Cats look like the epitome of cool indifference at all times. When you look at cats, you could be forgiven for thinking that they don’t have a care in the world. However, cats can get stressed out, but they hide it really well.
Change is a significant stress trigger for cats as they crave consistency and routine. Cats find excessive or inappropriate handling stressful and taxing. Bullying from other animals, the presence of predators, loud noises, unsanitary living conditions, and feeling bored or lonely will all cause stress for domesticated house cats.
Feline stress has many different origins. So, you’ll need to dedicate yourself to learning about and minimizing exposure to these triggers. A less stressful life will mean that your cat will feel happier and more relaxed at home.
Why Cats Get Stressed
It is safe to assume that cats will feel under stress at some point. No matter how perfect we make things for our cats, they are anxious and highly strung by nature. This is down to these factors:
- Small size. Cats are acutely aware that they are smaller than humans and many other animals. This makes them cautious about anything that may do them harm. Cats hate feeling vulnerable, but this is sometimes unavoidable.
- Mesopredators. Cats are hunters and prey. As cats have a dominant hunting drive, they also have strong survival instincts. Cats know that a more dangerous animal could do what they do to mice and birds.
- Routine and familiarity preference. While cats are inherently curious about new experiences, they are also very cautious. If a cat encounters new tastes, smells, sounds, or sensations, it will initially respond fearfully.
What Does a Stressed Cat Look Like?
Not all stressed cats display the same cues. Common body language signs and behaviors include:
- Showing aggression (hissing, growling, arching back)
- Grooming to excess
- Clinginess and excessive vocalization
- Eliminating outside the litter box
- Aimless pacing
- A constant state of skittish vigilance
- Vomiting and diarrhea
What Causes Stress in Cats?
Feline anxiety can have a wide array of causes. Some of these will be obvious, but others may surprise you. It is important to remember that, despite their cool demeanor, cats are easily stressed. Let’s look at some common causes:
Falling out of an established routine is the main source of stress for cats. If you have got your cat into a schedule, you should maintain that routine. This means feeding and playing with your cat at set times each day.
Cats live exclusively in the moment. They don’t understand work deadlines or family emergencies. They just know that it is dinner time, and their food bowl is empty. A lack of food will worry a cat; it can’t survive for more than a few days without nourishment, and it’s counting on the consistent provision of food to stay healthy.
If you are unable to attend to your cat’s needs, ask somebody else to step in. Cats will accept a substitute caregiver, especially once they learn that they can be trusted to take care of their day-to-day needs.
Cats loathe and greatly fear changes to their living environment. This could be something as simple as rearranging furniture in a home, or a new family member, lodger, or pet.
For example, the arrival of a new baby is very unsettling to a cat. The cat will not recognize this tiny human. All that the cats know is that somebody new has infiltrated its territory and is stealing its attention. Will the cat be replaced?
Few things are more stressful to a cat than moving home. The cat needs to reestablish new territory and learn the new lay of the land. Every noise will be alarming, and every nook and cranny will be considered a danger.
Introduce your cat to a new home gradually, perhaps restricting it to one room initially. After a day or two, allow your cat to explore further. Curiosity will supersede anxiety, and the cat will investigate its new home.
Do not be surprised if the cat wanders back to its previous home, as it will have memorized everything about its former terrain. It will be a while before the cat feels comfortable in its new surroundings.
Cats need physical and mental stimulation. If the cat grows bored, it may become anxious and destructive.
If you work during the day, ensure your cat has plenty to do. Scratching posts, cat trees, toys, and puzzles are a must. Leave the curtains open, too. Many cats will pass countless hours watching birds from a window.
Cats may seem indifferent to company, but they can grow lonely. As we have already established, cats thrive on routine. If the cat is used to your company, it will feel forlorn when left alone for an extended period of time.
As explained by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, cats experience separation anxiety. This arises when a cat feels insecure. It worries that, when you leave, you may not return.
The cat may start visiting other homes for company. This can become problematic if cats eat twice and become overweight. Sometimes cats are reluctant to return home as their needs are being better met elsewhere.
Getting a second cat may seem like an obvious solution to feline loneliness. However, if you are struggling to keep one cat happy, two cats are twice as much work. It can also take a long time for two cats to accept each other or get along.
Instead, consider asking a friend or neighbor to visit your cat. Some fuss and a few treats will relax your cat.
Cats explore the world through their nose as scents provide a comforting sense of familiarity. Unique and offensive smells can have the reverse effect.
As cats have sensitive noses, air fresheners and other aromas can be distressing. Even changing perfume or cologne can cause stress and anxiety in cats. Scents that cats are particularly averse to include:
- Citrus peels (lemons and limes)
For the sake of your cat’s stress level, keep these aromas out of your home.
