Is your cat stressed? What we can do as pet parents

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Is your cat stressed? What we can do as pet parents - Kitten peeking out of a cat bed

Stress is common in house cats, but is shown in subtle ways. It’s also difficult for us as humans to understand what our cats find stressful. It is important for cat owners to recognize signs of stress in their pets in order to address any problems quickly. Some questions you may have when your cat begins developing unusual behaviors are:

  • What are the common signs of stress in cats?
  • What is causing my cat to be stressed?
  • Are some cats more at risk for chronic stress than others?
  • What happens if my cat is stressed for a long time?
  • What should I do if my cat is stressed?

Cats that experience prolonged stress can begin to develop medical and behavioral conditions. Some cats are more at risk than others, such as elderly cats, cats with chronic illnesses, and cats in multi-pet homes. It is important to provide the proper environment that eliminates unnecessary stress so your cat can enjoy a comfortable life with you.

What are the common signs of stress in cats?

Acute stress often occurs when there are sudden changes in a cat’s territory, or the cat is removed from their territory altogether. Short-term stressors, such as a veterinary visit, are often unavoidable and most cats bounce back from these experiences quickly. However, when the stressors last more than a couple of weeks, they can become chronic and potentially result in medical or behavioral problems.

Cats show that they are stressed in much more subtle ways than dogs. Changes in day-to-day behavior are major indicators of stress, but it’s important to know what to watch out for. Signs of stress in cats include:

  • Not using the litter box
  • Avoiding interaction and hiding
  • Lethargy
  • Over-grooming or self-mutilation
  • Destruction of furniture or other household items
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Lack of appetite or unexplained weight loss

Understanding and recognizing changes in your cat’s behavior can help you recognize when something is wrong early.

What are the causes of stress in cats?

Cats are territorial animals, so when there is a sudden change or disruption to their normal territory, it can cause a lot of stress. Common causes of stress in cats include:

  • Living with an incompatible cat
  • Undiagnosed illness
  • Sudden changes at home, such as a new baby or pet
  • A change in the location of the litter box, or in the type of litter
  • A vet or groomer visit
  • Loud noises
  • Boredom and lack of suitable environmental enrichment
  • A new scent, or a lack of needed scents, such as facial scent marks
  • A visit from a stranger, such as a new human, outside cat, or other visiting pets

Not getting along with another pet in the household and introducing a new cat to the home are two of the  top stressors among house cats. The combination of a potential threat of a new cat and the new scents around the home can cause a lot of stress in your cat. Try slowly acclimating new cats or other pets to your cat by keeping them in separate rooms and allowing them to smell each other before meeting. If you’re lucky it may only take a few days or weeks for a cat to get used to its new housemate. Cats have complex social lives that are constantly evolving and responding to new information, so they may continue adjusting to big changes over years.

What cats are most at risk for severe stress?

Some cats can bounce back quicker from acute stress than others. Your cat may be more at risk of developing chronic stress when:

  • Living in multi-pet homes
  • Elderly or chronically ill
  • At risk for separation anxiety
  • Frequently moved to different homes
  • Recently adopted

If your cat is at risk for severe stress and displaying symptoms of stress, you should consult a veterinarian to discuss what steps you can take to help. Reducing stress will not only make your cat happier but make them healthier as well. You can reduce stress by providing multiple places for cats to hide as well as enrichment items, such as perches, toys, and scratching posts.

What are the risks of chronic stress in cats?

Acute stress in cats is caused by a sudden or unexpected incident or perceived threat. Loud noises and vet visits are both examples of acute stressors. Most cats can recover quickly from acute stress. However, if acute stress is not resolved, it can turn into chronic stress. Chronic stress occurs when an acute stressor is not resolved quickly. Each cat is different, but stress can become chronic after a few days to a few weeks. Chronic stress can cause behavioral and medical problems including:

“Gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea along with symptoms of FIC like urinating outside the litterbox are common in cats with prolonged high-stress levels,” says Jo Myers, DVM, a vet on Vetster. “Learn what’s ‘normal’ for your cat by observing their usual eating, drinking, and going to the bathroom habits. If you see any changes or they’re less active, talk to a vet.” Disease, injuries, and an overall lowered immune system can decrease the quality and length of your cat’s life.

What should you do if your cat is stressed?

If your cat is showing signs of stress, try to identify the source. Has anything changed around your home, such as the location of the cat’s litter box, the presence of a visitor, or a shift in your daily routine? You can also help by:

  • Providing safe havens and do not disturb cats when they are hiding
  • Providing a variety of enrichment options, such as toys, cat trees, perches, and scratching posts
  • Avoiding punishment or scolding
  • Try pheromone diffusers
  • Consult with a veterinarian to look into potential underlying conditions and possible treatment strategies

If your cat is showing signs of stress, speak to a veterinarian or a registered veterinary technician. An online virtual care appointment is an excellent way to talk to a licensed professional about your cat’s stress without adding additional stress by visiting a clinic. They may be able to help identify the sources of stress, as well as provide solutions to help you and your cat live a more stress-free life together.

FAQ - Stress in cats and how to help

How can I prevent stress in my cat?

Stress can be prevented by maintaining a stable environment for your cat with places to hide and enrichment items, such as perches, toys, and scratching posts. Avoid sudden changes to your cat’s territory or routine.

How do you help a cat adjust to change?

Cats are highly territorial and often experience stress in response to changes to their surroundings. When possible, slowly introduce a change to your cat. Avoid disrupting your cat’s safe areas, litter box, food area, and areas where they mark with their face scent marks.

Can a cat recover from stress?

Most cats will bounce back quickly after an acute stressor. Stress that becomes chronic, however, may lead to various medical and behavioral problems. It’s best to identify the stressor as soon as possible and adjust to allow your cat to recover.