A number of factors can cause cats stress. Such factors include moving house, a new member of the family (for example a new baby or a new animal joining the household) or something of shorter duration such as a visit to the vets. It is important to be able to recognise both potential stressors (things that cause stress) and the symptoms of stress in order to help prevent and alleviate it and keep cats happy.
How do I know if my cat is stressed?
Cats can show their stress in a number of ways but there are certain key signs to look out for in your cat’s facial expressions and body posture. When a cat’s pupils are very large they indicate that the cat is aroused and that arousal may be due to stress associated with pain, fear or anxiety. A cat that is stressed for a short time (eg from a startle or the approach of an unfriendly cat) may raise its back in an arch, flatten its ears and erect its fur. A cat that is stressed for longer periods of time (for reasons such as living with a cat it does not like or an inability to cope in a boarding cattery) may not groom and have a scruffy looking coat due or may appear dull and lifeless, often curled up with its head pressed closed to its body.
Cats tend to express their stress either actively or inactively depending on their temperament. An active type cat that is stressed will often vocalise excessively and if confined (eg in a vet cage or boarding cattery) may attempt to escape or spend long periods of time trying to gain attention. Conversely, an inactive type cat often exhibits stress by being as quiet as possible and trying to find a place to hide. It may hide its head or whole body under its bed or hide somewhere within the house. Cats that are stressed can often change their feeding and toileting patterns. They may withdraw from eating or eat excessively and they may start toileting outside of their litter boxes.
Many factors can cause stress and what one cat may find stressful, another may not. However, cats are often stressed by a change in their lifestyle, routine and/or environment. Examples include a visit to the vets, a stay in a boarding cattery, a new baby, other cats in the neighbourhood, building works or renovations to the home, or a new pet. For sensitive cats, something as minor as a new piece of furniture or a change in position of the litter tray can be stressful.
In some extreme cases cats can pull their fur out (or more commonly groom an area so much the hair is removed) when they are stressed. However, there are a number of medical reasons why a cat may over-groom or lose its fur including skin complaints and allergies. If you notice your cat is losing fur or has bald patches, take it to the vet for an examination. Cats may also groom very little or stop completely if they are stressed, therefore any change in normal grooming should be monitored and reported to your vet.
There is a lot of debate on the topic of welfare of the indoor only cat. If a cat has to be kept indoors only (eg due to a disability or living close to a busy road), it is important its behavioural needs are met in order to prevent it getting stressed. Foraging games, interactive play, hiding places, scratching posts, high walkways and vantage points at windows are all important ways of enriching the indoor environment in an attempt to prevent stress.
The first step would be to put your cat’s carrier in a nice safe quiet place in a room in your current house that your cat spends lots of time in. Place your cat’s favourite treats and toys in the carrier to encourage your cat to use it. Building the association that the carrier is a nice place will help your cat cope with the journey to the new house. Synthetic pheromone sprayed in the carrier 30 minutes before travelling may also help with the journey. Once at the new home, confine your cat to one room initially until he or she is confident and secure and the unpacking has finished. Make sure you take the cat’s old bedding to the new house so he or she has something that smells familiar. Alternatively, placing your cat in a cattery while the house move takes place means the cat does not need to experience the stress often associated with packing and unpacking homes.
There are a number of things that may stress your cat about a visit to the vets. It may be going in the cat carrier, travelling in the car, waiting in the waiting room where there are strange smells and sights (and even dogs) or it may be the actual vet examination itself. It is common for a combination of these events to stress a cat. In order to try and make the visit as stress free as possible for your cat, leave the cat box open in the home at all times. Try making it a positive place by putting food and toys in there. A synthetic pheromone spray can be sprayed in the box 30 minutes prior to travelling to help the cat cope during the journey. Travelling time and waiting time are both known stressors to cats so don’t make any extra stop offs to or from the vets. At the vets, place the carrier high up if possible and try to keep in an area of the waiting room away from dogs.
Stress is a part of life for all animals but too much can cause behavioural and medical problems. Within the home there are a number of things that can be done to try to minimise stressors. These include providing:
Adequate numbers of litter trays for the cats residing in the home (general rule is one per cat plus one)
Plenty of places to gain food and water (separately) within the home
A choice of places to rest (up high, away from hustle and bustle of household)
Opportunities for your cat(s) to express hunting behaviour (through play and foraging games)
A secure home. Make sure no neighbouring cats can enter your cats home (magnetic collared cat flap or microchip scanning cat flaps can help prevent unwanted cats in the home).
Yes, if you think your cat is experiencing stress, the vet should always be your first point of contact. Not only can the vet check for medical causes of stress, they can advise you on further help if the problem appears to be behavioural.
Cats do not have the complex emotional social groups that people enjoy. While company may make a person feel less stressed, this isn’t necessarily the case for a cat. Adding another cat to an environment where the existing cat already feels stressed is not guaranteed to help.