Stress in cats. Causes, symptoms and treatments of anxiety and stress in cats

When talking about stress, we usually acknowledge that it may damage our wellbeing, productivity and health. But did you know that our pets, like dogs and cats, can also encounter stress? In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about stress in cats: what the stress is, what causes it, and most important, how to relieve stress in your cat.

Cat in stress
Not only humans but cats can also encounter stress. It’s as damaging to your cat’s health as it is to you. Photo © serkat – Fotolia.com

What is stress?

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, stress is:

“a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.”

Basically, stress is a strain or tension resulting from something. And it does not quite matter what kind of animals we talk about. Of course, stress is most commonly attributed to humans; however, unlike many other “human emotions” that actually are not expressed by other animals, the stress in cats is REAL, as it is real in most animal species.

Stress, however, is not always bad. We do have negative associations with it, because we know that stress kills. Or at least, that’s what anti-depressant ads tell us.

But stress is actually one’s main driving force. We are hungry? We go hunting…that is, our cat is hungry, and he goes hunting. Our cat encounters an aggressive dog? He retreats without even thinking about it. And this happens because of stress.

But what if stress becomes too much? The first thing to note is that stress affects your cat’s behavior. We already mentioned that, and we will talk about it later. But most important, stress affects your pet’s health.

What happens during stress?

  • Blood pressure climbs
  • Breathing becomes more rapid
  • Digestion slows down
  • Heart rate increases
  • Immune system becomes less effective

Any of these things are okay if they happen during short bursts of stress. But what happens if the stress is constant? Studies show that stress can be a contributing factor to many disease and, in turn, to a shortened lifespan. So in general…

Stress can shorten your cat’s life!!! Period.

Signs of stress in cats

After finding out that stress can shorten your pet’s life, it will be beneficial to find out whether your cat is in stress. One of the easiest ways to know is to look for symptoms.

Excessive selfgroomin - sign of stress in cats
Excessive self-grooming is one of the most common signs of stress in cats. Photo: © Eléonore H – Fotolia.com

Most common signs of stress in cats:

That is not all. The signs listed above are only the most common signs, but you can view a longer list of signs of stress in cats here.

One thing to note, though, is that many apparent cat stress symptoms could actually be signs of something else. Keep that in mind; it’s always wise to visit a veterinarian.

Also, some behaviors may be quite normal, like urine spraying for intact cats, but they could tip to a stress condition if done too often, especially, for example, if a neutered cat sprays. But generally, it may just as likely be that your cat shows only one of the above listed symptoms, but the stress is there.

Have you noticed at least one or two signs of stress in cats in your household? Then there may be a necessity to relieve your cat’s anxiety.

How to calm down a stressed cat

Now that you have arrived at the conclusion that your cat is in stress, the next logical step is to relieve it. How do you do that?

Look back up at the definition of stress. And more particularly, look at the part of the definition that reads, “resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.” That means that there is always something that causes stress, and finding what (or who) is the most important part of relieving anxiety in your cat.

What are the most common causes of stress in cats? We have grouped them into several categories.

Physical changes in the family or household

These might include re-homing, remodeling the house, a new baby, a new family member or a frequent visitor, a new pet or changes in the environment such as new furniture or furniture being moved around. It’s also true that these changes might work the other way round, as when a family member moves out or dies.

Most of these kinds of changes are unavoidable. For example, you won’t give away a baby because your cat will experience stress because of it. So your only choice is to help your cat cope more easily with the changes. Here are two suggestions.

First, if possible make any changes gradual, to reduce your cat’s stress. If a baby is expected, start to set up the baby’s room months in advance, adding new furniture and items gradually, step-by-step. Even if you move homes, save him from all the repairs and packing, and let him explore the home gradually, on his own terms. Of course, gradual changes are not possible at all times, such as when a family member dies; no one’s prepared for that.

Second, pay a lot of attention to your cat. Play as much as you can (check these tips if you think you’re too busy to play with a cat), keep him in your lap, pet him, brush him, and talk to and cuddle him! He will be grateful and will cope with the change more easily.

Experiencing new things and revision of bad experiences

Cat in stress in snow.
Experiencing new things is always stressful to any animal. Photo: © yanikap – Fotolia.com

The most common example of revising bad experience is a vet visit. It’s not pleasant, it may be painful, and it sure is frightening, even for a cat who goes to a vet for the first time, because of the unknown. But even a simple trip to your vacation destination can cause significant stress in your cat.

In such cases, the best way to relieve your cat’s stress is to make sure that all of this ends positively. For example, if your cat sees a dog for the first time, make sure that the dog does not attack him. You can also give some tasty treats now and then during the encounter. And again, petting, soothing and talking to your cat goes a long way here, too.

