- Is there an empty bottle or torn open wrapper that may indicate accidental ingestion of something toxic?
- Are there any signs of vomiting, diarrhea, or dry heaving (a frothy white “liquid”)?
- Is your cat’s water and food bowl still full?
- Has your cat used their litterbox recently? If so, are there any abnormal signs in their box?
If you notice any of these signs of physical distress, your cat’s behavior change is likely due to illness or injury. Contact your vet for the soonest available appointment, or if symptoms indicate an urgency, head to the emergency vet immediately.
Signs that may indicate an emergency include
- Unexplainable changes in normal respiration (15-30 breaths per minute) or heart rate (160-180 beats per minute.)
- Blue coloration to the gums or tongue.
- Any ruptured abscess, open wound, or bleeding laceration or puncture.
- An animal bite. (While it is not always an emergency, animal bites can transmit illness and can get infected very quickly, so they require treatment right away.)
- Loss of consciousness.
- Signs of neurological damage such as loss of coordination.
- Seizure activity.
- Vomiting blood or blood in the feces.
Many illnesses, injuries, or pain can cause your cat’s whole demeanor to change, and only your vet can accurately diagnose the problem. For your reference, however, let us look at some of the most seen diagnoses that may cause changes in your cat’s behavior.
Cats with diabetes may exhibit
- Appetite changes
- Weight loss
- Increased thirst and urination
- Sweet-smelling breath
- Changes in coat
Your vet will do a physical exam, check bloodwork, and run a urinalysis if your cat shows symptoms of diabetes. If your cat has unstable blood sugar levels, the vet may admit them for treatment until they are more stable.
If your cat does have diabetes, treatment will vary based on how severe their symptoms are. Most cats require insulin injections that cost between $20 to $60 every 40 days. Insulin cost varies depending on the severity of your cat’s diabetes.
Cats with a respiratory infection may exhibit
- Appetite loss
- Discharge from the eyes or nose
- Pawing at the eyes
If your cat shows symptoms of a respiratory infection, your vet will give them a thorough physical examination. The vet may also take swabs from the eyes and nose and take a blood sample for testing.
Depending on the cause of your cat’s respiratory infection, the vet may diagnose antibiotics. If an infection is viral instead of bacterial, treatment may include IV fluids, symptom management, and rest.
Cats with parasitic infection may exhibit
- Weight loss
- Poor coat and body condition
- Swollen abdomen
- Eggs, parasites, or pieces of parasite excreted in feces
Some of the most seen parasites in cats include:
It is also possible for cats to develop heartworm disease, but it occurs much less frequently in cats than dogs.
Most parasites are easy to avoid with monthly preventatives.
If your cat shows symptoms of parasitic infection, your vet will take a fecal sample and view it under a microscope. Your vet may need to repeat fecal tests may need repeating depending on where the parasites are in their lifecycle.
For example, a single fecal sample may have no eggs or worms, where a second sample may have multiple eggs indicating a parasite.
Most parasitic infections are easy to treat when treated immediately. Parasitic infections can cause complications if left untreated. Parasites also cause problems when incredibly young, incredibly old, or immunologically compromised dogs are infected.
In some cases, parasites can cause anemia, malnutrition, a weakened immune system, hair loss, dehydration, and even death.
Treatment for parasitic infection depends on the type of parasite, but it usually requires treatment with a de-wormer and supportive care while your cat recovers.
FeLV or Feline Leukemia Virus
Cats with FeLV may exhibit
- Lymph node enlargement
- Behavioral changes that are unexplainable
- Frequent infections
- Weight loss
- Pale gums
- Appetite loss
FeLV is a significant drag on your cat’s immune system, and unfortunately, symptoms of the virus can take months to manifest. The early asymptomatic period of FeLV means that cats can carry the virus without the knowledge that they have it.
Since cats can still transmit the virus but be asymptomatic, vets recommend getting any new cat evaluated for FeLV before bringing them home to meet with other animals.
When evaluating your cat for FeLV, your veterinarian will take a blood sample and look for signs of the virus.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for FeLV. Your vet can provide some symptom relief based on your cat’s symptoms. The average survival time for cats diagnosed with FeLV is 2 ½ years.
The only way to ensure that your cat does not contract FeLV is to keep your cat indoors and not to expose them to other cats with the virus.
Other Health Conditions That Can Affect Your Cat’s Behavior
Other things that can change your cat’s behavior include:
- Cognitive dysfunction – seen in older cats, this is like Alzheimer’s in people.
- Thyroid conditions – changes in thyroid hormone levels can cause a slew of symptoms that affect the whole body.
- Rabies – This is not common, but rabies does have a significant impact on your cat’s health causing abnormal behavior and eventually death which is why the rabies vaccination is so crucial!
It is not only physical illness that can impact your cat’s behavior. Psychological conditions can also be just as damaging.
Cats can suffer from a range of psychological ailments:
- Obsessive-compulsive tendencies
Psychological conditions may result from traumatic experiences, health conditions, medications, boredom, and stress.
If your cat shows no signs of physical injury, changing behavior could result from stress. Like some humans, cats can be stressed by any change in their environment or even pick up on their owner’s stress!