Cats have sensitive hearing, using their ears for hunting. Most cats listen to everything around them, checking for prey or potential dangers. This means that loud, sudden noises can cause severe anxiety in felines. Common noise-based stressors for cats include:
- Car horns
- Vacuum cleaners
- Raised voices
If you live in the city, your cat will gradually grow used to these sounds. While your cat is adjusting, offer it comfort and reassurance. Keep cat beds, litter boxes, and food bowls away from television sets and radios.
Unsanitary Litter Box
Cats are meticulously clean animals. They constantly groom to ensure that predators can’t detect them. A clean cat will feel less stressed than an unclean cat. Cats will expect you to assist them with this dedication to cleanliness.
This means regularly cleaning out the cat’s litter tray. Litter should be scooped at least once a day, ideally more often. The box should also be regularly changed and cleaned. Cats will rarely eliminate in a previously soiled litter.
If your cat leads you to its litter tray, it’s pointing out that the litter is dirty. If you ignore your cat’s request for more sanitary conditions, your cat could commence inappropriate elimination habits.
Lack of Territory
Cats are hardwired to hunt and claim territory to call their own. This is usually achieved by marking with urine, rubbing certain body parts against objects, or clawing carpets and furniture. Once a cat has its own territory, it will feel much safer and more confident.
Provide your cat with territory in the home. Ideally, this will be a room that you rarely use. Laundry rooms or spare bedrooms are ideal for this purpose. Your cat will feel safe here, as it will not be disturbed.
If you don’t have a spare room, provide a closet or corner. Cats’ territory doesn’t need to be large. When your cat is in its territory, it wants to be left alone for a while. Do not disturb the cat unless you have a good reason.
Not all cats enjoy being handled and held, preferring to keep all four paws on the ground. Handling can leave a cat feeling stressed and vulnerable. If your cat doesn’t enjoy handling, do not force the issue.
Even if your cat does not reject handling, it must be handled carefully. Mishandling a cat can be painful and stressful, leaving a feline reluctant to approach you again. Stressful handling techniques include:
- Scruffing (grabbing the cat by the back of the neck)
- Lifting by the ears, legs, or tail
- Holding the cat too tightly
- Refusing to let the cat go
Bullying And Dominance
Cats live according to strict and complex social dynamics. Cats can tolerate other animals in the home, but the social hierarchy can become troublesome.
Cats in groups will assign one dominant animal. A dominant cat will groom other cats and choose the best toys, beds, and food. This is dominant feline behavior and is perfectly normal.
However, there is a fine line between dominance and bullying. A submissive cat may have access to food restricted or be blocked from accessing certain parts of the house. A dominant cat may also perform acts of unprovoked aggression on a submissive counterpart.
This means that a submissive feline will have a stressful and miserable life. The bullied cat will become increasingly anxious and withdrawn. The cats must be separated, and behavioral training commenced on the dominant feline.
Lack of Privacy
Your cat would not live in your home and engage with you if it didn’t love you. This doesn’t change the fact that cats need time alone. All cats need to be able to decompress and sleep.
If your cat has no privacy, it will grow increasingly anxious. Never disturb a sleeping cat or shoo it away from a comfortable spot. This may not always be convenient, but it is essential to keeping your cat stress-free.
Instincts govern cats. Felines are driven to hunt, mark territory, dig, and procreate. Forcing human values on cats and expecting them to suppress these instincts will be stressful.
You may not want your cat hunting wildlife or scratching furniture. This is understandable, but manage these desires through toys and activities. Play with your cat to sate hunting drives, and provide scratching posts for sharpening claws and imitating marking.
Managing a cat in heat is more challenging. Your cat will be uncomfortable until her estrus cycle is complete. Unfixed tomcats will be frustrated all year round if they sense a female in heat. If you do not plan to breed your cat, spaying or neutering is recommended.
Washing And Bathing
Bathing a cat is a stressful experience. While cats can instinctively swim, and some even like water, most felines loathe getting their fur wet. When a cat gets wet, it quickly grows cold.
Most cats do not need bathing. Cats take care of their own hygiene, which can be topped up with the occasional use of wet wipes. Elderly and obese cats are the exception as they may lack the flexibility to groom themselves.
We rarely drive our cats anywhere for socialization and recreation, like we would a dog. This means that cats are likely to associate car journeys with going to the vet or another negative experience.
Also, cats dislike leaving their territory in case a rival feline usurps them. Getting in a car also means a barrage of new sights, sounds, and smells to take in, which can be overwhelming.
Distract your cat as best you can and keep reassuring them. Keep car rides short and infrequent. While some cats get over their travel phobia, others will always find the experience worrying and stressful.
Flying by Plane
Many commercial airlines will permit you to travel with your cat. This is likely essential if you are relocating to another state or country. Unfortunately, this unfamiliar experience will be very stressful for a cat.
The cat will be kept in a crate or carrier under the seat. This will be restrictive, and your cat will not be able to see what is happening, just hearing unfamiliar sounds, noises, and voices. The ears will also pop upon takeoff and landing.
Distract your cat as best you can with treats and toys. In cases of emergency, administer a a cat-safe sedative.
