How to be a less anxious cat owner?
August 8, 2018 8:28 AM   Subscribe

My partner and I adopted a kitten last year, who has since grown into a lively, healthy, one-year-old bruiser. Despite his excellent temperament and good health, I experience regular, overwhelming anxiety about his well-being and safety, which leads to stress for both my partner and myself. The current heat wave has brought this to a head. How do I settle into confident cat personship? Wall o'text and Cat Tax within!

This is our cherished furboy. He's a great cat: friendly with humans and other animals, not picky about food or litter, totally unafraid of storms, vacuums, or loud sneezes--frankly I think he's the least neurotic of the three of us. He has zero health issues that we know of.

The problem is most definitely me. I don't generally struggle with anxiety, although I can overthink things when stressed. But ever since we adopted the cat, I've had nightmares and intrusive waking thoughts about him being injured or sick or worse, usually as a result of me doing something wrong. (Horror stories from the director of the local shelter, all no doubt well-founded and meant to impress on us the seriousness of animal ownership, made a big impression and did not help.) It is overwhelmingly upsetting for me and very stressful for my partner when he picks up on it/I talk to him about it (which I try not to).

This issue is bad enough in general, but this past week has been particularly, unbearably hot in our town, and Cat actually *has* been struggling, to the point where we took him to the vet this morning because his rapid breathing had us both freaked out. (The vet said that as long as the rest of his behaviour vis-à-vis eating, playing, vocalisations, etc. was normal we shouldn't worry, since temps will drop in the next 24 hours, but that we should probably look into AC for next summer as he seems particularly sensitive to heat...which I didn't even know was a thing in young, otherwise healthy cats??)

I cannot bear to leave him alone in the apartment after this, which will present some problems when my vacation time ends on Monday. I am completely beside myself at the thought that a) he is suffering, b) probably has been and we didn't realise it until it was so bad his respiration changed, c) this is only one of the many, many things I didn't even suspect and will probably mess up. I am terrified he'll somehow get overheated whilst we're gone, and we'll come home to find him in some terrible state.

My fretting about Cat drives my partner insane (although he loves him too!), and I can understand why. I know I have gone full-on five-alarm nutsy cat lady on this, and that it isn't helping me be a better pet owner. Do any animal/cat-loving Mefites have stories or suggestions about how to chill/become more confident about pet care before I make both boyfriend and cat insane? Thank you in advance!
posted by peakes to Pets & Animals (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Cats have lived for eons. They are not dumb.
For example, they won't enter a space that they can't get out of (generally), using their whiskers as a ruler/guide.
If they smell something and it doesn't smell good to them, they won't eat it.

These are animals we've brought into our homes. They are actually quite robust!
posted by k8t at 8:31 AM on August 8, 2018 [10 favorites]

You have a glorious Lap Panther!

To echo k8t, cats are really good at taking care of themselves. Totoro, my Feline Overlord, has lived with me in Nashville, Berkeley and Cambridge, and on really hot days in Berkeley, where I didn't have AC, I'd find him on the kitchen linoleum floor staying cool. The best thing to do is provide lots of water (we've got two water bowls in different places in the apartment now), and you might think about a cool place for him to be.

Relatedly: cats tolerate heat way better than we do. Their thermoneutral point is significantly higher than ours, so even being the Furry Feline Overlord doesn't mean they're overheated.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 8:49 AM on August 8, 2018 [7 favorites]

I think I can relate. When we first got Molly it had been a long time since I had a cat and my husband never had a cat so I was worried and anxious about her well-being because I fell in love at first sight.

What I try to do is limit my fretting over just 3 things: Diet, Temperament, and Litterbox. I check that she is eating like normal, behaving as normal, and pooping and peeing in her litter box like normal, and then I tell myself to stop. I choose those things because they are usually the first places that will indicate something is wrong with her.

For example, a few weeks ago she was super lethargic and actually pooped outside her box, which she has never done before (but she was eating like normal). I took her into the vet and it turned out she had a fever and she got a round of antibiotics and she was back to her usual self in less than two days.

Whatever she is getting up to on her own time, as long as those three things are going like clockwork I tell myself she must be fine or else one of those things would be effected. She isn't suffering if those things aren't effected.

I think you did the right thing to bring him to the vet when he was breathing weird, but now you need to take the vet at their word. Keep checking their eating, pooping and playing habits and as long as those are ok consider yourself the owner of a happy cat!
posted by like_neon at 8:52 AM on August 8, 2018 [11 favorites]

Gently, I have been known to project my own general anxiety onto my pet before; treating it has been a matter of treating the underlying anxiety (with strategies from exercise to medication having been effective) instead of the pet ownership. If that rings true for you, then perhaps an approach focused on anxiety generally might help you as well.