Your cat may become stressed by any number of things, so begin by asking yourself if anything significant has changed in your life lately.
- Have you recently moved?
- Are you currently packing for a move?
- Have you brought home a new pet?
- Have you recently had a baby?
- Do you have a new houseguest?
- Have you separated from your partner/housemate?
- Has a person or pet recently passed away?
- Has anything changed in your home, such as the noise level?
- Has your cat recently returned from boarding?
- Does your cat have a reason to feel jealous?
Even a seemingly insignificant change in environment can change your cat’s behavior. Your cat is more likely to exhibit a change in behavior due to stress if it is incredibly young or elderly.
Fear can result from many of the same situations that cause stress, including significant environmental changes and any threat (or perceived threat) to your cat’s security.
Your Cat’s Body Language
Things like stress and fear can easily be confused if you assess your cat’s behavior based on cause alone. Paying attention to your cat’s body language, however, can help you to distinguish the two.
As your cat’s owner, you should know their “normal” body language. Any changes to body language can tell you a lot about how your cat is feeling. Some of the signs to watch for include:
An Arched Back
An arched back indicates aggression, and a cat will also often raise the hair along the arch of the back. This posture is a way for your cat to look bigger than they are so that they can intimidate something they feel is threatening.
Your cat may arch their back when they stretch, but this differs from an aggressive posture. When your cat stretches, its head will point downward, and its paws will reach out in front of its head.
Standing sideways is also an indication of aggression and a way for your cat to make themselves appear larger than they are.
Standing sideways should not be confused with the “sideways hop” which is generally an invitation to play. Aggressive body language does not accompany hopping or running sideways.
Trying to Make Themselves As Small As Possible
Anxious or fearful cats will try to make themselves look less of a threat by making themselves as small as possible.
Tucking The Tail
Cats, like dogs, will tuck their tail when they feel anxious or fearful. Tail tucking helps to create a smaller profile so that your cat appears to be less of a threat.
When agitated or on alert, your cat may hold their tail high and flick it in short, sharp motions. Tail flicking is a surefire sign that you need to back off because your cat is upset.
Do not confuse tail flicking with a motion that looks more like quivering. Cats often quiver their tails as a sign of excitement.
Tail quivering is a good example of how important it is to consider body language and context together. For example, if you have just returned home and your cat’s tail is quivering, they are likely happy to see you. However, if you have just brought your new male cat home and his tail quivers, he is more likely about to spray and mark his territory.
Like dogs, cats will flatten their ears when they are afraid. You may also see your cat flatten their ears if they are feeling angry. You can tell the difference between these two emotions by taking note of other body language cues like the tail!
Ears Erect and Held High
Your cat has alerted to something if they hold their ears erect and high on their head. For example, if your cat is acting strangely and is flicking its tail from side to side with its ears held high while staring out of the window, they are likely to have spotted something that has them on guard or ready to pounce!
Large, Dilated Pupils
Your cat’s pupils will dilate as a response to stimulation which means that your cat may be experiencing anything from fear to excitement. Observing your cat’s tail can and body posture can tell you more about how your cat feels.
For example, if something is potential prey or a playmate and stimulates your cat, they might look like they are about to pounce with dilated pupils.
Your cat’s pupils may also dilate in a darkened room to allow more light to enter the eye to improve vision or in response to certain substances or medications, including atropine, catnip, and heavy-duty pain relief medications.
Narrow, Constricted Pupils
Narrow or constricted pupils are another sign of aggression. Cats with constricted pupils may also flick their tails, stand sideways, and arch their back.
Do not forget that your cat’s eyes will also constrict when exposed to bright light.
Your Cat’s Vocalizations
In addition to body language, your cat’s vocalizations can help you better interpret your cat’s unusual behavior.
Hissing is a sign that your cat is feeling threatened. You may notice your cat hissing if it encounters an unfamiliar cat or neighborhood dog.
Growling is your cat’s way of telling someone to back off. Growling cats often display aggressive body languages like swatting and back arching.
Cats are also known to growl to show their dominance and to establish territory.
Meowing is a trickier vocalization to interpret as it can mean many different things.
Meowing can be a means of “talking” with you, or it can be a means of telling you something – for example, “I’m hungry because you forgot to feed me!”
If your cat is constantly meowing, however, there is a good chance that something is out of the norm. Pay attention to other elements of your cat’s life to determine what the problem may be.
Yowling is a painful noise for any cat-lover to hear, and it is an obvious sign of distress. The most frequent cause of yowling is illness or injury.
- Has it been a while since your cat last urinated? Or is there blood in your cat’s urine? These are signs that your cat is meowing out of pain due to a blockage or urinary tract infection.
- Does your cat have any physical signs of illness or injury? Are they refusing to bear weight on one limb? Do they have an infected bite wound that you have not noticed before?
- Have you noticed any changes in your cat’s feces (like blood or parasites) that may be causing pain or discomfort?
Go to your veterinarian’s office for an evaluation as soon as possible if your cat has started yowling or vocalizing unusually!
When your cat is acting strangely, the more nervous or concerned you are, the more your cat will pick up on your feelings. Until you know what is causing your cat’s changing behavior, the best thing you can do is remain calm.