what causes stress in cats?
Cat Health and Wellness

10 Things That Stress Out Cats

Cats look like the epitome of cool indifference at all times. Watching your feline, you’d be forgiven for believing they don’t have a care in the world. The opposite is true. Cats are easily stressed, but they hide it extremely well.

Just rearranging the furniture can wreak havoc with a cat’s biorhythms. Changes in their living situation such as a new home, owners or house guests can be stress triggers. Insufficient exercise and mental stimulation can leave a cat feeling stressed and anxious.

Small and controlled exposure to stress is sometimes necessary. If your cat has never experienced any negative stimuli, it will not understand the dangers. This, in turn, means that your cat’s instincts will not utilize the fabled fight-or-flight response.

There is, however, a discrepancy between these short bursts (known as acute stress) and chronic anxiety. Acute stress can keep your cat safe in an emergency. Chronic stress can be detrimental to health.

We will explain how you can recognize the symptoms of feline stress, and what causes this response. While cats are easily stressed by certain situations, they can also be calmed down.

What Are the Symptoms of Stress in Cats?

If your cat is stressed, it’s crucial that you realize straight away. The longer a cat carries anxiety, the more likely they are to become aggressive or sick. Common warning signs of stress in cats include:

  • Eliminating outside the litter box, seemingly deliberately. It can appear to be deliberate.
  • Grooming to excess. Cats love to be clean, but grooming is also a self-soothing behavior.
  • Excessive scratching. If it doesn’t have fleas or allergies, they may be scratching due to stress.
  • Upset stomach. If your cat has unexplained diarrhea or their stomach is making gurgling sounds, stress may be to blame.
  • Loss of appetite. Cats are food-focused animals. If they’re not eating, there must be a reason.
  • Vocalizing. If your cat is continually meowing, however, they could be verbalizing stress.
  • Constant solitude. All cats need time to themselves on occasion. A happy pet will seek attention, though. If your cat is hiding out all day, something is upsetting them.
  • Aggression. Never let uncharacteristic aggression go unchecked.

If you notice any of these behaviors, look for the trigger and remove it wherever possible. Sometimes, situations that stress cats are unavoidable though.

What Causes Stress in Cats?

Now that we know what stress looks like in a cat, we need to know what causes it. Let’s take a look at the ten most common reasons for feline stress.

1) Moving Home

It’s claimed that, bereavement aside, moving house is the most stressful thing a human can experience. Well, magnify that anxiety by a thousand, and you’re somewhere close to how your cat feels. Even moving the furniture around your existing home is enough to spark serious feline panic.

When you move home, make life as easy as possible for your cat. Place litter trays, food, and water bowls and climbing trees on every floor. Multiple scratching posts are also advisable, so your cat can mark territory without destroying furniture.

Give your pet the run of the house, not closing any doors. They will need to explore, and grow comfortable with each room. You may find that your cat gravitates to one spot initially. This is fine, and should be encouraged. If your cat feels safe in this location, leave them to enjoy it. Such security will help them eventually relax in the rest of the home.

Finally, if your new home needs work, consider getting this done before moving your cat in. Loud noises such as power tools can be distressing for a feline. Paint is also dangerous if swallowed, and the strong smell could cause stress to a cat.

2) New Arrivals to the Home

When a cat grows comfortable in their home, it becomes just that – their home. Don’t get any delusions of grandeur just because it’s your name on the lease. Cats rule the roost, at least in their minds.

This means your cat will not take kindly to new people or pets in their home. Your cat will be wondering why they were not consulted, and given the power of veto.

If you have a houseguest, such as a lodger, your cat will not trust them immediately. Keep them separate where possible, ensuring that the guest does not interfere with your cat’s routine. That means not keeping litter trays and food bowls in their room. Given enough time and patience, the cat will accept this infiltrator.

If you have a baby, you’re about to embark on an exciting new chapter. Your cat, however, will be less thrilled with this new arrival. They will wonder why this noisy individual is taking all of their attention. They may feel that they have been replaced. They could even worry that this has happened because they misbehaved. Cats and babies are perfectly capable of bonding, but don’t leave them alone unsupervised. Accidents can easily happen.

