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How to Tell When Your Cat Is Suffering From Stress

Here are tips on how to recognize stress and anxiety in cat behavior -- and how to reduce it.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Mar 6th 2015


Stress isn’t all bad. Short episodes help animals survive life-threatening situations. But chronic and repeated exposure to stressful situations is harmful. It compromises the immune system, and it causes medical problems including depression and other behavior issues.

When your cat is threatened, cortisol is released into her system. You know the feeling. When you’re cornered or confronted with danger your heart rate goes up, you’re hypervigilant and ready to fight or make an escape. In short bursts, stress can save lives. It’s the long-term stress you have to worry about.

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Cat running away from danger. by Shutterstock.

Cats, like all animals, are adversely affected by repeated and chronic stress, which can lead to upper respiratory infections, litter box issues, and other serious medical conditions. Additionally, stress causes a variety of behavior problems, including aggression towards other animals and people, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and elimination challenges.

Sometimes the signs are obvious, other times it’s subtle — cats excel at hiding their anxieties. Because stress can cause medical problems and medical problems can cause stress, cats need to be examined by a veterinarian whenever you see the following symptoms as well as other behavior changes.

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Whenever there are changes in behavior, cats need to be examined by a veterinarian. by Shutterstock.

Clingy behavior

You know these kitties. These are the ones who are always underfoot or in your face. They always need to be with their favorite people, sometimes crying when briefly separated from them. Some of them have suffered a loss and are grieving, while others are anxious because new animals have joined the household or because of other changes in their worlds.

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Cat who is always in his mom’s face. by Marilyn Krieger

Eliminating in the wrong places

It’s a major deal for everyone when cats don’t use their litter boxes. Litter box challenges and spraying often have their roots in stress. Typical stressors include: poor litter box maintenance (who wants to do their business in a stinky bathroom?), other litter box related issues, relationship problems with other residents, unwelcome outside animal visitors, medical problems, chaos, and changes in the household.

Hiding and avoiding contact

Some cats make themselves scarce when they are stressed. They may take refuge under beds or high in closets. Anxious felines will seek hiding places far away from whatever is causing the angst. A new baby, other resident animals, and construction as well as a host of other events may be the source of the anxiety. Even redecorating the house can stress sensitive kitties.

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Stressed cats sometimes hide. by Shutterstock.

Changing communication styles

Be concerned when your normally quiet, unobtrusive cat starts incessantly vocalizing or howling. The opposite is also true. Kitties who are natural talkers may stop communicating and become withdrawn when chronically stressed. In addition to stress, increased vocalizing can be caused by medical issues including thyroid disease, pain, and cognitive dysfunction.

Overgrooming

Also labeled psychogenic alopecia, overgrooming can be caused by chronic stress or the cumulative effects of a series of stressful events. When the underlying reasons for the behavior are not addressed, it can become obsessive. Cats normally groom for a number of reasons, including for comfort. Licking releases endorphins, which are self-soothing. Many chronically stressed cats, in an effort to find relief, will compulsively overgroom. There can be a genetic component to this behavior as well — oriental breeds are more prone than other breeds to overgroom. Additionally, overgrooming as well as scratching and fur-pulling can be symptomatic of allergies and other annoying medical issues.

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Over-grooming can be an obsessive compulsive behavior. by Shutterstock.

Eating nonedible items (pica)

People who live with cats with pica learn to be vigilant — never leaving socks, plastic bags, and other objects where the cats can find them. Kitties with pica will eat things they shouldn’t — in addition to plastic and wool some will munch on wood and rubber as well as other inedible items. This obsessive behavior is dangerous and can cause intestinal obstruction. Along with having genetic and medical components, stress will intensify the behavior, often triggering it. Although the oriental breeds have more incidents of pica than others, all cats can develop the problem when chronically stressed.

Changes in appetite

Check out your cat’s food bowl. It’s not unusual for stressed cats to change their relationships with food. Cortisol, when elevated, causes them to feel hungry. It also increases gastric acid production, which can lead to digestion issues. Some anxious cats will eat everything in sight, while others lose interest in food.

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Stress changes cats appetites. by Shutterstock.

Acting out

Aggression can be another result of stress — escalating tensions and creating new ones. Fractious kitties might vent their feelings on other household animals and sometimes people. Repeated visits from unwelcome neighborhood animals, persistent problems with other resident pets, changes in the household, and even discontent among family members can cause chronic anxiety and agitation.

Jumpy behavior

Another sign to look for is a heightened startle reflex. Anxious cats can frighten easily — jumping and reacting at the slightest noise or movement. Although one traumatic event sometimes initially triggers the response, some cats will react fearfully to subsequent, less intense incidents.

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Anxious cats can become easily frightened. by Shutterstock.

Changes in individual behavior

There are other symptoms of stress as well. One of the joys of living with cats is getting to know their individual personalities. Pay attention to changes in your cat’s routines and behavior — she may be subtly or blatantly showing you she’s stressed.

Ways to reduce the stress

Once you identify the sources of stress get into action.

1. Adjust environmental components. It may be as simple as improving litter box maintenance and adding more resources. Multi-cat households need additional scratchers, litter boxes, toys, and vertical territory. Adding feeding stations can also take the pressure off of cats who are regularly pushed away from the food bowls by the other residents.

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Each cat needs her own food bowl. by Shutterstock.

2. Renew animal relationships. If you recently brought home another cat or dog, gradually reintroduce them to each other.

3. Make things more engaging. Boredom can also be a source of stress. Make it fun! Every day, set aside special time for your cat. Play, clicker train, and do other activities with her that she enjoys. Enhance her environment with tall cat furniture and high shelves so she can jump and climb. She also needs scratchers, toys, and puzzle feeders. Some bored kitties enjoy the company of other cats, but only when they are gradually introduced to each other.

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Two cats enjoying each other’s company. by Marilyn Krieger.

4. Check for intruders. Outside animals are common causes of stress. If you have unwanted guests hanging around your home, use safe deterrents to keep them away. There are also organizations who specialize in feral cats who can help.

5. Go easy on your cat. Although it can be frustrating to live with some of the behaviors, don’t punish the cat or yell at her. Punishment will cause her to feel more insecure and heighten her stress — escalating the behaviors and causing more trauma.

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Punishment can stress cats.by Shutterstock.

Although some stress is necessary, chronic stress can cause medical and behavior problems. Identifying and reducing the sources of stress will help keep your special kitty healthy, happy, and well adjusted.

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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses force free methods that include environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other force-free methods. Marilyn is big on education — she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.