what causes stress in cats?
Cat Health and Wellness

27 Surprisingly Common Things That Make Cats Feel Stressed

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. However, cats are easily stressed out, but they hide it extremely well.

Cats can be stressed by all manner of things. Change is a huge trigger for all cats, who prefer a dedicated routine. Cats find excessive or inappropriate handling taxing. Bullying from other animals, the presence of predators and loud noises will all provoke anxiety. Cats also loathe unsanitary living conditions and feeling bored or lonely.

As you’ll see, feline stress comes in many forms. As a cat owner, you will need to dedicate yourself to minimizing exposure to triggers. The more lifestyle adjustments you make, the happier your cat will be.

Is My Cat Stressed?

It is safe to assume that, at some point, your cat will experience stress. No matter how idealistic we make things for our pets, felines are anxious by nature. This is down to three primary 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 logistics make this occasionally unavoidable.
  • Mesopredators. This means that cats are both hunters and prey. As cats have a dominant hunting drive, they also have strong survival instincts. A cat knows that something else could treat it the way it treats mice or birds.
  • Love of routine and familiarity. While cats are inherently curious about new experiences, they are also cautious. If a cat encounters new tastes, smells, sounds or sensations, it may initially respond with fear.

What Does a Stressed Cat Look Like?

Not all stressed cats display the same cues. Common body language signs and behaviors include the following.

  • Hiding
  • Fleeing
  • Showing aggression (hissing, growling, arching back)
  • Grooming to excess
  • Lethargy
  • Clinginess and excessive vocalization
  • Eliminating outside the litter box
  • Aimless pacing
  • A constant state of skittish vigilance
  • Vomiting and diarrhea

If your cat shows these signs, identify the stress trigger and work to remove it. Eventually, anxiety will take its toll on your cat.

symptoms of stress in cats

What Causes Stress in Cats?

Feline anxiety can be provoked by a wide array of causes. Some of these will be obvious, but others may surprise you. It is important to remember to remember that, despite their cool demeanor, cats are easily stressed.

Let’s take a look at some common causes of feline stress, and how to resolve them. Never leave a cat to live with stress and anxiety unnecessarily.

Unpredictable Routine

Cats live for routine. If you have managed to get your cat into a schedule, stick with it. This means feeding and playing with your cat at set times each day.

Falling out of an established routine is the number one source of stress for cats. Felines live exclusively in the moment. They do not understand work deadlines or family emergencies. They just know that it is dinner time and their food bowl is still empty.

If you are unable to attend to your cat’s needs, ask somebody else to step in. Cats will accept a substitute caregiver on occasion. Wherever possible, though, stick with what your cat expects. It will be much calmer this way.

Change

As an extension of unpredictable routine, cats loathe and fear change. This could mean rearranging furniture in a home. It also extends to new human family members or lodgers, or even new pets.

Take new babies arriving in the home as an example. The cat will not recognize this tiny human. All it knows is that somebody new has infiltrated its territory and is stealing its attention.

Cats will adjust to change but minimize the need as much as possible. If something has changed, be patient with your cat. Offer reassurance, sticking to your cat’s routine and showing that its needs will still be met.

Moving House

Few things are more stressful to a cat than moving house. 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.

Start your cat off gently a new house. Restrict it one room initially. This way, the cat will learn every inch of this location. After a day or two, allow your cat to explore further. Curiosity will supersede anxiety, and the cat will investigate its new home.

All the same, do not be surprised if the cat wanders back to a former home. The cat will have memorized everything about this former terrain. It will be a while before the cat is equally comfortable in new surroundings.

Boredom

Cats are largely skilled at amusing themselves but can grow bored. Cats need a steady stream of physical and mental stimulation. If the cat grows bored, it will become anxious and destructive.

If you work during the day, ensure your cat has plenty to do. Scratching posts, cat trees and toys and puzzles are a must. Leave the curtains open, too. Many cats will pass countless hours watching birds from a window.

If your cat is seemingly agitated and uninterested, consider investing in a fish tank. Much like a window, this will transfix a cat. Just ensure you follow all appropriate safety precautions to protect both fish and feline.

Loneliness

Cats may seem indifferent to company, but felines can grow lonely. As we have established, cats enjoy routine. If the cat is used to company, it feels forlorn when left alone for long periods.

As explained by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, cats also experience separation anxiety. This arises when a cat feels insecure. It worries that, when you leave, you may not return. Eliminating on the bed is a common sign of separation anxiety.

Lonely cats can grow increasingly anxious and withdrawn. Alternatively, the cat may start visiting other homes for company. This can become problematic. The cat may eat twice and grow overweight or become reluctant to return home.