Fear and aversion related problems

This type of experience includes fear of dogs, kids, other cats, or even items and locations. Even too much forced activity is among the most common causes of stress in cats.

First, if possible, reduce any sources of fear. If your cat is afraid of the dog, make sure your dog knows basic commands and is friendly toward the cat; make sure your cat’s experience with the dog is positive. If there are kids, make sure you educate them (even if it appears not to produce results now). If your cat is afraid of items, either try to help him associate them with something positive, or just help your cat avoid interactions with these things. Find more information about fear in cats here.

Second, make sure your cat’s environment is compelling, cat-appropriate and stimulating. Most importantly, it has to include several elevated locations where your cat can sit and view the surroundings undisturbed. You can read more about environmental enrichment of an indoor cat here.

Problems with the daily schedule and activity

This includes lack of activity, routine changes or inconsistent routines and forced confinement, among other things. This is about your cat being able to express himself as a cat and to have things set up the way he likes them.

That is, your cat must have a daily routine to rely on, like meals at approximately the same time or owners playing with him at vaguely the same time. Naps during the day should also come at expected times.

Woman playing with her cat to reduce the stress.
Regular playing is the best way to reduce your cat’s stress. And yours, too! Photo: © DoraZett – Fotolia.com

Also, your cat must get moving every day. This is what cats do in nature: they spend most of their waking time being active and hunting. If you play with your cat using an interactive cat toy, and if you move that toy as if it were a mouse (that is, you move it away from your cat and let him pounce on it and bite it), his self-confidence will climb, and his stress will decline. You can read more about benefits of playing with your cat here.

Other causes of stress in cats

There are some other things that may cause stress in your cat, like noises, views of other cats or birds outside the window, illnesses and traumas. You can read more about causes of stress in cats here. However, you already know the simple strategy:

  1. Identify and eliminate or limit the cause(s) of the stress.
  2. Improve your cat’s experience with the stressor.
  3. Play, pet, soothe, rinse, repeat.
  4. Make your cat’s environment compelling.

When behavior modification is not enough to relieve your cat’s stress

Sometimes the above mentioned things may not be enough to relieve the anxiety of your cat. So this is where additional tools come into play.

Cat pheromones

Pheromones are chemical substances that are naturally produced by some animals and which are released into the environment as communication tools. For cats, pheromones are released with urine and are also released from the paws while scratching and treading. They are also released from your cat’s cheeks when he rubs against objects, other pets or you. This is not marking, at least, not in the way of claiming ownership. But these latter pheromones are very beneficial, because cats consider them “pawsitively calming.”

Scientists have managed to create a chemical copy of these pheromones, and they come in several forms, most commonly in spray-ons, plug-in diffusers and calming collars.

Spray-ons may be used locally on any object your cat is afraid of or in locations where you want to stop his urine spraying. Plug-in diffusers, however, fill the whole room with this calming substance. A collar may be put on your cat to keep him surrounded by the scent of pheromones wherever he goes. The latter, however, is not recommended. We don’t believe your cat has to be calmed everywhere he goes. There are everyday situations when your cat must be alert.

The best thing about cat pheromones is that they are not drugs. They are not sedating your cat by blocking some brain responses; they are territorial markers that let your cat know, “It’s safe here.” Here you can find more information about cat pheromones.

Herbal remedies

Natural pet anxiety relievers, like “Rescue Remedy for Pets” and “Ultimate Peacemaker,” do work very well. However, they (as well as pheromones) are only an additional aid.

The main intention of such remedies is to relieve short-term stress. Independence Day awaits with some fireworks outdoors? A vet visit? Those are great situations when you may use herbal remedies, but if you intend to use them on a prolonged basis, then a veterinary consultation is necessary.

Veterinary drugs

In cases of severe stress, a veterinary behaviorist can prescribe some medicine that, in combination with other environment and behavior modification techniques, will help to relieve the stress temporarily. Remember, these are given for severe stress only, and veterinary prescription is necessary.

Two lions relaxing.
There always will be some stress in your cat’s life, but it’s up to you to ensure that your pet is enjoying calm and relaxing moments, as often as possible. Photo: © Murat Subatli – Fotolia.com

In the end, it’s noteworthy to mention that there is no way to ensure a completely stress-free life for your cat. Similarly, it’s not possible not to stress out every now and then. It’s okay. What you should focus on is making sure that your cat’s stress level is controlled and that it never climbs to a severe level where it impacts your cat’s behavior and health.