In this particular case, as far as leaving home, you can always leave a camera on. There are myriad ways to do it - if you have a webcam or tablet or phone you can leave in place, then that's one option; if you prefer, there are plenty of purpose-made cameras on the market. I use a treat-dispensing camera so that I can make my guy come over into the picture but you certainly don't have to go that far. There are also remote/wifi thermometer options, if that would help your anxiety any.

You sound like a great cat owner. Cats are resilient, really. As long as your guy has options for a reasonable-temperature area (for cooling, maybe something like tile to lay on, a cooling mat, a little DIY swamp cooler, whatever is available) then they can generally be trusted to self-regulate.
posted by mosst at 8:52 AM on August 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

For whatever it's worth, Mrs. slkinsey and I are extremely overprotective when it comes to our cat and we leave the living room airconditioner on all day during the hot months as a result. Notwithstanding, it is not at all unusual for us arrive at home to discover she has bonked open the door to the hottest bedroom in the house and happily spend the entire day in there baking.
posted by slkinsey at 8:55 AM on August 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

I had exactly the same sort of freakouts during the first summer we had our first kitty. She would happily sunbathe and then, when she got too hot, she would flop out on the floor, legs spread out completely beneath her.

I know now that she does this to cool off, but the very first time it happened I swear to God I thought she had broken her legs or something!

The truth is cats love the heat and I echo what everyone above has said about the best indicator of their health being what they eat, what they drink and what's going on in their litterbox.

As time goes by you will freak out less. Your cat is lucky to have such a devoted owner, but try to chill out a bit and don't fret. Your cat will naturally seek out the coolest place to relax during the day, and you can always consider buying a cooling mat if you're really worried, plenty on Amazon to choose from.
posted by JenThePro at 9:29 AM on August 8, 2018

The problem is most definitely me.

So it sounds like your question describes two issues. The first, about your cat's safety when it gets hot out, has been addressed by your vet. And by others who are right to point out that cats are pretty resilient. Given what you've said above, there's every reason to believe your cat will continue to thrive.

The second issue is that there's been a change in your life and now you have some concerns about your own mental health. So it seems like a good time to take stock of your mental health and think about what you might do to to improve things. Are there modest changes you could make to your habits around diet, sleep, alcohol, exercise or other factors? There are some good books about CBT that might help you avoid building up worries about your cat or other things. If you aren't too booked up on your vacation, you might try to start or improve a practice of daily meditation.

A lot of parents, myself included, can remember anxiety similar to yours around the birth of a child. My little guy would be lying there sleeping and I'd have to go check if he was still breathing. (Also the sound of little sleeping baby breathing is amazing and you have to get close to hear it.) Babies (and kittens) seem so fragile at the beginning, and they can't talk to you about what's wrong. It's natural to worry. But it's been a long time since I've had big worries about my 7 year old. Kids (and kittens) get bigger and start to seem less fragile, and maybe some time and reassurance is all you need.
posted by thenormshow at 9:37 AM on August 8, 2018 [8 favorites]

I can definitely relate. For some reason, my relatively low levels of anxiety go way up when I have cats. Don’t get me wrong; I really like my cats, but I get intrusive catastrophic thoughts. Not a hugely regular basis, but I have to take a moment to stop and think “How likely is that?” at some of the ridiculous scenarios my brain concocts. I make a point of scanning the small landing when I leave as a hedge against panicking about them sneaking out for example. By the way, they have shown no signs of wanting to get out.

I have an AC setup in my bedroom with a curtain over the door so the cats can come and go, since my apartment is a little warm. They usually only go in there when I’m in there, and will almost always abandon me halfway through the night even though they happily sleep on the bed all night during the winter. I assume they know what they’re doing and what they prefer.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:38 AM on August 8, 2018

To get you through the rest of the summer, you could freeze a couple of gallon jugs of water and leave them out for him to lie next to if he really needs to cool himself down.
posted by fancyoats at 10:10 AM on August 8, 2018

I have cats (including my very own black hole cat) and it was very hot and I had no a/c and I left out SO MUCH water with ice and gave them wet food mixed with water and put ice packs on the only cat who liked it. And I kept the fans running all the time to keep air moving. And it turned out, when I wasn't home, they just slept in the cooler parts of the apartment. Cats are mortal and everything, but they're pretty resilient animals. Their basic body temp is a bit hotter than humans, too.

My cat anxiety comes generally when I have other things going on. But I think you can deal with it the way you deal with any anxiety issue and intrusive thoughts.
posted by jeather at 10:16 AM on August 8, 2018

The second issue is that there's been a change in your life and now you have some concerns about your own mental health.