Introducing a second cat your home will need to be a gradual process. Don’t just put the two animals together and hope for the best. Your existing pet will usually resent the presence of a rival, and grow very distressed. Give each cat a separate space in the house, and pick up some pet gates. It will be much safer if two cats encounter each other through a barrier initially. This helps them to get used to each other’s scent, and accept sharing a living space.

symptoms of stress in cats

3) Revisiting Past Trauma

Cat memories are a strange thing. A feline is believed to have a short-term memory of around sixteen hours. Despite this, cats remember things that matter to them for a very long time.

If a cat returns for a former home after an absence of ten years, they’ll still recall the neighborhood. They’ll immediately gravitate to where they may have found food in the past. This also helps cats bond with their owners. If a human is important to a feline, they will remember them for life.

Naturally, it’s not only positive associations that stick with a cat. Cats remember threats, and things that cause them pain or trauma. If your pet had a bad experience at the vet, they would always remain averse to returning. If a previous male owner mistreated your cat, they might distrust all males in the future. If a dog attacks your cat, they will freak out at the scent of canines.

Trauma can be hard for cats to overcome. There is no such thing as a feline counselor, so therapy is not an option. You’ll need to manage your cat’s reactions to these trigger memories carefully. Never make your cat ‘face their fear’ through exposure therapy. This will make things worse.

4) Unreliable, Ever-Changing Routines

Cats live for routine. When they cannot predict what is going to happen and when, at least vaguely, they will become extremely stressed.

This means that your cat needs to know what to expect from any given day. Teach your pet that they can rely on you, and don’t move the goalposts.

If you play with your cat at particular times, stick with that schedule. This could be the first thing in the morning, after work, and before bed. Cats do not wear wristwatches, so they won’t be checking in at the exact time. They will, however, have an idea of when to expect attention. If you don’t provide it, they will wonder why and grow stressed.

The same also applies to food. If you feed your cat two half-portions of food a day, stick with that. You can’t go from feeding in the morning and evening to one meal at night. Your cat will spend all day fretting about when – or even if ­– they’ll be fed. You also need to clean your cat’s litter tray at least once daily. Ensure that your cat knows when this will happen. Felines are so clean that using a dirty tray will stress them out. If they have an idea of when the tray is clean, they’ll wait to use it.

5) Lack of Exercise and Stimulation

Cats may look like lazy and sedentary animals, but don’t be fooled. They can be extremely active when they need to be. This is especially apparent in outdoor cats, who wander and climb for hours. This provides plenty of much-needed stimulation and exercise. If you keep your cat indoors, this will need to be replicated.

A cat that does not get enough exercise can become frustrated. The same is also true of cats that cannot utilize their hunting instincts. Does your cat sit at the window watching birds, making a succession of chirping sounds? This is initial excitement, but it can quickly turn to frustration. Frustration leads to stress. Your cat needs to let that out, or it can quickly become problematic.

To avoid this, replicate the hunting experience for an indoor cat through play. Any pet store will have a wide number of hunting games available. These involve dangling a toy on a piece of string, which your cat can stalk. It’s not the same as hunting a mouse, but an indoor cat won’t know the difference. You should also provide climbing trees, replicating a cat’s experience in the wild.

In addition to hunting games, you could also look into treat-dispensing puzzles. These will keep a food-focused cat’s mind occupied, as they learn how to earn the treat. Mental stimulation can be just as important as physical for a cat. This will tire them out, and help them sleep at night. As cats are nocturnal, this is important. If your cat feels that you’re ignoring them while you doze, they’ll grow stressed. It’s better for all concerned if your cat falls into sync with your sleep schedule.

6) Loss of an Owner or Fellow Cat

Forget everything you have heard about cats being cold and aloof. Some believe that cats are indifferent to their owners, settling for anybody that will feed them. This is a myth. Cats often bond strongly with their owners and human families. Sometimes it’s one human over all others, which is known as imprinting. This is especially common when a cat enters a home as a kitten.

There are few changes more pronounced than losing changing a long-term companion. Cats grow to depend on the familiarity of a human owner, seeking comfort in their voice. Likewise, cats grow dependent having fellow felines around. This may seem bizarre if two cats spend all day fighting, but even that’s a routine. If that is taken away from a cat, they’ll grow depressed and despondent.

how to destress your cat

In addition to the cat’s own emotions, they’ll pick up on the grief of a human. If one pet in a multi-cat household has passed on, its owners will be devastated. Cats are adept at reading the facial expressions of humans, and they’ll pick up on this. This means that a cat will absorb your grief at the bereavement as well as their own. That’s double the potential stress.

