Can cats experience stress?

Cats can experience stress in much the same way we do when they are fearful, anxious, frustrated or depressed. They can also have an emotional response to pain, which can be stressful and tiring. It is important that owners learn to read their cat’s emotional state so that steps can be taken to improve it before it impacts on their quality of life.

How do I know if my cat is stressed?

Cats are subtle creatures and are very clever at hiding signs that all is not well. Their ability to conceal when they are in pain is a survival instinct that helps them avoid becoming easy prey for predators.

The best indicator of stress is if your cat’s behaviour changes in any way. It could be that they’ve suddenly started scratching your furniture or that you’ve noticed they spend more of their time hiding away in the home. If a once confident cat has started acting nervous and out of character, it is likely that something is causing them stress.

Prolonged periods of stress can result in cats becoming emotionally and physically unwell so it is important that owners recognise the signs. Common ones include:

  • Being withdrawn and hiding away in the home
  • Being less tolerant of people
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Increased scratching of furniture
  • Excessive vocalising
  • Reluctance to play
  • Pacing/being unable to settle
  • Making hissing or growling noises
  • Wide pupils, ears held flat and whiskers pointed forwards
  • A ‘flattened’ body position
  • Spraying in the home
  • Overgrooming or excessive licking

What can cause a cat stress?

Cats are territorial animals and naturally solitary creatures, unlike dogs who are social animals and used to living in packs. When it comes to eating, toileting, resting, and playing, cats do not like to share. Living with other pets, including other cats, can be a source of conflict in the home which will result in a stressful living environment.

A cat needs a sufficient amount of space to call their own, free access to food, a litter tray, and somewhere to scratch, as well as knowing they have an escape route available to get away from any situations that they do not feel comfortable with. If cats don’t have this, they are likely to become stressed and anxious.

Cats also like routine and stability in their day-to-day life so things like travelling, moving home or being taken to a cattery are likely to cause stress. Even small changes to a cat’s home environment, such as moving furniture, getting new flooring or using a scented candle can make them anxious.

Cats differ in their personalities with some being much more confident with people than others. If you have a nervous or particularly sensitive cat, they could get worried by visitors to the home. If this is the case, explain to visitors that they should ignore your cat unless it approaches them and ensure your cat has somewhere they can hide undisturbed if they do not want to interact.

As solitary animals, cats can become stressed if there are suddenly other animals in their territory. This could be the addition of another cat or perhaps a dog to the household. For this reason, introductions should be carried out carefully and gradually to minimise stress. It will help to maintain a cat’s normal routine as much as possible and if any changes are needed, such as litter trays or bowls being moved, this should be done before the arrival of the new pet so they can get used to it first.

How to keep calm and carry on

If your cat is displaying signs of stress, you should get them checked over by your vet in the first instance. This is especially important if you’ve noticed any changes to their physical condition, such as weight loss or deterioration in coat quality. If no health reason can be found for your cat’s stress response, your vet might refer you to a feline behaviourist to get to the bottom of the problem.

To reduce stress in multi-cat households, ensure that each pet has plenty of space of their own as well as enough food, water and litter trays for them to have one each plus an extra. This will reduce competition for resources. You can also help a stressed cat by providing plenty of safe spaces – preferably in high up locations – for them to hide around the house, and by not disturbing them when they are there.

Many owners have reported success using plug-in pheromone diffusers for their cats. These give off a synthetic version of a natural cat scent that – while undetectable to the human nose – sends a calming message to anxious cats. Alternatively, you can try an essential oil diffuser or spray which use a blend of natural calming herbs such as valerian. Diffusers are said to help reduce stress-related behaviours such as hiding, scratching or spraying.

Another way that cats can get stressed is through boredom and lack of stimulation, which is more common in those who are indoors-only. Keep your cat entertained by providing toys and opportunities for play that stimulate their natural hunting instincts of stalking and pouncing.

Cats that have access to the outdoors will be happier if they have a cat flap so they can come and go as they please. It is a good idea to choose a cat flap that is operated by your pet’s microchip so that it’s not an open invitation to all the cats in the neighbourhood. It certainly won’t help your cat’s stress levels if all the local moggies let themselves in to steal their dinner!

When more help is needed

If you need help that is tailored to your individual cat, you should ask your vet for a referral to a feline behaviourist who can make a thorough assessment of your pet’s emotional needs.


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