Yes. I think the cat is a red herring. (A very precious one. Who's a good boy?) This is about your mental health. I say this as both a person who lives with anxiety, and a cat owner. I do generally struggle with anxiety, and I have a good handle on it now, so I know how to recognize that my anxiety has moved its sights to my cat and his health and well-being. I think you are experiencing anxiety for the first time, and treating this as no different from non-cat-related anxiety is the right move. Therapy was really helpful for me; my therapist used mostly DBT and ACT techniques, with a little CBT, but some other type might help for you. Meds are also definitely an option; beta-blockers are a relatively low-impact option and at least for the short term you might be able to get your GP to prescribe you some.
posted by capricorn at 10:23 AM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

YMMV, but I experienced this when I adopted my pet (a dog, but I don't think that really matters much). I'm a very anxious person anyway and for a while it really manifested as anxiety about my pet's health and happiness.

The only thing that helped was time, unfortunately -- about 1.5 years after adoption, I realized I was no longer in Panic Mode about him, his needs, and his future death. So now my anxiety manifests in other ways, about other aspects of my life.

I did work on this in therapy a little, but with minimal success. I think this was because both therapists I saw were huge dog lovers, and themselves prone to worrying about pets. Perhaps a different therapist would have helped me make strides faster.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 10:25 AM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

ever since we adopted the cat, I've had nightmares and intrusive waking thoughts about him being injured or sick or worse, usually as a result of me doing something wrong

I have a rotating series of general anxiety dreams (I mean the kind you actually wake up from yelling and jumping out of bed). What you describe is the one that comes to the fore when I've been around people's pets. But other ones, at other times, involve, with the same general theme, e.g., babies and court filings. So I would like to suggest at least the possibility that your cat's health is serving as a focal point for anxiety energy that would express itself another way under other circumstances. This may be something to discuss with your doctor.
posted by praemunire at 10:44 AM on August 8, 2018

The first year I had my dog, I think I took him to the vet almost once a month. Sometimes over things that are kind of embarrassing now (once because he seemed to be drooling excessively and he's not a drooler). A friend who raised two kids (now adults) told me this is what a lot of new parents of babies go through, which put it in good perspective for me.

If this is your first time being responsible for the wellbeing of another living thing, the responsibility can feel a bit overwhelming at times. The good news is that if you have a young, healthy cat who spends all or most of his time inside, there's not much that can go wrong (at least not that you have any control over).

Time helps with this. So will getting to know your cat and his normal behavior better. Hell, my dog turns out to have epilepsy and that is a source of stress, but it's to the point now where I only take him to the vet if he has more than one seizure in a day.

However, it probably wouldn't hurt to do whatever you can (within reason) to make your place comfortable for your cat while it's so hot. Experiment with strategic placement of fans and/or closing the apartment up during the day. Also, when you're not there, your cat is going to be more likely to just sleep through the worst of the heat because there isn't the interesting human around to stay alert for. Buuuuuuuut if you're truly worried, a cheap window AC unit is not that expensive and it might be worth it to buy one this week and have one room that you keep cool for the cat during the day. You can even just set it to like 75 F so it's not using a lot of energy, but it will ensure one room doesn't get too hot.
posted by lunasol at 10:48 AM on August 8, 2018

I'm totally in agreement with everyone else saying that the way to deal with this is to treat your underlying mental health. As someone with anxiety (and cats) it's weird what my anxiety can latch onto as a focus but I'm much better able to recognize it for what it is after a few years of not just pretending it'll go away on its own. It's happened with cat stuff before for me, in bigger and smaller ways. The only way to actually fix it was to do other things to help my anxiety resolve itself - the cats might respond to my anxiety but their actual health and safety is very simple to ensure (because I'm lucky enough to have the money for them.)

Have you lived with cats before? It might help you to consciously recall cat-having experiences from when your anxiety wasn't spiraling. Also for me, my cats usually help my anxiety (I sometimes call them my "medicinal felines"), so if I'm stressing about them it's worse because a way to cope with my anxiety has become a source of it. Acknowledging this can help shake me out of it.

While you're looking into treating your anxiety (medically or otherwise) you might find putting some cameras up to be useful, so you can keep an eye on your cat while you're gone for the day. There are many choices in many price ranges for this, so it depends on your budget what you can do, but it's become a lot more affordable in recent years. Also because he's a cat you don't need to disguise things in a nanny cam or have a baby monitor setup. Please do whatever you need to do to be able to get out of the house on Monday and live your life. I've been in a similar situation before and that sort of self-limiting thing you're doing is a great way to double down on the anxiety and let it win.

