Recognising stress in cats
It can be worrying if your cat's behaviour changes, especially if you don't know why. Behavioural changes in cats can often be down to stress, so it's important to be able to spot the signs as soon as possible, even when they're subtle.
Stress can affect your cat’s quality of life. It may make medical issues worse and it can also cause medical problems, like stress cystitis, which is a painful and potentially dangerous problem for cats. So it’s important to be able to notice when your cat is showing signs of stress so you can help them.
If your cat has a phobia or something upsets them, you may see obvious signs that they’re feeling stressed. But if your cat’s stress has built up slowly over time, it can be harder to realise, especially if you’re not sure what to look out for.
What are the signs of stress in cats?
If your cat is feeling stressed, their behaviour may change. Some of these changes can happen suddenly and be very obvious, but others can develop gradually or be harder to spot.
Some signs your cat might be feeling stressed include:
- Hiding or staying out of the way all the time
- Eating less than normal
- Avoiding certain places, other pets or people
- Poor coat quality
- Body language that shows they are worried (e.g. slinking low to the ground, crouching or arching, ears back)
- Over-grooming, hair loss or skin conditions
- Low energy
- Peeing in the wrong place, urine spraying or marking, blood in the urine
- Meowing or yowling more than normal
- Sudden changes in behaviour (e.g. a social cat wanting to be alone or an active, playful cat that doesn’t want to play anymore)
- Aggression towards other pets or people
- Diarrhoea or vomiting
- Weight loss
Many of these signs can be caused by medical problems as well as stress. So if you're worried about your cat or they show a sudden change in behaviour, always contact your vet for advice first.
What is stressing my cats?
Cats can be stressed by lots of different things, and not all cats will find the same things stressful. It can be difficult to find the cause, but it’s important to try to identify your cat’s stress triggers so you can take steps to help them.
One of the biggest causes of stress for cats is changes to their environment or home. This might be:
- New furniture or moving furniture
- Redecorating, painting or new carpets
- Moving their food and water bowls or litter trays
- Losing access to a favourite hiding place (for example if you put boxes on the wardrobe they like to sit on, or close the door to the bedroom where they used to sleep)
- Changes to their beds or other places they sleep such as duvets or cushions
- Moving house.
Cats can also become stressed if they don’t have access to the resources they need. This includes food and water bowls, litter trays, scratching posts and a comfortable place to sleep. This can be a problem if there is more than one cat in the household, or in a busy home with lots of people about. Your cat might feel stressed if they can’t get to their resources without going past other cats or if they don’t want to use them while others are around.
Cats can also find changes in smell very stressful. So it’s best to avoid using strongly scented candles or air fresheners in rooms where your cat spends lots of time, especially if you change the scents often.
Boredom can also lead to stress for cats so try to keep them entertained and active.
Many cats like their own company and can find other pets (especially other cats) stressful. They can also be territorial and they tend to enjoy their own space.
Your cat might find become stressed if:
- New cats come into the area
- They live in a multi-cat home and have to share their space and resources
- They don’t get on with another pet in the home
- A stranger cat comes into their home
- You introduce a new pet to the home.
Cats can also be affected by changes to those living in the household, such as when a new child or baby comes into the household or you bring a new pet home. They can also find losses stressful, for example if someone they were close to moves out or passes away. It’s important to help your cat through these changes.
Changes in routine can be very stressful for your cat. This includes changes to:
- Feeding times
- When you get up or go to sleep
- Work patterns
- Relaxed time together (for example the times you watch TV or read a book and your cat can sit with you)
- Cleaning routines (for example cleaning their beds and blankets all at once)
- Your cat may also become stressed if there are people in the house more often when they’re used to having their own space. This could happen if your working situation changes or even during the school holidays, and also during festivals and celebrations when lots of guests may come to visit.
Fears and phobias
Some cats will also have fears or phobias which make them feel stressed. Common cat fears include:
- Fireworks or loud noises
- Travelling in the car
- Strangers/ unfamiliar people
- Other pets.
Find out more about fears and phobias in cats and how to help them.
Illness or injury
Illness, injury, discomfort and pain can cause stress for cats. This can be especially true for some chronic conditions which can have a big impact on your cat’s quality of life. For example arthritis, hyperthyroidism, kidney problems and skin disease. It’s important to talk to your vet if you think your cat is unwell, or they have a chronic problem which is getting worse. They will be able to discuss ways to help your cat feel better and less stressed.
How do I stop my cat from getting stressed?
Whether you want to make sure your cat doesn’t get stressed, or help make a stressed cat happy again, there are a few steps you can take.
- To prevent stress make sure your cat has everything they need to be happy, including constant access to water and enough beds, scratching posts and litter trays. Food and water shouldn’t be kept near one another, and litter trays should be kept far away from both.
- For one cat, ideally you should offer at least two water points, litter trays, posts and beds.
- For more than one cat, you’ll need one per cat plus one spare of each, spread around the house. Always make sure your cat has a separate food bowl to other pets in the household. These should also be kept away from your other pets’ food, either in a different location or by feeding them at a different time if space is tight.
- Make sure you have lots of hiding places for your cat where they can feel safe. This could include igloo beds, cardboard boxes and high up spaces that provide somewhere comfy to rest in.
- For cats that enjoy time outdoors, consider a cat flap so they can come and go as they please. We recommend one that only opens to your cat’s microchip to stop other cats coming into your cat’s home and eating their food. If you can’t have a cat flap, try to keep to a set routine for being let in and out so they know what to expect.
- Cats love routine as they are creatures of habit. Try to keep to your daily routine as much as possible with the same feeding schedule every day.
- Avoid cleaning all your cat’s beds and blankets at once. Try to rotate them through the wash so your cat always has something that smells familiar.
- Just like people, keeping active may help reduce stress. Make sure your cat has access to plenty of toys to play with every day. Help them use their brain to avoid boredom. Use puzzle feeders, scatter dry food or hide treats in old loo roll inners so your cat has to puzzle for their pudding.
- Try a pheromone diffuser for cats. If you are anticipating something you know might stress your cat out but is unavoidable, like having a baby or moving house, use a pheromone diffuser.
- Give your cat some space and let them choose when they want your attention. Sometimes, even if we mean well, our cats can get stressed over too much attention. Then it will be all the more rewarding when your cat chooses to spend time with you!
- Make sure all family members know the signs of stress in your cat. This is especially important for children who may not be able to understand your cat’s signals. It’s best to supervise children with pets to make sure your cat stays relaxed and having fun.
- Give your cat time to adjust when introducing new things, people or pets to the household. If you have a cat that is stressed by change, consider whether these are necessary changes and in the best interests of your cat.
What should I do if I think my cat is stressed?
If you think your cat is stressed, it’s best to contact your vet for advice. They can check for any medical causes of their symptoms and recommend ways to help them.
It’s also a good idea to contact an ABTC certified behaviourist, especially if they seem to be stressed all the time, they’re showing aggressive behaviour or you think the stress is impacting on their quality of life. Find out more about helping an anxious cat.