How to Recognize Stress in Cats

Cats can be very sensitive creatures. Sometimes even minor changes to their environment or routine can have a significant effect on their stress level. Stress affects every cat differently, so it’s important to get to know your cat so you can learn to recognize when they are not acting like their usual selves. Punishing a cat for “bad behaviour” when they are merely acting out due to stress or anxiety will only create more problems. It’s also important to investigate unusual behaviour and discuss any concerns with your veterinarian because it may indicate an underlying medical condition. Paying attention to your cat’s behaviour will help you figure out what causes stress in their lives, allowing you to remove or minimize that stress and create a happier home for your feline friend.

All cats are different, so they may respond to stress in different ways. Anxious and insecure kitties may groom themselves or their housemates excessively, causing bald patches and increase the occurrence of hairballs. They may lose interest in playing or eating, and start avoiding people and other pets, often hiding in quiet rooms away from high traffic areas in the house. Some people react to this by dragging their kitty back out into the main room of the house or forcing them to be social, which only makes the cat more uncomfortable. Some cats react to feeling stressed by becoming more irritable or aggressive, which can be a major issue in a household with children or other pets. It’s important to make sure your cat has a safe place to hide where no one will bother them so they can choose when to come out and get attention.

Sometimes unhappy cats will start scratching the furniture or other objects to mark their territory. Conflicts between cats in a multi-cat household, or the presence of roaming cats outside the window may cause more furniture scratching, so make sure you have enough scratching posts to keep everyone happy (see my previous blog about how to save your furniture if you want to learn more about scratching posts). Urinating or defecating outside of the litter box is another way cats mark their territory, or it may be a sign the cat doesn’t like the location, size, type, or cleanliness of the litter box. Punishing a cat for these marking behaviours usually makes the cat associate you with the punishment, so they learn to mark when you aren’t around, and negative interactions with you will contribute to their stress, so they feel even more compelled to claim their territory. Talk to your vet about ruling out any medical conditions if your cat is suddenly not using the litter box appropriately. Especially if they used to use it with no issues, it’s clean, and there have been no changes in the type of litter or anything else.

Cats can be very private critters. If they live in a busy home with no quiet space where they can be alone, they will often become stressed. Cats can also become upset from the smallest changes in their home or routine. Simply moving the furniture around or getting a new couch may set them off. Moving to a new house is a major change, and it may cause stress for weeks as the cat is getting used to its new world. Creating a safe refuge in a quiet room away from people and other pets for the cat to be alone may help the cat feel secure because they know they have a safe haven somewhere close by. Putting food and water, access to a litter box, and some of their favourite toys in the room will help them feel happier because everything they need is within reach and they don’t have to leave their safe space until they want to.

Cats are also creatures of habit. If things are upsetting your kitty that is outside of your control, you can try building a routine to reassure them that everything is fine. Keeping playtime, feeding, and grooming to roughly the same schedule every day will help your kitty feel more relaxed and stable, even if there’s scary construction sounds right outside their favourite window. Another thing that causes a lot of stress in cats is when there is a change in the family. New pets or babies, deaths, new relationships, or breakups all have the potential to turn a cat’s life upside-down. Just be patient and give your kitty a safe space and some time so they can learn to adapt to their new situation. There are synthetic “happy cat scent” diffusers and sprays that may help cats feel calm during stressful times, which may be a great way to help your kitty adapt a bit faster and with a bit more ease.

It’s important to find out what’s causing the stress and try to minimize or remove it to help your feline friend feel happy and safe again. Your veterinarian may be a great resource in identifying stressors as well. Let them know if you are having troubles with your cat’s behaviour and they may have some solutions to help.

Written By: Alicia Naundorf, RVT

Resources: www.indoorpet.osu