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Behaviourist's Corner

5 common signs of stress in cats


Is your cat acting out of character? Perhaps she seems overly anxious, or even suffering from cat 'depression'? Clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar shares some of the early signs of stress in cats to look out for


Your cat could feel stressed for many reasons. Changes in household dynamics like the arrival of a new baby, conflict with another pet or even a new sofa can all be stress triggers.

In Petplan’s 2018 Pet Census, 55% of owners believed their pet had suffered from a mental health issue and 10% of owners claimed their pets had suffered from ‘depression’. Older pets can be more vulnerable to mental ill-health – 43% of owners with pets aged eight or more thought this, compared to just 36% of owners with cats aged younger than two years old.

There are potential reasons for this. ‘Older cats can be less tolerant of change, dementia can increase feelings of cat anxiety and physical pain is very stressful, too,’ explains clinical animal behaviourist, Inga MacKellar. ‘Older cats with arthritis can suddenly find it painful to be cuddled in their owner’s arms.’ Unwanted attention from owners or visitors can also cause stress in cats.

Spotting the signs

‘Even though pet-owners are more aware of how common cat anxiety can be, it’s easy to miss the small signs,’ Inga points out. ‘People often notice there’s an issue when their cat has become aggressive, is marking around the house, or hiding away a lot.’ Watching out for these early warning signs of anxiety in cats and asking your vet or a pet behaviourist for advice can avoid symptoms later on:


1. Hiding or running away

‘A cat’s first instinct is to get away and if she’s hiding, she’s probably feeling stressed,’ says Inga. ‘Try not to disturb an anxious cat out of her hiding place for a cuddle, no matter how concerned you may be – it’s always best to let her approach you.’


2. Spraying or pooing in unusual places

These are very clear signs of stress, says Inga. ‘Spraying is totally different to normal weeing because it’s a deliberate act of marking, and both male and female cats do it. Pooing in unusual or obvious places (like a doorway) is called ‘middening’ and it can happen when a cat feels extremely anxious – when threatened by another cat, for example.’


3. Loss of appetite

‘Lots of cats are fussy eaters but if your cat suddenly goes off her food, don’t just assume she’s being picky,’ explains Inga. It could be a sign of anxiety or cat ‘depression’.


4. Cystitis

Feline cystitis occurs when the bladder becomes inflamed and it can be caused by stress. So, if you notice that your cat is weeing more often but only producing small amounts of urine, struggling to urinate, or weeing in odd places, she may be suffering from cystitis as a result of feeling anxious.


5. Over-grooming

‘This is another symptom of cystitis and stress – especially if your cat is grooming her tummy and inner thighs a lot more than usual,’ notes Inga. ‘But don’t worry if your cat stops what she’s doing and licks herself briefly – this is usually what we behaviourists call “displacement behaviour”, and it’s a simple way of calming herself down if she sees or hears something unexpected.’

What should you do next?

The sooner you notice the signs, the more chance you have of easing your cat’s anxiety. Pets can cope with a certain amount of stress, but a ‘normal’ stress reaction should only last a short time, and then end when the stress trigger has gone. If it lasts longer, or happens more often, your cat’s anxiety could escalate into a fear or phobia.

‘It’s really important to know what your cat looks and sounds like when she’s happy and relaxed – unlike a stressed cat, which is likely to have flattened ears and diluted pupils,’ advises Inga. ‘Make it a priority to identify the source of her anxiety and remove it if you can.’

Tips to beat cat anxiety

Finally, if you’re finding it hard to identify the problem, Inga recommends easing your cat’s stress with these simple tips:

  • Provide places to hide – ‘Cats feel safe in high places or under the bed.’
  • Avoid making big changes in your home – ‘Cats are very scent-oriented so new furniture or a new carpet can make them feel anxious.’
  • Manage your own voice and body language – owner anxiety often leads to cat anxiety.
  • Don’t take it personally – ‘Your pet isn’t hiding away or spraying in the house because she dislikes you.’
  • Use a pheromone plug-in diffuser or spray.
  • Consider specially formulated nutritional supplements – ‘These are available from your vet and are a natural way to help ease stress.’

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