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Understanding how to identify stress in your cat and the common causes contributing to anxiety

The term stress describes the mental and physiological changes that occur when your cat faces a threat. When your cat perceives immediate danger, they may enter a fight or flight mode. This flood of autonomic nervous system activity results in many physical changes. Your cat's pupils dilate to better scan the environment and the heart rate and blood flow increase, providing energy to flee.

Sometimes your cat cannot discern the source of the threat or may not be able to avoid a recurring source of fear. In such instances the body stays in a prolonged state of stress, causing anxiety which can lead to serious health problems.  

What are the common behavioural changes that may indicate stress or anxiety in cats?

Scratch marks - Only vertical scratch marks are considered to be a sign of stress. If the scratching is found in visible areas around doorways and windows, or centered on prominent objects such as a settee, then this may be an indication that the cat is unsettled or stressed. In this case the cat may be scratch marking to increase the number of visual and scent signals in the immediate environment, rather than simply sharpening his claws.

Urine marks - Feline urine spraying is one of the primary methods used by cats to mark out their territory. Whether male or female, neutered or not, it is exhibited in some way by almost every cat. Urine marking is a very specific behavioural sequence where the cat adopts a posture that is easy to recognize:

  • He approaches a vertical surface

  • He sniffs the surface and is seen to treads the floor

  • The cat then turns his back

  • Standing with his tail erected, he emits a horizontal jet of urine onto the object

This is a normal behavior for unneutered male cats outside the home, but can be an unpleasant problem when it occurs inside the home - and also represents a hygiene risk.

Aggression - In very stressful situations, some cats can react aggressively towards people, other cats or other household pets.  This type of behaviour usually only occurs when a cat has no way to escape or no other means to express his stress. Most importantly, remember that the aggression may not necessarily be shown towards the person, animal or object causing the cat’s stress.

What are the common symptoms of stress or anxiety in cats?

Some cats may be able to cope very well with a stressful event or a change in their environment and may only feel uncomfortable for a few days or just for a few hours. In this case, stress is unlikely to have any serious consequences. However, others will have serious problems coping with even small challenges. These cats are far more likely to suffer acute or chronic stress, which can have a real impact on their health, contributing to or exacerbating problems such as cystitis, dermatological conditions, anorexia and obesity.

Cats may show chronic stress in many ways:

  • Over grooming (bald areas) or under grooming (matted or soiled fur)

  • decreased social interaction (more frequent hiding)

  • excessive vocalization

  • decreased exploration or play

  • less sleep (she's too busy staying attuned to threatening surroundings)

  • withdrawal (reduced desire to play or interact)

  • changes in appetite

  • Inappropriate elimination (house soiling)

 Since many of these behaviors can also indicate illness, it's important to take your cat to the veterinarian to rule out possible health problems.

Common causes of feline stress

Environmental - A strange animal in the cat’s territory, scary noises (such as construction work), new baby or new pet, strong scents (air freshener, colognes or dirty litter box in multi-cat homes), blaring music or television, or a house full of company.

Physical - Illness, obesity, physical trauma, punishment by owner, fleas and other parasites, unpredictable feeding schedule (cat goes hungry for extended periods), or surgical procedures.

Emotional - Neglect, death, or a prolonged absence of human or animal companion in the home, lack of mental stimulation (such as challenging play), or lack of choices or control over a situation (such as only one feeding/litter station in a multi-cat household).

Suggested solutions for feline stress and anxiety

  • Your cat requires places to hide from perceived threats or bully cats in your home. Vertical shelves, boxes, and cat trees work well to offer your cat a place to escape to, especially away from dogs and small children.

  • Offer therapeutic outlets, such as a scratching post, heated pad, or window perch.

  • Make sure each cat (in multi-cat homes) has their own feeding and litter station and keep them very clean.

  • It is important to expose kittens to potentially stressful situations in a controlled manner. This helps them to handle stress better as an adult.

  • Pheromone or herbal therapy, such as Feliway Diffuser Refill can help to decrease stress and anxiety levels in the cat.

  • Interacting with your cat by playing can help relieve tension and stroking them encourages purring which also helps to relieve stress.