Stress in Cats

Minimizing Stress and Anxiety in Your Cat

Photo of Two Cats Fighting in the Street
Two Cats Fighting in the Street. photo © Getty Images

Anyone who has suffered stress and anxiety knows the debilitating effects it can have on your health. Stress in cats acts much the same way, and not only can it exacerbate existing physical conditions, but it can lead to a number of problems often considered behavioral, such as litter box avoidance, aggressive behavior, or depression and withdrawal. When behavioral problems suddenly appear, savvy cat owners soon learn to look first for signs of health problems (such as urinary tract infections with litter box avoidance), and next for stress factors, such as changes in the environment.

Although humans relate stress to emotional factors, and those are also seen in feline stress, stress and anxiety in cats can come from other sources, including environmental changes and physical stress. You will find that many of these areas overlap as we explore further. We will look at some of the causes of stress in cats, the symptoms, and how we can help our cat get back on an even keel, for better physical and emotional health.

External Causes of Stress in Cats

Cats do not deal well with change. Even subtle changes in a cat's environment can lead to stress; substantial changes, such as moving, introduction of a new baby, spouse, or other animal to the household, can have devastating effects.

  • Veterinary Visits
    It's been my observation that many cats are frightened and stressed during vet visits. Billy is calm as he can be at home when no one but family is around, but terrified of veterinary clinics, so much so that the sight of the carrying crate we use causes him to race into the bedroom and hide underneath the king sized bed. We spray the soft cushion at the bottom of the crate with Feliway and have an electric Feliway plugin in the middle area behind the front seats of my SUV, for the same purpose. Also, we keep a small blanket over the top of the crate to help calm the cat inside. It helps during each visit, but still doesn't stop the stress the next time around.
  • New Family Members, Human or Animal
    Cats may react in a number of ways to new family members, including aggression, withdrawal, or sudden litter box avoidance, to name a few. By understanding this and planning ahead, the concerned caregiver can help her cat avoid the stress of a sudden introduction, while letting the cat know that he is still "number one" in the family tree. See New Baby and Your Cat, How to Introduce a New Cat, and How to Introduce a New Dog for specific information. Introducing a new spouse or human roommate calls for understanding and patience. The newcomer needs to allow the cat to come around at his own pace, and to avoid trying to rush the relationship.
  • Moving to a New Residence
    Moving calls for care in seeing that your cat's life is disrupted as little as possible. During a local move, it helps to keep him closed off in a separate room with his favorite "blankie," toys, litter box, food and bed, while the rest of the house is moved. Last, bring kitty and all his belongings to the new house or apartment, where you will put him in his own "safe room" while you unpack and rearrange the rest of the household. Having his own things around him will help him understand that he is home. A long distance move is better handled with help. Have one person go ahead to the new residence and set up kitty's safe room. The other will accompany the cat in a carrier with his favorite toy or "blankie," whether by plane, train, or automobile.
  • A New Job
    A new job or other change in daily routine should also be handled by planning ahead. A week before starting work, start leaving for the day, for gradually increasing periods of time. Before leaving, hold you cat and tell her, "I'm going to be away for awhile, but I promise to come back to you. I love you and I'll miss you, but we'll have fun together when I return." Upon your return, make a big deal over your cat. Tell her how much you missed her and how good it is to be back home. Carry her around, pet her, and ask her how her day was. By the time your job starts, your kitty will be quite accustomed to your absence during the day, and the two of you will look forward to new bonding experience each night upon your return.
  • Loud Parties and Noises
    Holidays are particularly stressful for cats, especially those which focus on fireworks, such as the 4th of July. Large parties with the doorbell constantly ringing, accompanied by loud music, talking, and laughing, will usually send even the most sanguine cat running for cover.
  • The View Through the Window
    A discussion of external stressors would not be complete without mentioning re-directed aggression, a sudden and often inexplicable phenomenon which is more common than realized, Re-directed aggression often happens when a household cat is sitting on his favorite perch, gazing out the window. Suddenly he sees a strange cat stroll through his yard. Frustrated because he can't get outside to defend his territory, the cat will suddenly attack the closest being, whether it is another resident cat or a hapless human. Dealing with this form of aggression calls for creative thinking, which includes keeping your cat away from that window or somehow barring his view, while taking steps to discourage the strange cat from further exploration in your yard. Some helpful tips for the latter can be found in this article on the Top Commercial Cat Repellants.

