Think you might have a stressed cat? In a world where “stress” is a noun, a verb, an adjective and a near-constant status for humans, is it any wonder that our cats experience stress too? They may not watch the news or fret over finances, but cats can feel real stress, even beyond the fleeting “I won’t get in the carrier because you’ll take me to the vet, and she might stick me with a needle!” variety that most cats feel.
“Absolutely, cats can get stressed,” says Yody Blass, a certified animal behaviorist by the National Association of Animal Behaviorists, and owner and director of Companion Animal Behavior in Leesburg, Virginia. “Cats in general prefer everything to be status quo and do not particularly like change of any kind. The majority of cats I work with that exhibit behavior issues also have anxiety or stress issues.”
There are several signs of stress in cats to look for if you suspect your cat is feeling anxious or upset. Once you identify the symptoms, and rule out any health issues, you can work on alleviating the stressors and creating a calming environment for your cat.
What Causes Stress in Cats
“Cats are delicate creatures who are both predator and prey on the food chain,” says cat behaviorist Rita Reimers, who also owns Just For Cats Pet Sitting, with locations in California and North and South Carolina. “This makes them prone to stress on a grander scale than their canine counterparts.”
The causes that lead to stressed cats range from small to life changing.
“Cats often can adapt to minor changes, like shifting furniture or a family member's temporary illness,” Blass says. “But larger changes—a move to a new home, traveling, a long family illness or death in the family, adding a family member such as a baby (but especially another pet)—and their own health issues can definitely put cats over the top with what they can handle.”
Even “something as innocent as buying a new sofa can cause your cat great angst, changing his world and sense of security,” Reimers says. “Any changes to a cat’s living space can cause anxiety, insecurity and stress.”
She says that behavioral changes and even illness can result, and “conversely, illness can also cause stress, especially if there’s pain involved, or if mental changes occur, such as when older cats become senile.”
Reimers and Blass both strongly recommend that in coping with any kind of feline behavior change, your initial response should not be a DIY diagnosis, but a “vet visit to eliminate or discover illness or physical problems as the source of your cat’s behavioral change. Start by addressing that first,“ Reimers says.
Signs You Have a Stressed Cat and How You Can Help
Cats can’t explain their feelings in words, but they can tell you they’re stressed in other ways—if you can read the signs. Here are a few common signs of stress in cats and tips on how to help.
“Hiding, or avoiding human contact, is a big sign of problems and stress,” says Reimers.
Blass agrees that many cats hide when they become stressed or feel threatened: “They also hide when they are sick.”
Once physical causes have been ruled out, Blass suggests creating a safe room for the cat with a safe place to hide where owners can check on him frequently until the stressful situation or illness has passed.
“Start working on play sessions when you’re in the safe room, enticing your cat to come out of his shell and engage with you,” she says. “Toss a treat or give a pinch of catnip to help create a positive association with your presence.”
Inappropriate Elimination (AKA Going Outside the Litter Box)
“Cats have a limited number of ways to communicate with us, and if his litter box is dirty, he may ‘communicate’ the need for a cleaner box by going somewhere else,” Blass says, adding that if a cat is sick, “he may do it right in front of you, or on your bed or couch so you won't miss the ‘communication.’”
Even so, Blass says, many cat parents “still miss this communication and think the cat is just misbehaving. And sometimes it takes a good deal of analysis to decipher why a cat is no longer using the litter box. A vet exam as well as a behaviorist may be needed to sort it out.”
Always keeping your cat’s litter box clean, following the rule of one box per cat plus one extra box, and having the correct size box (a bigger cat needs more room) can help erase your cat’s bathroom distress.
When a cat is overly stressed, he may go off his food, Blass says.
“Cats can also become fussier about their food choices, refusing food that they previously ate, and some cats will do the opposite, wanting to overeat.” She describes a cat “vocalizing for food and hanging out by the kitchen all day” as possible signs your cat could have a medical issue or could be stressed by some other factor.
Did you recently put your cat on a new diet?
“While putting her on a new diet might be good for her health, Fifi may protest the new food,” Blass says. She recommends making food changes slowly and choosing something that “you both agree on.”
Cats who do not eat at all, for even a day or two, can “get very sick very fast, so always inform your vet when your cat stops eating, particularly if the cat is very young or elderly.”
Blass says a cat who wants to overeat may be suffering from boredom.
“Put her food in a treat ball and let her roll it around for food. Increase her run and jump activities with a feather toy on a wand,” she says. “Get her moving to release some of that tension and built-up frustration an inactive cat may get.”
Need more ideas to prevent cat boredom? Read: 7 Tips to Keep Your Cat From Being Bored.
“If your cat is suddenly very combative, that is a huge red flag,” says Reimers, who cites such aggression, along with appetite changes and eliminating outside the litter box as “your cat’s way of telling you something is not right; your cat is literally calling your attention to the fact that he needs help.”
She says after your vet gives the cat a clean bill of health, then it’s time to “figure out what has changed in the household that might be causing such stress.”
She reminds cat parents to always reassure your cat by “giving him plenty of love and attention through household changes so he feels the constancy of you being there for him.”
Blass adds that cats may become aggressive if they feel they or their environment is being threatened, “and the emphasis here is on they feel, because there may or may not be a real threat, or the threat may have passed but the cat may still perceive there’s an imminent danger.” She agrees with Reimers that the solution is to “de-stress entirely and help your cat find a new normal.”
Oh, that feline yowling!
“When cats begin to age and experience discomfort, they often begin to vocalize more,” Blass says.
Reimers says older cats “may experience stress due to senility and confusion as they age, which in turn causes stress.”
Blass says cognitive changes can affect their mood and sense of well-being.
“Usually the way to tell if it is medical or mental is by the time of day. Most cats may increase their vocalization during wake cycles, but will quiet down during sleep or when resting,” she says.
Once your vet has ruled out any medical issues, “if your cat becomes more vocal at night or early in the morning, that could be related to cognitive changes,” she says, suggesting natural calming remedies and a quiet safe room to sleep in, with easy to navigate furniture or cat posts to help your aging kitty.
“Having play sessions and making sure your senior cat’s food needs are met will also keep him on track,” she says.
Helping Your Cat Avoid Stress
While banishing all stress from your cat’s universe may not be possible, “a cat owner who really understands his cat may be able to avoid certain stress-causing situations,” Reimers says. “Get to know your cat’s personality so you understand what makes him happy. Giving lots of attention and playtime may help him feel secure and alleviate boredom.”
She adds that regular vet checkups are a must “so you can stay on top of illnesses and help your cat through the aging process by providing for his medical needs.”
Blass suggests keeping stress at bay by making any changes gradual ones.
“When your cat needs to accept a new pet or baby, do not just throw the two together and hope for the best. Acclimate slowly so your cat can get used to the idea before she has to see the other cat or baby,” she says.
If you’re planning a move, “take time to box things up gradually over a few weeks, and let your cat explore the boxes; make it fun,” Blass says. “In your new home, the cat will need a safe room to adjust to first before being given the run of the house. Allow your cat to decompress.”
In addition to calming products to help the de-stress process, Blass suggests scheduling a regular daily session devoted to your cat when you offer her attention, affection, play and relaxation.