Former Stray Difficulty Relaxing and Causing Behavioral Issues

  • I have an approximately 3.5 year old male neutered DSH. From his known history, him and his litter were taken away from the mother before 8 weeks of age, and then the litter was immediately split up and he lived with a female littermate until the previous owners turned both cats outside. He found his way to me about a year later. During that time, I observed he was bullied and chased off by feral toms/other strays in the neighborhood. He sustained an injury, as a result of a fight, to his leg that ultimately made me bring him inside permanently.

    He came to us with fear aggression of other cats. Which we addressed with medication and behavior modification. He's since been titrated off of the SSRI's. The fear aggression is no longer an issue with the resident cats. However, with his early life being less than ideal, he's lacking social awareness and isn't great at interacting with the residents. The only remaining issue is that he chases two of the cats. He is not being aggressive with the chasing, but he is failing to "read the room" and routinely misses corrections given by the residents. 

    With the background out of the way, a couple of questions. 

    He's been taken off of the SSRI's and his "normal" personality is now able to be observed. This may be a bit anthopomorphizing, but it seems that his lack of motherly correction and cat-to-cat socialization, as well as him being turned out to the street at a young age, has resulted in him always being hyperaware of his surroudings. His fight, flight, freeze, was engaged constantly for such an extended period of time and has remained on since then, rarely allowing him to relax, truly. And that seems to lend itself to periods of restlessness/antsy despite enrichment, play, training, etc. 

    The question is, have you observed such a behavior in a cat, where they can't seem to "turn off" the stress loop and become restless despite mental and physical enrichment? 

    If so, what are some different approaches that one could take to help the cat "rewire" the brain to allow for less reactivity and achieving appropriate stress reactions and relaxation?



  • Hi Jennifer and thanks for such a comprehensive question.


    Absolutely, this sort of thing is far from uncommon.


    Some cats are genetically more prone to anxiety and are simply more high strung. When these cats also have a less setlled start in life and are not adequately socialised or handled, we find these behaviours and tendencies are magnified.

    These cats have a smaller 'stress bucket'. What I mean by this is that while other cats may not react to a few minor 'issues' in their environment (like hearing a dog bark outside and then seeing another cat walk near their bed) a highly strung cat may find that this is enough to fill their stress bucket and trigger their fight or flight response. Most cats have larger stress buckets than this, and require something much more worrying to trigger their reaction.


    I'm afraid we aren't likely to ever change his personality or predispoisiton to anxiety, as this is how he is wired. This will be both due to the genetics he has inherited but also due to the effect the first few weeks of his life had on his brain, and the neural connections formed.


    We can certainly try and help reduce reactivity and manage his environment so he is less stressed in his day to day life. By generally reducing stress and keeping his stress bucket empty, this goes a great deal to creating a happier cat.


    Things that can help (many of which you are already doing) include:


    • Plenty of physical and mental enrichment
    • Confidence building games (like pouncing on a toy or solving a food puzzle
    • Cat nip
    • Natural calming supplements
    • Pheromone plug ins e.g. Feliway
    • Ensuring he has his own 'safe spaces' and hiding areas that no other cat can go
    • Never having him share resource (like litter trays or water bowls or scratch mats) with other cats


    For some of these cats, if they are really struggling to cope living with other cats, they do best in a household where they are the only pet. I appreciate in reality, this is not something many owners want to consider.


    Some very anxious kitties will be on anxiolytic medicine lifelong, and we may find we can lower doses (or even have periods off them) during low stress times.

  • Linda, 

    Thank you for your detailed response! 

    Thankfully my guy is happy and calm 98% of the time. I just hate seeing him be upset or upsetting the other residents because he's playing too rowdy! I wouldn't be happy with myself if I didn't explore every possibility to help him reduce his stress and bring balance to his life!

    He is still a young cat, so I'm holding onto hope that he'll also mellow with age and a continued stable environment :) 

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