Anyway, he looks like my cat Zevo's burlier brother! He is also super great. We also got him a year ago, hrmmmmmmmmm...
posted by Mizu at 11:24 AM on August 8, 2018

As a point of interest, domestic cats are descended from the African Wildcat which "lives in Northern Africa, the Near East and around the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula".

"African wildcats are active mainly by night and search for prey. Their hearing is so fine that they can locate prey precisely. They approach prey by patiently crawling forward and using vegetation to hide. They rarely drink water."

I'm pretty sure that if your cat has plenty of water and a relatively cool place to be, he will be fine.
posted by H21 at 12:23 PM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

like_neon's advice is great, and i am going to try to adopt it myself.

i am also a very anxious pet parent. i am a very anxious person in general, which is the actual problem. as i have gotten that more under control, i worry less about coming home to a dead cat (this is like, my primary worry).

in addition to neon's advice (which again, is great), if one of the cats is being weird, i try to snag them, and then i kind of squish them and palpate them. if there's no unusual grumbling, they haven't hurt themselves and are just being weird.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:27 PM on August 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've mentioned this before, but when I was visiting Thailand during the hottest time of the year (98F every day, and 90%+ humidity), the hostel cat was wearing a little t-shirt, and also sitting on a warm pizza box. There is just no call to project anthropomorphic ideas onto this entirely different species. I've never had AC in any city or country I've ever lived in (including some incredibly hot places), and my cats have been happy and healthy, if a little more slow-moving during the summer. Some of the hottest places on earth have robust feral cat populations, and there is just zero call for worry. I think this sounds like an issue totally unrelated to the cat, and that there's something else going on. Good luck.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 1:38 PM on August 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

I totally understand where you're coming from! To keep my mind at ease, I run through a quick 6*-point checklist. If my furry roommate is
1. Eating
2. Drinking
3. Peeing
4. Pooping
5. Playing
6. Purring*
Then he's all good. And I worried that he was too hot, too, in my house without a/c but I got him a cooling mat that he steadfastly ignores and I also remind myself that in winter he literally sleeps with his face on the baseboard heaters to no ill effect.

In the meantime, perhaps your cute cat might like a cooling mat better than mine did?

(*Point #6 optional if your cat doesn't have a working motor)
posted by TwoStride at 5:28 PM on August 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Breathe in for count to four. Hold for 8 count. Let out for 7. Repeat.
posted by Pressed Rat at 5:32 PM on August 8, 2018

You love the cat, love is scary. As far as th heat, get him a cooling gel bed and he'll be fine.
posted by fshgrl at 9:47 PM on August 8, 2018

Hello all, thank you so very much for your responses, which are all so helpful. I agree that the real issue is probably underlying anxiety "attaching" itself to the cat that I need to work on, but hearing about everyone's experiences as pet owners has been very reassuring too. (Cat is currently pestering me to throw his favourite jingly thing around for him, so it looks like he is indeed just fine!)
posted by peakes at 3:03 AM on August 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

They sell cooling beds for animals. It's filled with a kind of gel. Cheaper yet is a basin filled with ice, a plastic bag laid flat on that, and a towel on top of the plastic bag. For best results have the ice on a rack so the water can drain below rather than having it all sink into the wet as it melts. It will melt slowly because of the insulating towel but the towel itself will stay cool for Blep to lie on.

A remote nursery monitor gadget might also be possible.

Go around your house on hands a knees looking for low, cool spots such as the bottom of the cupboard or near the pipes in the bathroom. If you find some you know he has spots he can retreat to. Do not release live reptile-feeder mice in hot weather or he will become very, very active and end up breathing hard again. If you had a kid and challenged him to do 50 skips to gain $10 in hot weather he would end up breathing hard too, but you would not be so worried because you are used to judging if a human who is breathing hard is in real distress or not.

You are a new parent. The anxiety is natural. My spouse once took his first daughter to the emerg because she got a nosebleed. You are at the stage of learning to tell when a cat is sick or not, and how serious is serious. Better a couple of false positives than missing a problem. You got this. You are doing it exactly the way you are supposed to.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:42 AM on August 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think everyone basically covered the bases of addressing your mental health and focusing on select things for the cat (litter, food, temperament). The only thing I'd add is that our vet repeats over and over that the best way to track a cat's health is by weighing them regularly. Sudden weight gain/loss is one of the first signs that something can be up when all other things are normal. If your cat is staying within the same weight range week after week, pooping, eating, and purring, all things point to normal. Also, that cat is adorable! My better half always wanted a black cat! We ended up with two gingers instead!
posted by microcarpetus at 9:14 AM on August 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

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