Willett House Pet Solutions: Stress in Cats

Cats suffer from stress in many different ways and this stress may be brought on by many different things. Unfortunately, many of the behaviours associated with stress may be difficult to interpret and undesirable in the home. It is important for owners to understand both why their cat is behaving as it is and also how it may be possible to help.

There are many presentations of stress in cats. Signs to look out for:

  • Hiding behaviour Cats may looks for places to hide or may sit in a hunched position, with their backs to a wall, if no appropriate hiding place is available to them. Hiding under the bed is common stress-related behaviour.
  • No more play Even a young and normally playful cat may stop interacting with you and their toys if they are feeling stressed.
  • Decrease in outdoor activity If the stress or fear is related to the outdoors then your cat is much less likely to spend time outside. In some extreme cases, your cat may not venture out at all. This can lead to inappropriate toileting issues if cats are not provided with an indoor litter tray.
  • Over-grooming This is a common presentation of stress and a much more obvious outward sign of anxiety. Very stressed cats are known to present with stress-related grooming and this can leave large bare patches of skin – usually around the tail-base or flanks. Flea infestation may also cause bare patches of skin.
  • Decreased consumption If food and water bowls are placed in a position that a cat may relate to stress – for example, when they are positioned near to the cat-flap through which another cat may enter – cats may decrease their eating and drinking to avoid the stressful situation.
  • Inappropriate toileting This is the most common presentation of a stressed cat. If cats are afraid of going outside, due to other cats in the area, they may begin to defecate and urinate in the home. Spraying can also be a sign of anxiety and is distinct from inappropriate urination. Spraying is generally used as a way of marking territories. Cats will stand, raise their tail and spray. It is most commonly seen in entire males but neutered male and female cats can also spray. The likelihood of seeing this spraying behaviour increases with the number of cats per household and with any non-feline new additions to the household – such as dogs and babies.
  • Idiopathic Cystitis Approximately 60 per cent of cats presented to the vets for lower urinary tract disease are diagnosed with stress-related cystitis. This can cause cats to feel the need to urinate more frequently. These cats may need medical treatment at the time and may also need some management of their stress levels at home.

All of these stress-related behaviours can be due to many factors. Some cats are genetically predisposed to have higher stress levels than others. These cats will need more support from owners to try and help them deal with the situations which they find stressful.

The following two main factors are known to cause stress in cats:

  • Other cats outdoors Cats are very territorial and there may be a lot of competition between local cats. Local cats may sit outside and stare into the home, enter the garden or, in extreme cases, enter the home. Even if your cat doesn’t see the intruder, a cat’s keen sense of smell will detect an intruder. In these cases, you may see your cat spraying at entry points to the home: cat flaps; windows; and doors.
  • Companion cats Cats are not particularly social animals and they can become very stressed by the presence of other cats – even those known to them. This stress may not be obvious to you. Cats are known to stare, ambush and block pathways of others in the home as subtle ways of showing aggression. You may find that your cat or cats are spraying in areas where they pass one another: hall; corridors; stairs; and cat flaps. In multi-cat households, the stress can become too much and cats have been known to vote with their feet. If cats feel bullied in the home, they may look for alternative housing arrangements with a neighbour in the street…

What can we do to help?

There are lots of ways in which owners can try to lessen the stress levels of their cat or cats:

  • Food and water bowls These should not be placed near a cat flap – as this is an area of stress relating to outdoors and to companion cats. Cats will not eat if they feel that they could be ambushed at any time. When there is more than one cat in the household, it is recommended that owners move bowls into separate rooms. Each cat will benefit from a safe area to eat and drink alone.
  • Litter Trays These are a sensitive area for cats and cats must feel secure when using them. Again, they should be placed away from entry points and preferably with some cover. It is possible to buy igloo-style litter trays which provide privacy for your cat. It is also important to have the correct number of trays, for indoor cats it is recommended to have at least one tray per cat (plus on extra).
  • Passageways It is a good idea in these areas to provide a retreat for the more nervous cat. A chair is ideal, allowing a nervous cat to jump up when feeling threatened.
  • Cat flaps Microchip-reading flaps are a good way of stopping any feline intruders from entering the home. If this is not an option, then providing some cover on the outside of the house can help. A small plant would allow your cat to assess the outdoor situation without being ambushed. If this is not an option, then it may be time to shut the cat flap and just allow your cat out by opening a door. This can be difficult but will remove the threat of another cat entering the home uninvited.
  • Feliway™ This product comes in two forms – either as a spray or a plug-in diffuser. It is a synthetic version of the feline facial pheromone which cats use to mark their territory as safe and secure. By mimicking the cat’s natural pheromones, it creates a state of familiarity and security within the cat’s local environment. Therefore, Feliway™ can be used to help prevent or reduce stress caused by changes in your home.

For any further information or advice on decreasing your cat’s stress levels, please do not hesitate to contact a member of the Willett House healthcare team.