5 common signs of stress in cats

Does your cat seem overly anxious? It could be that they are feeling stressed. Find out the reasons why cats feel stressed, how they show their unhappiness and what you can do to help them.

Stress is a common problem in cats. In fact, the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals PAW Report 2022 found that nearly half (44%) of cat owners reported that their cats were showing signs that may be indicative of stress.

Why is your cat stressed?

There are many reasons why cats can become stressed. Some of the most common causes of stress in cats include living with other cats or dogs, unfamiliar cats intruding into their territory, fireworks, a house move, building works, the arrival of a new baby, unwanted attention from visitors and even inappropriate handling by their owner.

Signs of stress in cats

While pet owners may be aware that stress is a common problem for cats, they often miss the early signs that their own cat is feeling anxious or stressed. Nevertheless, cats’ body language often conveys a lot about how they are feeling.

Watch out for the following signs of stress in cats:

1. Hiding or running away

When a cat is feeling stressed, their first instinct is to get away. So, if your cat seems withdrawn, or is hiding more than normal, that could be an indicator that they are struggling. Try not to disturb an anxious cat and don’t be tempted to coax them out from their hiding place for a cuddle, no matter how concerned you may be. It’s always best to let them approach you.

2. Spraying or pooing in unusual places

These are very clear signs of stress. Spraying is different from 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. Diarrhoea is another sign of stress in cats.

3. Loss of appetite

Lots of cats are fussy eaters but if your cat suddenly goes off their food, don’t just assume that they are being picky. Loss of appetite could be a sign of anxiety. Similarly, other signs of stress include overeating, drinking less, vomiting and exaggerated swallowing or licking their nose.

4. Cystitis

Feline cystitis is a condition that can be caused by stress, and occurs when a cat’s bladder becomes inflamed. 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, they may be suffering from cystitis as a result of feeling anxious.

5. Overgrooming

Overgrooming is another sign of cystitis and stress – especially if your cat is grooming their tummy and inner thighs a lot more often than usual. You may see patches of sparse hair, or even areas of skin with complete hair loss. But don’t worry if your cat stops what they are doing and licks themselves briefly – this is ‘displacement behaviour’ and it’s a simple way for the cat to calm themselves down if they see or hear something unexpected.

Other signs of stress

In addition to the five common signs above, other signs of stress in cats can include hissing, growling, excessive meowing, furniture scratching, tense body language and potentially the cat even becoming aggressive towards people. 

How can you help a stressed cat?

The sooner you notice the signs of stress, 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.

To determine whether your cat is stressed, it’s essential to know what your cat’s body language is like when they are happy. For example, a happy cat will have a relaxed posture and ears that are facing forward. Tail positions vary, but a tail up is friendly greeting behaviour. A stressed cat is likely to have flattened ears and dilated pupils. It may press its tail tightly around its body, or even tuck its tail between its legs.

If your cat is showing signs of stress or anxiety, it is important to take them to the vet straight away. Your vet may recommend that you seek the support of a qualified behaviourist – for example, a behaviourist registered with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council.

Ways to ease stress in cats

While you’re working to identify the problem that is affecting your cat’s wellbeing, here are some simple tips to ease their stress in the meantime:

  1. Provide places to hide. Cats feel safe in high places or under the bed. Make sure that your cat’s resources – food and water bowls, litter tray and scratching post – are easily accessible to them in a quiet space where they won’t be disturbed by other pets or family members.
  2. Avoid making big changes in your home. Cats are very scent-oriented, so new furniture or a new carpet can make them feel anxious.
  3. Manage your own voice and body language. Owner anxiety often leads to cat anxiety.
  4. Use a pheromone plug-in diffuser or spray. These can help to reduce feline anxiety, although they should be used in conjunction with veterinary and behaviourist support as part of a stress-reduction strategy.
  5. Pay attention to your cat’s body language. Don’t handle your pet if they seem reluctant to be touched. Always give them the opportunity to get away while you’re petting and stroking them.

If you’ve noticed a change in your cat’s behaviour, it’s important to seek advice from your vet or a registered behaviourist to keep your pet happy and healthy.

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