Stress in Cats-Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Do cats get stressed?   Causes of stress in cats   Signs of stress   How is stress treated?   Additional information

Stress in cats

Do cats get stressed?

It may seem inconceivable to some but cats are prone to stress just like people. They can’t verbalise how they are feeling the way we can and often suffer in silence or are labelled naughty or antisocial cats for their stress-related behaviour.

Naturally, it’s not a good situation to have a cat stressed and unhappy, no pet owner wants that for their cat. Short-term stress has a physiological benefit, it serves to protect your cat from danger and harm. We have all heard the term ‘fight or flight‘. This autonomic nervous system response is hard-wired into the cat’s brain and is a reaction to an immediate threat. For example a large and aggressive dog races towards a cat, he has to decide if he is going to fight (the dog) or flight (run away). Obviously, if it is a big dog and he can do so, running away is the safest choice. However, it may not be one he can make, what if he is backed into a corner with no way out? He then has to fight. During this time, many biological processes are at play.

  • Cortisol and adrenaline levels rise which in turn increases blood pressure, heart, and lung function are increased and blood sugar levels to boost energy.
  • Pupils dilate.
  • The hair stands on end (to make the cat look larger and more threatening).
  • Decreased gastrointestinal activity.
  • Decreased release of sex hormones.

The above changes benefit the cat’s short-term/immediate threat, they are detrimental over a prolonged period of time. Increased cortisol levels had many detrimental effects on the body. Over time it can weaken the immune system, making your cat more vulnerable to sickness.

Causes of stress in cats:

So what could possibly stress a cat out, after all, it would seem they live a pretty cushy life being fed, cuddled and sleeping 18 hours a day.

Firstly, cats are creatures of routine and habit and any changes can stress some of them out. Common stressors to cats include:

New family member (feline, canine or human)

I’ve experienced this first hand with the arrival of my first baby. I had several cats at the time, most of whom paid little attention to the baby, but one cat really freaked out. He was always somewhat highly strung but this seemed to really push him over the edge. He cried nonstop, walking around the house howling.

Adding a new cat or dog can also be a common cause of stress in cats. I generally find they do adapt to this, but it can take them a few weeks.

Visitors to the home

Again, this may be a cause of acute or chronic stress depending on the visitors and how long they are staying in the house. We had a cat who was fine around us but any strangers to the house would result in him taking cover under the bed. This can be exacerbated if your cat is used to a quiet household and young/noisy children turn up.

Long-term visitors can cause prolonged stress in some cats but this generally goes away or the cat slowly adapts.

Moving house

This sits somewhere between acute and chronic stress. It is not over an extended period of time but it can take your cat several weeks to adjust to his new environment.

Household changes

Cats don’t like change. Minor changes such as new furniture can be a cause of acute stress, renovations can lead to longer chronic stress. Noises, mess, tradespeople coming and going stress your cat out.

Increased time alone

Some cats are happy to spend long hours on their own, other cats thrive on companionship. It is recommended that if your household spends long hours out of the home then you should adopt two cats if possible to keep each other company. Sometimes situations change and a human companion may return to work or increase their work hours which can result in your cat feeling stressed and isolated.

New cat in the neighbourhood

Cats can be very territorial and the arrival of a new cat on the block who enters his territory can cause a great deal of stress to a cat. An indoor cat can’t do much about it, an outdoor cat may find himself challenged with direct aggression.

Inter-cat aggression

This can definitely be a cause of long-term stress in cats. Two cats who just don’t get along, the resulting fallout can be quite devastating to both the cats and the household.

Death of a family member

This may be a close feline or human companion. Cats feel grief and loss just as much as we do, although they may not show it has an impact on them.

What are the signs of stress in cats?