Next > Emotional Stressors

Emotional Stressors in Cats

Most of the environmental changes we discussed in the previous section resulted in emotional stress in cats. One way of understanding this is that environmental changes are the cause, and emotional stress the effect. Other emotional stresses caused by environmental changes include the death of a family member, fear, and rivalry or jealousy. Let's study each of these a bit further:

Death of a Family Member

Humans who are grieving the loss of a family member, whether human or animal, sometimes forget that their cat may be grieving too. While animal behaviorists disagree on whether cats actually remember or grieve, there is enough anecdotal information to indicate that they do. Some personal experiences have confirmed this belief. When Shannon did not come home from his final trip to the veterinarian in July of 2001, Bubba went into a deep depression and exhibited insecure and needy behavior.

It may help to provide the surviving cat with an article of human clothing, or the favorite "blankie" of the deceased cat, to help him understand that although they are gone, they are still with us in another way. Holding him and talking to him in reassuring tones will not only help your cat but will also help you deal with your loss. For more help in coping with your own loss, see my article on Dealing with Loss.

Fear

Fear sometimes comes from sudden, outside sources. Fire, earthquake, hurricane and tornado are classic examples of fear-resulting stressors. Although many of these environmental stressors cannot be predicted, it is still essential to have a plan for dealing with an emergency before it happens. Some helpful information is presented in Preparing Your Cats for Disaster.

Predictable fear-associated stressors, such as noisy festivities (Halloween, 4th of July, New Year Eve) can be planned for ahead of time. It's best to keep cats confined to an interior room on such occasions, with low lights and soft music playing. Or, ideally, hold the party somewhere else.

Fear also is sometimes exhibited when one cat is being "picked on" by another. A classic example of the factor is the cat that is "trapped" in a closely confined litter box by another cat. The end result, of course, is litter box avoidance. You can help ameliorate this situation by giving the "victim cat" her own uncovered litter box with plenty of opportunities for escape.

Rivalry or Jealousy

Rivalry and jealousy take place more often with the introduction of new cats to the household, which we discussed on page one. You may also see a certain amount of rivalry and jealousy as kittens grow into adulthood, and they sort out their "pecking order" in the household feline hierarchy. Often the best solution is just to leave them alone.

Cats have a wonderful way of working things out, and once the alpha cat is established, peace will reign again. Sudden rivalry and jealousy between two previously friendly adult cats is another subject. It can be more often caused by some environmental change, which will take a bit of detective work on your part to discover.

Stress in the Older Cat

Stress is a big factor in managing the health of a senior cat, or any cat with a serious physical condition. Cats with weakened immune systems, such as FIV or FeLV patients do not thrive under stress. It is important that the caregiver keeps this in mind when caring for this kind of cat. It is too easy for the human to telegraph his or her own stress and anxiety over her cat's illness to the cat, which can only exacerbate the underlying condition. Older cats and cats with  a chronic and/or terminal disease do much better in a quiet setting, with a minimum of environmental changes. It would be very unwise to bring home a new kitten or a noisy dog under these circumstances.A hospital or hospice situation with tip-toeing and hushed voices is not necessary, but loud noises and sudden movement should be avoided, if possible. If there are children in the house, a discussion might be in order, not only to enlist their help in reducing stress to the older feline patient but also to help prepare them for what will inevitably come.

Natural Remedies for Stress

There are times when natural remedies such as herbs, flower essences, or homeopathic remedies may help in reducing cats' stress and anxiety. Introduce only one remedy at a time, and check with your veterinarian first before trying any of these products.

Helpful Books for Stress Reduction in Cats

The following are some books that include information that will help you reduce stress in your cats. Included are links to reviews of these books, where applicable.

Remember, that one of the most important things you can do to minimize stress in your cat is to keep your own stress level down. A hot cup of herbal tea, a glass of wine, or maybe a drop or two of Rescue Remedy in a glass of water might be just the thing you need on some of those days when you find yourself "telegraphing" your own stress to your cat.