Stress in Cats

Portrait of tabby cat hiding under wardrobe
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Is your cat stressed out? It's not uncommon for cats to develop stress for one reason or another. Prolonged stress, especially that which is moderate to severe, can lead to serious health and behavioral issues in cats. If you think your cat is stressed, there are ways you can help.

Why Cats Become Stressed

Cats thrive in a peaceful environment and they enjoy their routines. If something new and unexpected happens, it often triggers a stress response. There are many situations that can lead to stress in cats. Most often it has to do with change.

  • Addition of a new pet into the household
  • Moving to a new home
  • Loud noises (such as construction, parties, fireworks)
  • New people in the home
  • Animals outside the window
  • Not enough territory (can occur in small spaces or when there are other pets in the home)
  • Car rides
  • Veterinary visits
  • Boarding stays
  • Absence of owners
  • Other changes to daily routine
  • Illness

Signs of Stress in Cats

Cats are built to survive, making them experts at hiding anything that might make them vulnerable. This includes sickness, fear, and stress. Fortunately, there are some signs you can look for to determine whether or not your cat is under stress.

  • Hiding/avoiding people or other pets
  • Acting clingy to owner
  • Loss of appetite
  • Inappropriate urination (peeing outside the box or spraying)
  • Increase in vocalization
  • Aggression towards people or other pets
  • Overgrooming (this can lead to hair loss called psychogenic alopecia)
  • Diarrhea
  • Other signs of illness

What to Do If Your Cat is Stressed

A cat in stress can develop illnesses or behavior problems. In addition, a sick cat can become very stressed out. If your cat is showing signs of stress, look for other signs of illness. It may be best to schedule an exam with your vet, especially if your cat has not been examined within the last six months. Your vet may be able to detect an underlying illness that can be treated before it becomes severe.

If your cat gets a clean bill of health, then you can begin to take steps to reduce or manage your cat's stress. Ask your vet for recommendations on ways you can relieve your cat's stress at home. In cases of severe stress and anxiety, your vet may be able to recommend a behaviorist to help you.

Environmental Enrichment

Cats with inadequate territory may become very stressed out. They may feel that they don't have enough space to roam and play. If other animals are in the home, your cat may feel he needs to compete for resources like food, water, beds, toys, and litter boxes. Fortunately, there are ways to enrich your cat's environment and reduce stress in the home.

  • Play with your cat. Find toys that your cat enjoys and plays together. Playing can fulfill your cat's need to hunt. It also provides exercise and mental stimulation.
  • Add vertical space, such as cat trees and cat-friendly shelving on the walls. This allows your cat extra space to play and nap as well as providing more exercise for your cat.
  • Make sure the litter boxes are clean and roomy. A general rule of thumb is to have at least one litter box per cat. Add one or two extra if needed.
  • Provide access to windows so your cat can watch the outside world. This provides mental stimulation and can ease stress. Window perches are a great way to provide comfortable window views. Place birdfeeders, wind chimes, and wind spinners outside for entertainment.
  • Place several cat scratchers around the home. Unless you know your cat has a strong preference for one type of scratcher, include both upright scratching posts and horizontal scratchers made of different materials. Scratching is normal and necessary for cats. It keeps their nails healthy and allows them to stretch and exercises their paws.
  • Provide outdoor access if possible. While roaming free outdoors can be dangerous for cats, you can teach your cat to tolerate a harness and leash then take him outside. Or, consider building an outdoor enclosure for your cat (often called a "catio").
  • Simulate hunting by providing interactive feeding toys and games. This encourages your cat to "work" for his food. You can also hide food and treats around the house so he has to find them.
  • Work on training to engage your cat's mind and nurture the bond you share.

Products That May Alleviate Stress

Feline pheromones like Feliway send calming "messages" to your cat through his sense of smell. These can provide comfort to cats in stress. Pheromones can be sprayed on bedding or used in a diffuser. Be aware that feline pheromone products are not recommended for situations where there is cat-cat aggression.

Calming supplements like Solliquin are often available in the form of treats. These supplements contain ingredients know to calm and relax cats and can be a useful tool for anxious cats.

Pharmaceuticals may be recommended by your vet in cases of severe anxiety. While many people consider medications as a last resort, know that they can be used as a temporary tool to help your cat through a stressful time.