Getting a second cat seems like the obvious solution to feline loneliness. Think carefully about this, though. If you are struggling to keep one cat comfortable, two is twice as much work. It can also take a long time for two cats to accept each other and get along.

Instead, consider asking a friend or neighbor to visit your cat. Build this into the cat’s routine. Most cats are happy alone for a while. If knows to expect petting and a treat during the day, the cat will remain calm.

Unidentified Scents

Cats explore the world through their nose. Scents provide a comforting sense of familiarity. Unique and offensive smells can have the opposite effect, though.

As cats have sensitive noses, air fresheners and other aromas can be distressing. Even changing perfume or cologne can cause anxiety in a cat. As a rule, scents that cats are particularly averse to include:

  • Citrus peels (especially lemons and limes)
  • Lavender (though some cats love this)
  • Peppermint
  • Lemongrass

For the sake of your cat’s comfort and happiness, keep these aromas out of your home.

how to destress your cat

Loud Noises

Cats have sensitive hearing, using their ears for hunting. Most cats listen to everything around them, checking for prey or dangers. This means that loud, sudden noises can cause severe anxiety in felines. Common noise-based stressors for cats include:

  • Fireworks
  • Thunderstorms
  • Sirens
  • 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 plenty of reassurance. Make it clear that noise is a part of everyday life, not something to fear.

Do not expose your cat to unnecessary loud noise, though. Avoid shouting in the home. In addition, keep beds, litter boxes and food bowls away from television sets and radios.

Unsanitary Litter Box

Cats are meticulously clean animals. They groom constantly so they cannot be scented by predators. Cats will expect you aid with this this dedication to cleanliness.

This means regularly cleaning a cat’s litter tray. Litter should be scooped at least once a day, ideally more. The box should also be regularly changed and cleaned. Cats will rarely eliminate in soiled litter.

If your cat leads you to its litter tray, it is pointing out that is dirty. Praise your cat for pointing this out and get to work on cleaning. If you ignore your cat’s request for more sanitary conditions, you risk inappropriate elimination habits.

Lack of Territory

Cats are hardwired to hunt and claim territory to call their own. This is usually done by marking, either with urine or claws. Once a cat has its own territory, it feels safer.

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. Your cat will feel safe here, as it will not be disturbed.

If you do not have a spare room, just provide a closet or corner. Cat territory does not need to be large. It just needs to be respected. When your cat is in its territory, it wants to be left alone. Do not disturb the cat unless you have a good reason.

Unwanted Handling

Not all cats enjoy being handled and held. Most cats prefer to keep all four paws on the ground. Many find the experience of being scooped up humiliating.

Handling can also leave a cat feeling stressed and vulnerable. It’s akin to being plucked from the ground by a swooping bird. This makes you a source of fear in the cat’s mind.

If your cat doesn’t enjoy handling, do not force the issue. Respect your cat’s wishes. Only use handling when strictly necessary.

Inappropriate Handling

Even if your cat does not reject handling, it must be treated with care. Mishandling a cat will be painful and stressful, leaving a feline reluctant to approach you again. Common examples of inappropriate handling of cats 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

These actions will make the most tolerant cats reluctant to be held. Handling should be a source of pleasure, not anxiety. At worst, you need to your cat to accept handling in the event of an emergency.

Bullying

Cats live according to strict and complex social dynamics. Given a choice, most cats would live alone. Felines do not see the need to form packs. Cats can tolerate other animals in the home, but the hierarchy may become troublesome.

Cats in groups, much like dogs, will assign one dominant animal. A dominant cat is unmistakable. It will groom other cats to display power, and enjoy first refusal on toys, beds and food. This is all standard feline behavior.

There can be a fine line between dominance and bullying, though. A submissive cat may have access to food restricted or be blocked from negotiating the house. A dominant cat may also perform acts of unprovoked aggression on a submissive counterpart.

This, as you can imagine, is a stressful and miserable life. The bullied cat will become increasingly anxious and withdrawn. The cats must be separated, and behavioral training immediately instigated on the dominant feline. If necessary, seek professional help.

Lack of Privacy

Your cat loves you. It would not live in your home otherwise. This doesn’t change the fact that cats need time alone, though. 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 calm and happy.

Repressed Instincts

Cats are governed by instinct. Felines are driven to hunt, mark territory, dig and – if not spayed or neutered – procreate. Forcing human values on a cat and expecting it to suppress these instincts will cause stress.

You may not want your cat hunting wildlife or scratching furniture. This much is understandable. Manage these desires through toys and activities. Play with your cat to sate hunting drives. 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 strongly recommended.

Bathing

Giving a cat a bath is always a stressful experience. While cats can instinctively swim, and some even love water, most felines loathe getting wet. When a cat gets wet, it quickly grows cold to the bone. This makes the cat distressed and miserable. 