If your cat goes to the vet, it will be pricked, prodded, and poked. The cat does not understand what is happening, just knowing that the experience is intrusive, uncomfortable, and worrying.
Also, your cat will likely remember a previous visit and the resultant discomfort that followed. Cats can remember negative events and hold a grudge. A vet’s surgery is a place that brings up bad memories.
As explained by The Veterinarian Record, stressed cats are harder to treat and are largely uncooperative. If your cat is agitated by the idea of seeing a vet, healthcare professionals can take steps to ease stress and keep the cat calm.
Wide Open Spaces
It is no secret that cats love to squeeze into boxes and cubbyholes. This gave birth to the saying, “if I fit, I sit.” This is because cats feel safe and secure in enclosed, dark spaces.
In wide-open areas, cats feel exposed. A bird of prey could swoop and snatch a cat. Equally, a larger animal could outpace and capture a cat. This means that cats feel worried when traversing wide, open territory. They prefer to slink silently and efficiently around a perimeter.
Keep this in mind when arranging your home. Do not make cats walk across large, minimalist areas to reach water or a litter tray. Give your cat every opportunity to feel safe while it is moving.
Predators And Large Animals
Cats are aware of their position in the food chain and understand that a predator could pick them off. If a cat believes that an enemy is in the vicinity, it will grow stressed.
You will notice this more at night, as many feline predators are nocturnal. Your cat may hear or scent predators exploring your yard. Examples of a cat’s natural enemies include:
Naturally, cats can also be stressed by the presence of neighborhood dogs or aggressive wild animals. Anything that chases a cat, especially if it is also noisy, will spark stress and anxiety.
Mirrors And Reflections
Cats do not recognize their reflection in the mirror, assuming that it is another feline. If your cat lives alone, it will think that a rival cat has gained access to its territory, leading to a fight-or-flight response.
Don’t leave mirrors exposed at a cat’s eye level. If you have full-length mirrors that cannot be blocked, introduce your cat to its own reflection. Slowly but surely, your cat will start to understand that a mirror image is not a threat.
Cats are descended from desert animals, so they are natural sun worshippers. Too much time in direct sunlight can cause a cat to overheat, though. This will cause the cat no end of physical and emotional distress.
Get a cooling mat and offer the cat water. If it will not drink, freeze a treat in ice for the cat to play with. The cat will begin to calm down as its body temperature drops.
Cold conditions can also be dangerous for cats. If the cat’s body temperature drops below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, hypothermia becomes more of a risk. Provide plenty of safe heat sources during the Fall and Winter.
Being Ignored by Owner
Cats cannot communicate with humans in words. This leaves them relying on a range of body language and vocal cues. To a cat, these make perfect sense. If ignored, the cat will become annoyed and upset.
Meowing is a prime example as cats do not communicate with each other this way. Meowing is the sole preserve of gaining human attention. Your cat will meow to request petting, play, food or to show you something. Ignoring this makes the cat feel apprehensive.
In addition, learn your cat’s body language. This can differ between felines, but cats will find a technique to gain human attention. If a cat is ignored, it will start to feel stressed out.
Location of Food and Water
Cats can be fussy about the location of their food and water bowls. These bowls should be positioned a safe distance from each other, and definitely far from a litter tray.
If food is too close to litter, cats will refuse to eat. Scent is important to a cat’s appetite. If the aroma of a meal mixes with used litter, the cat will lose its appetite. This will lead to a hungry and, by extension, stressed cat.
Cats are even more particular with water. It can be hard to get a cat to trust still water sources, hence why you may find a cat drinking out of a toilet bowl. If the water is tainted by food smells, the cat is even less likely to drink.
Chronic Pain or Illness
Cats are skilled at masking pain and ill health. In a cat’s mind, to do so would reveal weakness. No feline will willingly do this, as it could see them concede dominance or territory to rivals.
This effort will take its toll on a cat’s health as constantly hiding and masking pain is exhausting. Understandably, your cat will grow increasingly tetchy and stressed out as a result. As explained by The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, feline pain should be dealt with preemptively.
Death And Bereavement
Cats can be plunged in stress and anxiety by sudden bereavement. This could be the loss of a human owner, or the passing of another pet. Even if two cats fail to get along, it will be noticed if one disappears.
If a human owner dies, the cat will need to tolerate a range of changes, such as rehoming or new humans in the house. In these instances, all surviving owners must step up their efforts to bond with the cat. Eventually, the cat will adjust.
Punishment And Chastisement
The chastisement of a cat for unwanted behavior is rarely effective. You will simply cause anxiety to your cat and damage your bond. Consequently, the cat will start to see you as a source of fear and apprehension.
Cats do not make a connection between action and consequences. If your cat peed on your bed, for example, you cannot punish it when you realize that it’s happened. The cat will fail to link the events.
Stress has negative implications for a cat’s health, so you’ll need to be vigilant about identifying the various warning signs. If your cat is distressed, you’ll need to help it adjust by making life easier or remove the trigger from its life.