We tend to think of cats as aloof and self-contained, only really needing us at meal times. There are several reasons why cats can suffer from anxiety or experience stress, though.
As a cat owner, it’s important not only to be able to recognize the signs but also to know how to manage them and how to calm your cat. From simple explanations such as moving home or attempting to get them into a carrier to transport them to their next veterinary appointment, through to medical issues themselves, we take a look at why it can happen and what to do about it.
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What are the signs of stress in cats?
Stress can display a wide range of symptoms and individual cats can show different reactions. This is why if you spot any new behaviors at all, it’s always worth having a chat with your veterinarian who can give you detailed advice and rule out causes, such as pain.
Trigger factors could be pain, disease, a change in routine or specific trauma. An example of the latter might be a cat who is scared of you turning on the vacuum cleaner, or who dislikes the sound of the doorbell.
Signs of stress might be subtle – for example, your cat might be less willing to socialize – or strong.
According to Pia Silvani, director of behavioral rehabilitation at the ASPCA’s Behavioral Rehabilitation Center, shaking, hiding, urination and/or defecation, howling, pacing, excessive vocalization, and panting can all be signs of high stress levels.
How to calm a stressed cat
The first thing to do is to try and identify the cause of the stress, but this might be easier said than done! Some cats don’t cope well with changes to routine, so if you’re moved house, had someone else move into your house, started a new job or introduced a new pet then that could be the problem.
In other cases, the stress could be temporary and be caused by a specific action such as a vet visit.
If your cat’s behavior is new, then look around for the cause of her anxiety. Doberman just moved in next door and barks all the time? You’ve moved her litter tray from one room to another and she doesn’t want to use it?
If possible, the easiest thing to do is find and reverse whatever is making her anxious. In the case of the dog barking, make sure she has a den she can retreat to where she feels safe.
Cats usually feel safe higher up, so a bed on top of a wardrobe may fit the bill. Eventually she should stop feeling threatened and treat the barking as background noise. Leaving classical music playing while you’re out might help to soothe her. If it’s not possible to either find or remove the cause, then you have some other options.
Many cats benefit from a strict routine, so stick to the same meal times, play times and bed times. Some herbs have the same calming effect on cats that they do on humans, including hops, chamomile, valerian, and catnip.
Most need to be administered around 15 minutes before the stress trigger, so are more suitable for short term stress than long-term use. Warning: catnip can cause a short-term episode of zoomies before your cat chills out!
With separation anxiety
Although we think of cats as independent and dogs as more needy, your beloved kitty is almost as likely to miss you as your pooch is. This is particularly common in house cats, single kitties, new pets or when you’ve changed your routine, for example working more or different hours.
You could try using a using a plug-in calming scent such as Feliway, which mimics natural feline pheromones helping your cat feel safe. You could also try leaving the radio on quietly for some company or investing in some interactive cat toys.
No owner wants a stressed cat, but a cat who won’t settle at night can quickly make you stressed as well! Cats are often more active at night as they’re crepuscular, meaning that nature has designed them to hunt at twilight and the early dawn – times when we humans aren’t normally up for playing.
Options to try include tiring your kitty out before bedtime with lots of play and moving mealtimes so that she eats just before bedtime. Cats tend to snooze after dinner, so use this to your advantage! You could also talk to your veterinarian to discuss natural sleep medications such as melatonin.
Many cats get stressed when put into a carrier, probably because they tend to associate it with an unpleasant experience such as a vet visit. Fortunately there are lots of things to try here. You could try spraying the interior of the carrier with Feliway or put some toys or bedding with your cat’s scent inside to help them feel at home.
Try leaving the crate open in the house and putting her food inside. Never try to force a cantankerous kitty in, as it’s important she feels calm and relaxed. Always leave yourself plenty of time for journeys so that you don’t get anxious as well.
Acclimatize your cat by making short journeys with the carrier often, even when you’ve got nowhere to go! If your kitty is happy in the carrier but gets stressed at the vets, then ask if you can wait in the car until your appointment time. Finally, when you carry the crate, always support it underneath so that your cat feels secure.
This can be a tricky one! Cats in heat are responding to their natural instincts to breed and the increase in hormone levels can make them behave strangely. The most common sign of this is that your previously quiet and retiring kitty might get very vocal! Her cycle normally lasts around six days and is repeated every three weeks.
During this time, it’s important to keep her isolated from intact male cats and keep her safe and warm. Pheromone sprays may help, but the only real permanent solution is to have your cat spayed.
Cats – particularly older cats – can be creatures of habit. Move their feed bowl two inches to the left and they won’t speak to you for the rest of the day. Moving to a new home is the ultimate upset of routine and it’s not wonder cats can react badly and get stressed. Make sure they have their own familiar ‘safe place’ to retreat to if they get overwhelmed, such as a familiar box or crate.
Allow your kitty to explore one new room at a time so that she has time to process her new environment and keep her indoors for two weeks while she adjusts. An old wife’s tale used to advise spreading butter on your cat’s paws after moving, the theory being that by the time she’d licked it all off she’d have settled!
However, we don’t recommend this approach unless you’re a big fan of greasy pawprints on furniture.
Stress can mean that your kitty can go from ‘feline fine’ to a nervous wreck very quickly, so it’s important to spot potential stress factors and preempt them if you can. Always be calm and patient and allow yourself plenty of time. Behaviors such as hissing or hiding are normally caused by fear so give your cat plenty of space and don’t put any pressure on her.
A stress-free cat is a happy cat and that means a happier household, so it’s well worth putting in a little effort to address any problems.
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Sara is a freelance journalist and copywriter of many years’ experience with a lifelong love of animals. She’s written for a range of magazines and websites on subjects varying from pet care to travel. A horse rider since the age of five, she’s currently a full time pet slave to horse Blue and gorgeous, goofy English Springer Spaniel Olly. Adorable Olly has a huge sense of adventure and no sense of direction, keeping Sara on her toes.