Signs of Stress in Cats – The Many Ways Cats React

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Signs of stress in catsDespite their sassy reputation, cats are sensitive creatures who like stability in their lives. They become stressed easily, which can manifest in several ways. Cats can’t tell you they are stressed, but they will show it. This article looks at common causes of stress in cats and how they respond.

What is stress?

Stress is a set of physiological and behavioural responses which are elicited by unpleasant stimuli. It can manifest in several physical as well as behavioural changes and can be acute, such as a sudden loud noise or chronic, which is anything long-standing.

Every cat has a different threshold to stress; some are more sensitive than others. For example, when we fostered a cat last year, our DSH Melody didn’t bat an eyelid, Monty the Oriental was extremely stressed, which continued for the two months the foster remained in the house. 

What causes stress in cats?

Stress can be short term, i.e., an annual visit to the vet or a friend visiting for a coffee or long-term, such as a new baby or house renovations.

  • Too much competition for resources (not enough litter trays, beds, toys, places to hide)
  • Moving house
  • Home renovations
  • New pet, baby, housemate or partner in the house
  • Owner returning to work full time
  • Neighbourhood cat visiting the garden
  • Dirty litter trays
  • Boredom
  • Visit to the veterinarian, pet groomer or boarding cattery
  • Loss of a human or pet family member
  • Visitors
  • Overstimulation
  • Not respecting a cat’s autonomy
  • Poor human-cat relationship
  • Not meeting the cat’s physical and emotional needs (i.e., not allowing a cat to engage in cat-like behaviours)

How do cats respond to stress?

Every cat is different in how they respond to stress, and many pet owners may not recognise the signs.

Feline idiopathic cystitis

Feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC) is an inflammation of the urinary bladder which has several causes; once all other causes have been eliminated, a diagnosis of FIC is made.

Overgrooming

Every cat owner knows that cats spend a large part of their day grooming, but overgrooming goes beyond what is normal and can include licking, chewing and pulling out tufts of hair which leads to areas of hair loss and skin trauma.

Overgrooming is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder which can start from an environmental change, but over time the behaviour becomes compulsive, even if the original cause of the stress is no longer around.

Refusal to eat

Anorexia (loss of appetite) is a common symptom of stress and can have serious implications from fatty liver disease as starvation mode triggers the body to use fat (triglycerides) as fuel, which are sent to the liver to be processed into lipoproteins for energy which overwhelms the liver.

Crying

Excessive meowing and yowling which goes beyond your cat’s usual chatter. We have had cats whose crying developed when another cat in the home passed away, and one became extremely stressed when we brought our newborn child home, which resulted in continual yowling. 

Hiding

This can be a short term or a long term response to fear and stress. A move to a new home, or the addition of a pet. Visitors (short or long term) or feeling ambushed by another member of the household (animal or human).

Urine marking

Also called spraying, urine marking is a common form of communication among entire male cats to let female cats know they are available and mark their territory. Neutered males in the home have little cause to mark unless there are underlying issues with household cats or local cats coming onto the property. Marking is the cat’s way of showing other cats the marked area belongs to them. It creates familiarity and is aimed at deterring other cats in the area.

While there is a higher incidence of marking in males, female cats can also spray.

Aggression

Aggression can be towards other pets in the home or towards a person. It may be redirected or induced by pain or fear.

Sleeping more

Urinating or defecating outside the litter tray

There can be several stress-related reasons why cats will refuse to use their litter tray, strongly scented cat litter, inappropriate location, dirty litter tray, another cat, dog or child ambushing the cat, incorrect size (too small, big, high).

How to reduce stress in cats

Some stress is unavoidable, and some are short-lived (a visit to the vet, moving house), but where possible, pet owners need to avoid or reduce situations which stress out a cat. Where possible, identify and rectify the cause of stress.

  • Keep a routine
  • Maintain clean litter trays and ensure there are enough
  • Meet your cat’s emotional and physical needs
  • Provide safe places for the cat to retreat if he or she feels uncomfortable (for example when people visit)

All too often, we bring pets into the home and expect them to fit in with our expectations and inhibit their natural behaviours. One example is we get annoyed at a cat who scratches furniture. This is a normal behaviour and one we must make provisions for by providing a suitable alternative to the sofa or stairs. Declawing isn’t the answer, for one it’s cruel and illegal in most parts of the world, scratching is also a form of scent marking, as cats have scent glands on their paw pads and help the cat to stretch out the back and shoulder muscles.

As more and more people keep their cats indoors, an unfortunate side effect can be boredom. As a very strong proponent of keeping cats safe, I support the indoor cat concept, but we have to provide for our cats to ensure they don’t become bored or frustrated. Give cats the opportunity to be cats, they are not small people. This means places to hide (especially up high), scratching posts, interactive toys and exercise.

Multimodal environmental modification:

Multimodal environmental modification is a term used to describe a set of recommendations to reduce stress in cats with idiopathic cystitis, but most of the suggestions will work for different causes of stress. To summarise, it includes:

  • Provide safe hiding places
  • Litter trays (provide enough, keep them clean, avoid scented cat litter and distribute them throughout the house)
  • Environmental enrichment (scratching posts, toys, perches)
  • Resolve inter-cat conflict
  • Provide separate key resources (food and water bowls, perches, beds)
  • Provide tools and opportunities to express their playful and predatory behaviour