Thankfully, many cats do not need bathing at all. Cats take care of their own hygiene, which can be topped up with wet wipes. Elderly and obese cats are the exception. These felines will lack the flexibility to groom appropriately.

In such cases, hiring the services of a professional groomer. This does not necessarily make for a less stressful experience for the cat. It breaks the association between you and negativity, though. This can be important for your bond.

Car Journeys

Long car journeys with a cat in tow can be arduous. Cats are not used to riding in cars. We rarely drive our cats anywhere for recreation, like we would a dog. This means cats likely associate cat journeys with the vet, or similar negative experiences.

In addition, cats dislike leaving their territory behind. Getting in the car means a barrage of new sights, sounds and smells to take in. This can be overwhelming for a cat.

Distract your cat as best you can and keep offering reassurance. Try to keep car rides short and to a minimum. While some cats get over their travel phobia, others will always find the experience stressful.

cat behavior under stress

Flying

Many commercial airlines will permit you to travel with your cat. This can be essential if you are relocating to another state or country. The experience will be stressful for a cat, though.

The cat will need to remain in its crate or carrier, usually under a seat. This will be restrictive and potentially uncomfortable. The cat will not be able to see what is happening, just hearing a range of unfamiliar voices. The cat’s ears will also pop upon takeoff.

Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to prevent this. Distract your cat as best you can with treats and toys. In cases of dire emergency, administer a sedative.

Vet Appointments

If your cat goes to the vet, it will be pricked, prodded, and poked. The cat does not understand what is happening. It just knows the experience is intrusive and painful.

In addition, the cat may remember a previous visit – and the discomfort that followed. Cats can hold a grudge if they have a negative memory of an individual or place. A vet’s surgery is a place of pain and suffering in the mind of a feline.

As explained by The Veterinarian Record, stressed cats are tougher to treat and are largely uncooperative. If your cat is agitated by the idea of seeing a vet, discuss this in advance. Healthcare professionals can take steps to 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 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 moving.

Predators

Cats are aware of their place in the food chain. Felines understand that they could be picked off by a predator. If a cat believes that an enemy is in the vicinity, it will grow stressed.

You will notice this more at night, as many cat 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 anxiety.

Mirrors

Cats do not recognize their reflection in the mirror. They assume it is another feline. If your cat lives alone, it will think a rival has gained access to its territory. This will spark a fight or flight response.

Try not to leave mirrors exposed at a cat’s eye level. If you have full-length mirrors that cannot be blocked, introduce your cat to its reflection. Slowly but surely, your cat will start to understand that a mirror image is not a threat.

Extreme Temperatures

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.

Invest in 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 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 a risk. The cat will also be uncomfortable and distressed. Provide plenty of heat sources during the cooler seasons.

Being Ignored

Cats cannot communicate with humans in words. This leaves cats relying on a range of body language and vocal cues. To a cat, these make perfect sense. If you ignore them, the cat will grow upset.

Meowing is a prime example. 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. Cats will find a technique to gain human attention, though. Again, if this is ignored, the cat will become anxious. It will wonder if you will ever meet its needs again.

Location of Food and Water

Cats can be fussy about the location of food and water bowls. These should be positioned a safe distance from each other, 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. If the water is tainted by food smells, the cat is even less likely to drink. The inability to hydrate will cause undue anxiety.

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 territory to rivals.

This effort will take its toll on a cat. Constantly hiding and masking pain is exhausting and difficult. Understandably, your cat will grow increasingly tetchy and stressed as a result.

As explained by The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, feline pain is usually treated on preemptively. Take immediate action if you think your cat is unwell or in pain. In between, attend regular veterinary check-ups. This will identify risk and promote early intervention.

Bereavement

Cats can be plunged in stress and anxiety by 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. This change will be a source of stress.

If a human caregiver passes away, the cat will need to tolerate a range of changes. They may need to be rehomed. If not, they will need to adjust to new humans in the house. At the very least, a source of comfort and familiarity will be lost.

In these instances, all surviving caretakers must step up their efforts to bond with the cat. Eventually, the cat will adjust. Patience and understanding will be required, though.

Punishment

Punishment for unwanted behavior is never effective. You will simply cause anxiety to your cat and damage your bond. 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. The cat will have since long moved on and fail to link the events.

It can be frustrating, but bad behavior must be ignored. This is the golden rule of cat ownership. Praise the good and ignore the bad. Your cat will be more interested in pleasing you than the alternative. 

It does not take much to inflict stress upon a cat, no matter how inadvertent. This means you’ll need to be vigilant about spotting warning signs. If your cat appears distressed, distract it and remove it from a trigger. Thankfully, while cats grow stressed easily, they also calm down quickly.