Equally, a cat that is rehomed following the loss of their owner will be particularly traumatic. Even if the cat moves in with a family member, it’s a lot to take on. Not only are they wondering where their human is, but the new caregivers are sad. This will leave the cat feeling increasingly distressed.

7) Inexplicable Loud Noises

Cats rely heavily on their hearing, which is five times better than that of a human. More than any other sense, it’s how they get a feel for the world around them. Your cat will be able to hear a scurrying mouse from a hundred yards, for example. This is because the shape of a cat’s ear almost sucks sound directly in.

While this enhanced hearing is often a blessing for felines, it can sometimes be a curse. If a cat hears a loud noise, and cannot place where it comes from, they’ll become stressed. This is why cats are so frightened of firecrackers and storms, for example.

Your pet does not understand that it’s all part of a visual display, or Mother Nature. They hear a succession of bangs, which are deafening to their delicate ears. Unless they’re convinced otherwise, a cat will assume these noises are warning signs of imminent danger.

It can be tough to protect your cat from loud noises – sometimes they’re simply unavoidable. Don’t try to place cotton pads in your cat’s ears. They will reject this notion outright, and possibly grow stressed as a result of it. Consider purchasing a ThunderShirt for such occasions. This vest will keep your cat calm by applying constant gentle pressure, similar to being swaddled. You can even use it on other anxiety-trigger occasions, such as vet appointments.

8) Bullying from Other Animals

Cats are territorial by their very nature. They like to feel that wherever they roam belongs to them. If you have other pets, one feline may feel bullied out of what is rightfully theirs. Likewise, if your cat likes to wander outside, other neighborhood animals may behave aggressively toward them.

Let’s start by addressing potential bullying and inter-animal aggression in the home. If you have two cats, ensure they are treated equally. Jealousy can easily arise in felines, and it may be taken out on the cat rather than you.

Ensure each cat has its own distinct food and water bowls, litter tray and bed. You will probably find that the different cats gravitate to independent parts of the house. Encourage this, never moving your cat when they seem comfortable. Two cats need not be the best of friends, they do need to coexist. The path of least resistance for this is to allow them to pick their independent territories. If necessary, affix a pet gate to allow each cat their half of the house.

One cat may continue to bully the other, however. An example of this could be refused access to their food bowl. This will often result in one cat eating twice and becoming overweight, and the other starving and growing sick. In such circumstances, use aversive training techniques. Make a noise, or squirt the big bully with a water gun. Once they walk away and leave the other cat alone, praise and treat them. They will soon learn that behaving more pleasantly gets rewards. Feeding at the same time in different locations is also advisable.

Bullying from animals outside the home is harder to control. Stray or feral felines, or a neighbor’s cat, may victimize your pet. Learn the activity patterns of these other cats, and keep your cat home during these times. If you see your neighbor let their cat out at 8 am, let yours wander from 6 am and bring them in at 8. Your cat may meow and want to roam, but they’ll realize that home is safer.

9) Enforced Interaction with Humans

Whether we like it or not, some cats don’t enjoy interacting with humans. Alternatively, they may not have a problem with it – provided it’s on their terms.

You should always allow a cat to approach a human, as opposed to the reverse. As cats are so alert to any potential danger, they see everything – including humans – as potential predators. Also, we have to remember how cats view us. Through your pet’s eyes, you are not their master and owner.

As Cnet explains, cats think you’re a larger version of themselves. This is not a problem for a feline, as they also notice that you’re strangely non-confrontational. If you attempt to interact with your pet when they’re not in the mood, this changes.

Even attempts at demonstrating love for your cat can cause stress. Never try to pick them up from behind. Your pet will not know what is happening, and start to panic. Never loom directly your cat – they’ll think that you are preparing to attack from above. Never drag them out of a hiding space because you want to play. If your cat is showing signs of not enjoying tickles and scratches, release them. Cats can quickly become overstimulated as their fur and skin are delicate. Too much touching can quickly start to hurt.

If your cat wants to interact with you, then it’ll come and initiate it. Forcing the issue will damage its trust in you, and your relationship. The more your cat trusts you, the more they’ll seek your company.

10) Sickness

If your cat is living with an underlying sickness, they will quickly become stressed. Cats do not like to let on that they’re unwell, even if it’s potentially fatal. They are paranoid that another cat or animal will sense this weakness, and usurp them. This could lead to a loss of territory, or even result in being attacked.