The stress involved in fight or flight is acute stress, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To the cat, some situations may be stressful, despite them really not being a threat, such as a trip to the vet or a barking dog. Signs of acute stress include:

  • Raised hackles, the fur on the back and tail is puffed up to make the cat look larger (and more intimidating)
  • Yowling, a loud wailing meow
  • Hissing
  • Growling
  • Either arching the back or getting down on his haunches to make himself as small as possible with his tail wrapped around his body
  • Dilated pupils
  • Ears back
  • Involuntary urination
  • Aggression

Chronic or long-term stress is much more of a problem. This form of stress can vary from cat to cat. Sometimes it will be obvious, but not always. Common signs of chronic/long-term stress include:

  • Hiding.
  • Withdrawal, an otherwise happy cat suddenly stops interacting with his human or feline companions.
  • Refusal to use the litter tray which can result in health complications such as constipation or urinary crystals.
  • Going to the toilet in places other than the litter tray, this can be a huge source of frustration to pet owners. Common places include on the bed, on your clothing, in corners.
  • Spraying, this is different to inappropriate urination, when a cat sprays he is marking his or her territory on a horizontal surface such as close to a door or window. Spraying is common with inter-cat aggression, new furniture, renovations, moving house and a local cat invading your cat’s territory.
  • Lethargy/sleeping more.
  • Anorexia (loss of appetite/refusal to eat).
  • Over-grooming which can lead to patches of baldness.
  • Excessive vocalisation, meowing/howling.

How is stress in cats treated?

Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination and obtain a history from you. He will need to run some medical tests so that he can rule out a medical problem. This will include:

Biochemical profile, complete blood count, and urinalysis to evaluate the overall health of the cat and look for signs of infection.

Once he has ruled out a medical problem he will need to determine the cause of stress if possible.

Removing or reducing the stress where possible. Obviously, not all situations can be completely eliminated. Some tips to help your cat with the above stresses include:

Give it time for your cat to adjust to a new member of the family, be it human or a new pet. Introduce them slowly. Make sure you give your cat plenty of reassurance and attention during this period. Don’t throw him in at the deep end. A new baby can often be quite loud and takes up a lot of time, but when the baby is sleeping, try to find the time to spend with your cat.

If your cat finds visitors stressful, give him a safe place to retreat to. Don’t force him to be around visitors. I find cats often come out of their shell if it’s on their terms.

Moving house is unavoidable. It may be a good idea to put him in a boarding cattery while you actually move, which will be stressful, but at least he will be safe while the actual move occurs. Once you have moved and unpacked your boxes, bring your cat home. He will undoubtedly be stressed. You can help him to adjust by confining him to a small area of the house while he gets used to new smells. Don’t allow him outside for several weeks after the move until he has familiarised himself with the new home.

Keep things the same as much as possible. Changing things around can stress out an already stressed out cat even more. They need routine. Avoid adding new pets if your cat is stressed, this will only make things worse, if possible avoid major changes in the home, keep food and mealtimes the same.

The death of a family member is obviously something beyond your control. With time and patience your cat will overcome this loss, but please don’t forget your feline friend who has also lost a loved one. Make sure you spend time with him during this difficult period.

Additional help for stressed cats:

Sometimes a little more is needed to help our cats overcome stress.

  • Play therapy – This is great because it has so many benefits. It is quality time with your cat, he gets regular physical activity, which is known to reduce stress levels and you both get to spend time together. Just as exercise and good company are good for people with depression, play therapy really can help a stressed-out cat.
  • Make sure you spend time with your cat (aside from playing). Lack of physical attention (stroking, petting) has been shown to increase cortisol levels in cats. [1]
  • See a cat behaviourist – In some cases, it may be advised to seek the advice of a cat behaviourist to help you work with your cat to overcome his stress. Your veterinarian should be able to refer you to one.
  • Feliway – This is a product that comes in spray or plug-in form which mimics a cat’s own facial pheromones. Glands secrete these pheromones from the cheeks, lips, chin, and forehead, which is why you will see a cat rub his face or tail around an object, person’s leg, doorway etc.
  • Medication – Your veterinarian may recommend medication to help your cat with his stress. Common medications prescribed include Clomipramine (Clomicalm), Diazepam (Valium) and Lorazepam (Ativan). These drugs help to calm your cat, which reduces stress. I know many pet owners are reluctant to medicate their cats but this really can be a bridge to help them. These drugs may be given short or long term.

Further reading:

Jackson Galaxy really is a cat whisperer, and there is a tonne of fantastic information on his site which can be found here.


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