Cats have pretty good lives. They lie around the house, have their meals delivered to them and their messes picked up for them—what could be better?
In fact, there are a lot of things that cause stress for our feline companions but unfortunately for caregivers, cats aren’t very vocal about them. As a prey species by nature, cats naturally hide feelings of pain, illness, and stress, which (in the wild) would put them at risk of being killed in domestic cats, unresolved stressors can manifest as illness, both mild and severe.
Types of stress that affect cats
There are two main types of cat stress: acute (i.e., immediate) and chronic (i.e., ongoing). Acutely stressed cats are more recognizable. They generally have dilated pupils, flattened ears, arched backs, and puffed-out coats. They may hiss, growl, or spit more frequently, flick their tails, and act aggressively if touched. In extreme cases, cats under acute stress will urinate and/or defecate wherever they are out of fear, not necessity.
There are also cases of acutely stressed cats that appear normal but act invisible—like if they don’t move, you won’t see them (think T Rex from Jurassic Park). On closer look, however, they will have dilated pupils, flattened ears, and a flat body posture, almost like they want to sink into whatever surface they’re lying on.
Chronic stress is less obvious but visible when you know what to look for. Signs include:
- Decreased appetite or overeating
- Over- or under-grooming, resulting in hair loss or an unkempt haircoat
- Abnormal urination or defecation that may occur outside their litterbox.
- As stress is the leading suspect for causing urinary obstruction in cats any cat that is urinating small amounts frequently needs to be seen urgently by a veterinarian.
- Sleeping more than usual
- Withdrawing from normal interaction or hiding more frequently
- Aggression (more defensive or redirected) towards people or other pets
- Increased facial rubbing or scratching
What are some things that cause my cat to be stressed?
- Health changes
- Illness or pain
- Changes in their environment:
- New pets or people visiting or living in the home
- New cats in their yard, even if you have indoor cats
- New routines or schedules
- Owners on vacation (home alone) or even just absence of their “person” (primary caregiver)
- Home renovations, furniture relocation or holiday decorations
- Thunderstorms or fireworks
- Moving to a new home
- Caregiver stress
- Change in their routines
- Mealtimes, playtimes, litterbox cleaning frequency
- Shared food and water bowls, especially if the other pet isn’t good at sharing
- Inadequate number or placement of litterboxes
- Car travel
- Veterinary visits
When the stressor is medical
If your cat is acting stressed, the first thing we do is determine if they have a medical or painful condition. This generally requires a trip to the veterinarian for examination and testing, something that can add to a cat’s stress level.
To minimize the stress of travel, transport your cat in a familiar carrier, one that can be left in the home as part of the regular furniture, and doesn’t smell like the garage. It’s best if the carrier top can be removed, which allows our veterinarians to examine your cat in the carrier where they feel safest. A calming pheromone called Feliway can be sprayed in the carrier in advance to further reduce their anxiety. Some cats benefit from receiving a safe, affordable calming medication prior to their visit and are much more relaxed for their examination and any testing they may need. At our hospital, we use many Fear Free techniques to increase our patients’ comfort during their hospital visit.
When the stressor is environmental
If our veterinary team rules out a medical condition and/or diagnoses a condition associated with your cat’s tress, they will recommend environmental changes and possibly anxiety medication. Changing your cat’s environment is the most effective way to help your cat, and if they have any of the stressors listed above, you can address them specifically.
Here are some important must-haves and good to-dos that will help your cat stay physically and psychologically healthy:
- Space. Outdoor cats have a territory size of up to 20 city blocks. While we can’t replicate this for indoor cats, we can increase the surface areas of our house by providing different levels for our cats to use. For example, a table that your cat can sit on or under doubles the area available to them. They will also benefit from having a
- Quiet space where they can escape from stressors like dogs, other cats, or children.
- A litterbox for every cat in the household plus one extra. These should be placed in different areas of the house to prevent guarding behaviours. Litterboxes should be scooped daily and fully cleaned weekly.
- A surface for scratching. Your cat will show you if she prefers a vertical post or horizontal mat.
- Fresh food and water. Ceramic or glass containers are ideal and should be cleaned daily.
- Places to climb. Cats like being on high perches where they feel safe.
- Access to windows for “Nature’s TV.”
- Subtle changes. Whenever you make changes to your cat’s environment (e.g., new scratching post), bring in the new item first. Leave it beside the old item for a while, then remove the old item.
- Toys to play with and dedicated playtime (if she wants it). It’s normal for your cat to get bored with toys, so have some that can be rotated out to become “new” again.
- Avoid loud noises or punishment. This will worsen your cat’s anxiety.
Cats are special members of our family. Respect for their preferences will create a happier cat and stronger relationship with all the members of the family.