Stress is defined as the psychological and physical strain that’s placed on an animal when they’re exposed to a set of negative environmental conditions. In cats, this physical response to stress can be particularly harmful and manifest as changes in appetite, coat condition, urinary habits, or digestive system function. Because of this, it’s important to understand when your cat is feeling stressed.
Here are some of the most common signs of stress in cats and how you can help calm your kitty.
1. Increased Vocalizations
When cats are experiencing stress, they tend to be more vocal. The sounds a cat makes deliver precise messages about her condition. As such, when your cat is stressed, she may make sounds that indicate distress. These include:
Meows and yowls may be a cry for help—your cat is attempting to get your attention. Hissing and growling are sounds cats naturally make when they feel threatened, and these sounds serve to warn other animals to stay away.
2. Excessive Grooming
Grooming behaviors release endorphins into a cat’s body, which can increase feelings of contentment and happiness. Stressful situations may drive cats to perform these grooming behaviors to feel better. But overgrooming can lead to further skin irritation—and an increased desire to lick.
Initially, your cat may need to wear a soft recovery collar or cushioned neck ringlet to make it harder for her to overgroom. She may also need some stress-mitigation measures to fully resolve her desire to lick, including:
Establishing a routine, such as feeding and scooping the litter box at the same time each day
Always consult your cat’s veterinarian before introducing new medications or supplements into your pet’s diet.
3. Urinating Outside the Litter Box
One of the most common signs of stress in cats is urinating outside the litter box. Cats usually do this because the smell of their own urine is comforting for them, and litter absorbs the smell. Cats may also spray onto vertical surfaces to mark their territory. This marking behavior can also be comforting to cats when they are stressed.
But urinating outside of the litter box can also have medical causes, such as urinary tract infections, stones or crystals in the urinary tract, or underlying kidney issues. So if your cat begins peeing outside the litter box, talk to your veterinarian to address any potential health concerns before focusing on stress-reduction measures.
When a cat is in a stressful situation, she may lash out to protect herself when she feels her safety is at risk.
In addition to hissing and growling, aggression in cats can look like:
But like urinating outside of the litter box, aggression can also have medical causes, such as cognitive decline in older cats or painful conditions like arthritis or dental disease. A veterinary visit is an important first step to take before implementing any new medications, supplements, or environmental changes to address the aggression.
While some cats may lash out when threatened, other cats may hide when they feel stressed and vulnerable.
A cat may protect herself when she’s experiencing emotional and mental strain by refusing to engage with other members of the household. Do not disturb your cat if she’s hiding, because this may worsen her stress.
6. Low Energy
Similar to hiding, increased sleeping and lower activity levels are a way for your cat to cope with stress by removing herself from an overwhelming situation. Because stress also places a high demand on your cat’s body, she may sleep more to help her body recover from this physical strain.
7. Low Appetite and Water Intake
Along with a lower activity level, your cat may not want to eat when stressed. This is because cortisol (a stress hormone) is released into the body, which suppresses her appetite and may even cause nausea. And when she’s sleeping more, she may also have less energy to get up to eat and drink.
8. Diarrhea and Vomiting
If your cat is showing signs of a low appetite, low water intake, diarrhea, or vomiting, schedule a veterinary visit. Other medical conditions that can cause these symptoms, and they need to be ruled out.
Tips for Helping a Stressed Cat
Make an appointment with your veterinarian, who can determine if there are any underlying medical issues and prescribe anti-anxiety medications for your cat.
Start your cat on anti-anxiety products, as recommended by your vet.
Provide your cat with sufficient environmental enrichment through plenty of positive attention, including petting, grooming, and interactive play. The use of puzzle toys and treat-dispensing toys containing dry food can also be helpful.
Set up an ideal space for your cat with all the resources she needs to feel comfortable and express normal behaviors. This includes elevated perches for her to view the outdoors, horizontal and vertical scratching surfaces, well-placed food and water bowls to encourage her to eat and drink regularly, and clean litter boxes in easily accessible locations that suit her preferences.
Establish a routine for your cat. Having consistency in her daily activities removes the additional stress that uncertainty can bring to your cat.
If your cat is stressed from interactions with other pets in the house, consider professional training to help better socialize your animals and reduce undesirable behaviors that negatively impact your cat’s well-being.
Featured Image: Magui-rfajardo/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images
Zhang L, Bian Z, Liu Q, Deng B. “Dealing with Stress in Cats: What Is New About the Olfactory Strategy?” Frontiers in Veterinary Science. July 15, 2022.
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