Do cats get stressed?

Simple answer – yes, very easily! Stress is an important factor in the development of a number of feline diseases (particularly cystitis, “incontinence”, and some skin conditions). In addition, many cats will leave their owners and look for a new home if they live somewhere they consider to be too stressful… So if your moggy moves out, it might not be them, but you!

Why are cats so sensitive to stress?
Cats originally evolved as small carnivores living as solitary ambush predators, and this simple fact explains much about their behaviour:

  • Small carnivores – yes, cats are ferocious hunters. But let’s face it, they rarely get above 5kg, and in a real fight even a small dog like a terrier will probably win if they really mean it. So the life of these wild ancestral cats was always precarious – find enough small critters to eat without being eaten yourself by something bigger (wolves, jackals, even big foxes will happily make a meal of an unwary cat). This means that they evolved to be constantly on edge, in case something with big teeth came unexpectedly round the next corner.
  • Solitary – this meant that they each had their own hunting patch, which they’d defend against other cats. If another cat moved in and started eating their mice, or rodents, or whatever, then they’d starve. Unlike dogs, who evolved from co-operative pack hunters (wolves), in general cats don’t really like other cats very much!
  • Ambush predators – most cats won’t chase down their prey; they’ll stalk it, keeping out of sight behind cover until they can pounce. As a result, they tend to feel very vulnerable and exposed if there’s nowhere to hide.

Of course, since we’ve domesticated them (to a certain point at least!) we’ve reduced their dislike of each other (and there are a lot of cats who get on just fine with one or two others in the house). However, that tension is still there under the surface – you only have to introduce a new and unfamiliar cat into the neighbourhood to see it come out.

So what sorts of things make cats stressed?
Almost anything that changes (cats don’t like change!), but especially:

  • Alterations to the physical environment
  • Any movement or alteration in furniture can stress some cats.
  • Building work (where apparently fixed structures like doors and windows are moved) is a problem for almost any cat, and it’ll take them a while to get used to it.
  • Movement of feeding points or litter trays – cats instinctively feel vulnerable when eating or going to the toilet, so they need to feel secure wherever they’re going to perform these functions.
  • Alterations to the human environment
  • New people (e.g. babies or visitors) in the house are always a problem, especially if they behave in a way that’s significantly different to the normal residents.
  • Some individuals may also be stressed by the absence of someone they’re familiar with – for example children going away to college or university, or following a bereavement.
  • Presence of other cats
  • Typically due to a cat they don’t know, such as a new arrival in the area, or a new cat in the household. It’s important to remember, however, that just because they don’t fight it doesn’t mean that two cats are friends – they may just work around each other so they come into contact as rarely as possible (cats often “time-share” different rooms, for example). Likewise, it’s important that there are enough litter trays and food bowls (not next to each other) – generally, one for each cat in the household plus one extra.
  • Lack of seclusion
  • Cats like to be able to hide; if they can’t, it’s a source of stress. Note that even a bold cat who routinely stays out in the open always likes to know there’s somewhere sheltered he can dash to if needed!
  • Boredom
  • If cats aren‘t able to hunt for any reason, it’s important to supply them with an alternative outlet for those instincts – usually some sort of chasing or pouncing game. If not, boredom alone can make them feel stressed.

So how do I know if my cat feels stressed?
Short-term fear is usually obvious and easy to recognise (fur standing up, hissing, crouched, rapid breathing, hiding, urination and defecation etc); however, chronic or long-term stress can be much more subtle. Signs may include:

  • Altered appetite – may be increased or decreased, depending on the individual cat’s temperament and personality.
  • Altered activity – some cats may become hyperactive, while others spend more time resting or pretending to sleep.
  • Altered behaviour towards people – stressed cats may become increasingly clingy and needy, or may decline any human contact or attention.
  • Increased hiding.
  • “Incontinence” or, more properly, inappropriate urination or defecation. This may include urine spraying. Cats use urine and faeces as territory markers, so this is almost always a sign of territorial stress.
  • Overgrooming, often resulting in bald patches on the belly or forelimbs.
  • Increased aggression (to try and drive intruders out) or fearfulness (to escape the threat).
  • Cystitis (aka Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disorder or FLUTD).
  • Increased scent marking – rubbing on surfaces or people.

What can I do to make my cat less stressed?
Well first try and understand why they’re stressed, and then if possible make it stop! Of course, it isn’t always actually possible, but if it is, try to make some accommodation for them.

If you can’t, the next best step is the use of a pheromone based product – these really do work in reducing a cat’s stress levels. The one with the best evidence base is Feliway, which comes in two forms – one for general stress relief (Feliway Original) and one for cat/cat stresses (Feliway Friends).

There are also non-prescription calmers available (Zylkene is probably the best studied and understood), but these are usually reserved for particularly stressful occasions, like fireworks displays etc.

If these simple steps aren’t enough, make an appointment to talk to one of our vets about the problem.