Stress in cats

A number of factors can cause stress in cats. Life-changing events such as moving house, a new member of the family (for example a new baby or a new animal joining the household) can be difficult for cats, but even events of shorter duration such as a visit to the vets can be stressful. It is important to be able to recognise both things that might cause stress and the symptoms of stress so that you can help prevent and alleviate stress to keep your cat happy.

Why do cats get stressed?

Cats like to feel in control of their environment and will run away, freeze, or show defensive signals such as hissing, spitting, or lashing out if they feel fearful or anxious. Cats are genetically programmed to live alone and generally avoid interactions with other cats. When given the option they will usually prefer to try to escape or freeze when threatened as these responses are less likely to result in injury. In modern environments it is often difficult for cats to escape when they are afraid, for example if they have to share their home with another cat.

Why are some cats more fearful than others?

As a species cats are naturally wary of anything unfamiliar. However, how a cat responds to its environment can be influenced by various factors including its genetics, how well it was socialised during its ‘sensitive’ period (when it is most receptive to learning from new experiences) and any ongoing experiences. This means that cats whose owners are more confident with people and other cats, are more likely to be confident themselves. It also means that kittens who have had regular, positive experiences being handled by people during their sensitive period are more likely be friendly towards people as adult cats. Adult cats who have had a poor experience causing negative emotions such as anxiety and fear, eg whilst travelling in the car, are more likely to show signs of anxiety or fear the next time they travel.

Ideally, kittens should be socialised, so they have a positive association with people and other animals and develop appropriate behaviours towards them. Helping kittens get used to and ignore non-threatening stimuli in the household is also useful, eg sight and noise of the vacuum cleaner. This process is called habituation (there is more information on this in the ‘kitten socialisation’ factsheet).

How do I know if my cat is stressed?

Cats can express their stress either actively or inactively depending on their temperament. An active type cat that is stressed will often vocalise excessively and if confined (eg in a vet cage or boarding cattery) may attempt to escape or spend long periods of time trying to gain attention. Conversely, an inactive type cat often exhibits stress by being as quiet as possible and trying to find a place to hide. It may hide its head or whole body under its bed or hide somewhere within the house. Cats that are stressed can often change their feeding and toileting patterns. They may stop eating or eat excessively and they may start toileting outside of their litter boxes. Anxious and fearful cats are also less likely to engage in normal behaviours, such as playing or grooming, and will startle more easily.

Cats can show their stress in a number of ways but there are certain key signs to look out for in your cat’s facial expressions and body posture. When a cat’s emotions are aroused their pupils are very large this may be due to stress associated with pain, fear or anxiety. A cat that is stressed for a short time (eg from a startle or the approach of an unfriendly cat) may raise its back in an arch, flatten its ears and its fur will stand on end. A cat that is stressed for longer periods of time (for example if it has to live with a cat it does not) may not groom and have a scruffy looking coat or may appear depressed and lifeless, often curled up with its head pressed closed to its body.

In some extreme cases cats can pull their fur out (or more commonly groom an area so much the hair is removed) when they are stressed. However, there are a number of medical reasons why a cat may over-groom or lose its fur including skin complaints and allergies. If you notice your cat is losing fur or has bald patches, take it to your vet for an examination. Cats may also groom very little or stop completely if they are stressed, therefore any change in normal grooming should be monitored and reported to your vet.

What sort of things stress a cat?

Many factors can cause stress and what one cat may find stressful, another may not. However, cats are often stressed by a change in their lifestyle, routine and/or environment. Examples include a visit to the vets, a stay in a boarding cattery, a new baby, other cats in the neighbourhood, building works or renovations to the home, or a new pet. For sensitive cats, something as minor as a new piece of furniture or a change in position of the litter tray can be stressful.

Is it stressful for a cat to live without access to the outdoors?

There is a lot of debate on the topic of welfare of the indoor only cat. If a cat has to be kept indoors only (eg due to a disability or living close to a busy road), it is important its behavioural needs are met in order to prevent it getting stressed. Foraging games, interactive play, hiding places, scratching posts, high walkways and vantage points at windows are all important ways of enriching the indoor environment in an attempt to prevent stress.

How can I prevent my cat getting stressed?

Stress is a part of life for all animals but too much can cause behavioural and medical problems. To minimize stress you want to make the home environment as similar to a wild lifestyle as possible with lots of opportunity for choice for your cat. These include:

  • Adequate numbers of litter trays for the cats residing in the home (general rule is one per cat plus one)
  • Plenty of places to gain food and water (separately) within the home
  • A choice of places to rest (up high, away from hustle and bustle of household)
  • Opportunities for your cat(s) to express hunting behaviour (through play and foraging games)
  • A secure home. Make sure no neighbouring cats can enter your cat’s home (magnetic collared cat flap or microchip scanning cat flaps can help prevent unwanted cats in the home).

Should I see my vet if I think my cat is stressed?

Yes, if you think your cat is experiencing stress, your vet should always be your first point of contact. Not only can the vet check for medical causes of stress, they can advise you on further help if the problem appears to be behavioural.

Will another cat help my cat feel calmer?

Cats do not have the complex emotional social groups that people enjoy. While company may make a person feel less stressed, this is rarely the case for a cat. Adding another cat to an environment where the existing cat already feels stressed is only likely to heighten the stress your cat is feeling.

Owning a stressed cat is no fun for you or your cat. Make sure you can recognize the signs that your cat is not happy and always ask for advice from your vet if you are concerned.

Pet Owner Factsheets