As a cat owner, you’ll need to be vigilant about keeping an eye out for sickness. There is a long list of different health complaints that bother cats, especially once they’re older. Some of these have visible symptoms, such as weight loss and upset stomachs. Others are considerably subtler. If your cat has dental pain, for example, it may take you a while to realize.

Healthcare professionals will be able to detect any ill health quickly, and take the appropriate action. Just because your cat has an excellent poker face, it doesn’t mean that they’re perfectly healthy.

cat makes weird noise when yawning

How to De-stress Your Cat

If your cat is stressed, you’ll have to take action. If it’s something that a lifestyle change can help with, do so immediately. This could involve drawing up a routine, and sticking to it.

You may need a little external help, however. There are numerous techniques available for reducing a cat’s stress. These include:

  • Remove the stress trigger. If it’s another animal that’s upsetting your cat, keep them separate. If it’s a human houseguest, limit interaction between human and feline.
  • Distract your cat. Regularly change your cat’s supply of toys, and provide regular interactive playtimes.
  • Duplicate, or triplicate, everything. Give your cat water bowls and litter trays in multiple rooms, on multiple floors. This sense of choice will help them feel safer.
  • Keep your cat indoors. If your pet is easily stressed, the outside world may be overwhelming. Cats live in a constant state of high alert, always looking out for predators or dangers. A nervous cat will find no shortage of them outside.
  • Play music. Cats have been shown to respond well to mid-tempo, low-volume music. Classical is often a particular favorite.
  • Seek chemical help. You may look to chemical support to ease your cat’s stress. Popular products such as Rescue Remedy are safe for felines. A lavender scent is also impactful in calming cats down. Just remember, this will only reduce the stress levels – not the cause of it.

If none of these techniques calm your cat calm, it will be time to visit the vet. This itself is a stress trigger for most felines, so prepare yourself. A professional will, however, run tests that help you understand the root of your pet’s discomfort.

Are Some Cats Naturally Anxious?

Absolutely, yes. Some cats have a very nervous nature. This could happen to a cat of any breed. Some kittens are very skittish and grow up to be confident adult cats. Sometimes the opposite is true. There are no guarantees when it comes to animal behavior.

If your cat is consistently nervous, and a vet cannot explain why, it’s just their nature. If you live with such a pet, don’t walk on eggshells around them. It may be tempting to tip-toe around the house, and talk in whispers. Cats will pick up on this, and will grow even more fearful. You are just reaffirming what they suspect – that the world is a scary place.

Just live your life as normal, and respect the boundaries of a nervous cat. Don’t drag them out of their hiding place against their will. This gives the impression that you are territorial and dominant. When your cat does surface, however, say hello and offer playtime and attention. Over time, many cats will start to relax in such situations. They may never develop a swagger, but they’ll be less afraid of their own shadow.

Living with a Traumatized Cat

When adopting a cat from a shelter, it’s always best to get an insight into their psyche. If your potential pet is traumatized by mistreatment in their past, they will need different care. The same is also true of kittens rejected by their mother, or separated too soon. The earliest weeks and months of a cat’s life are pivotal. Negative experiences in this time can leave permanent psychological scars.

The most important thing for a traumatized cat is a safe and solitary space. Do not try to choose it for them – your cat will know where they feel safe Anxious cats will often gravitate to a particular location when they feel overwhelmed. Often this will be an elevated position, but it could be anywhere.

Once your cat identifies their safe space, make it their domain. A traumatized cat should never be interacted with while in their safe space. Sure, this may be inconvenient if they choose your sock drawer, but accept it. Just keep an emergency pair of socks elsewhere for such situations.

It’s also important to note that exposure therapy is a huge no-no for traumatized pets. Don’t wrap your cat in cotton wool, but equally, don’t force them to relive past trauma. If your cat has separation anxiety because their previous owner abandoned them, respect this. If you’re going on vacation, get a cat-sitter rather than leaving them home alone. Repeating the behaviors that previously traumatized the cat will help nobody.

Stress is described as, “the silent killer” in humans, and it’s just as dangerous for cats.  A feline that is exposed to constant, unmanaged stress and anxiety will undergo a personality change. This could make them very difficult to live with. Also, stress can leave cats susceptible to other, long-term physical ailments.

A cat is a huge commitment. It becomes your responsibility to ensure that the feline remains comfortable and confident. Failing to ensure that your cat is happy and healthy will end badly for all concerned. Keep one eye on your pet’s mental state, and act accordingly. Everybody will find the relationship more enjoyable as a result.