Stress: a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.
Stress can help animals survive, and it can be unhealthy. Infrequent, stressful events can save lives because they instantly motivate animals to flee or fight. On the other hand, chronic stress and sudden traumatic events can cause behavior issues as well as serious medical problems.
Stress can cause medical and behavior problems
It may be hard to recognize when cats are starting to feel anxious and stressed. It becomes apparent when they exhibit unwanted behaviors such as litter box avoidance, spraying, excessive vocalizing and aggression. They might stop eating or go on a feeding frenzy. Other symptoms include overgrooming, pulling fur and eating inedible objects such as wool, plastic and wood. Some kitties respond a bit more covertly — they may become hypervigilant or lethargic. Others might stop talking to their people or hide. All of these behaviors can also indicate medical conditions that need attention.
Behavior and medical issues are often intertwined. Stress can cause serious and painful health problems and diseases including feline interstitial cystitis, obesity and not eating, among other conditions. Whenever a cat changes her behavior and exhibits unwanted behaviors, she needs a thorough examination by a veterinarian. Sometimes it takes a combination of medical and behavioral intervention to take care of the problem.
Subtle and overt stressors
Many of the obvious triggers that cause stress include relationship problems between resident felines, neighborhood cats hanging around, moving to a new residence, litter box issues and remodeling the home.
There are also subtler situations that can cause as much anxiety as the obvious ones. It’s easy to overlook the effects that loud noises, unexpected movements and household dynamics can have on sensitive kitties. Upheavals and emotionally charged situations are stressful for everyone in the household, including resident animals and people.
Cats are sensitive — in addition to reacting to overt problems between their people, many become anxious when there are subtle, underlying tensions in the home. It’s not just emotional family dynamics that can stress kitties. Changes in schedules, vacations and deaths are a few of the other situations that can cause anxiety.
The cycle of stress
In my book, there is no such thing as a bad cat or inappropriate behavior. There is such a thing as unappreciated behavior. Cats always have good reasons for what they do. Although these behaviors can be frustrating, sometimes people inadvertently escalate them by yelling or by punishing the little ones. Cats often associate these frightening responses with their owners. The situation can go downhill, developing into a vicious cycle that builds on itself. Some felines, responding to their owners’ reactions, escalate their behaviors or develop others. It becomes an ugly cycle that needs to be broken.
Actions to reduce stress
You can reduce and eliminate anxieties by identifying the triggers and addressing them. Depending on the circumstances, unhappy kitties who are squabbling may benefit from being reintroduced to each other. Adding resources such as tall cat furniture, scratchers, toys, litter boxes and food bowls can also improve relationships. Placing additional uncovered litter boxes in areas the kitties won’t feel trapped and then maintaining them can also make a difference. If unwelcome cats are visiting, they need to be convinced, without harm, to move on.
Kitties who have developed anxieties because of household tensions will benefit from a few environmental changes. Instinctually, cats do whatever they can to avoid stressful situations. They can be helped by insuring that there are lots of resting areas throughout the home that are conflict free. Hiding places, such as boxes, tunnels and paper bags with their handles removed can double as stress-free safe zones. Felines also need elevated places to hang out, such as tall cat furniture and high shelves. In addition to feeling safe up high, they can observe the activities going on around them.
Household members who become irritated at their cats can stop the harmful cycle of stress by adjusting their responses when the little ones act out. They should remain calm and not yell or punish the kitties. Everyone needs to understand that these reactions can elevate stress, worsen problems and create others.
Predictability can also help felines cope with stressful situations — keep furniture changes to a minimum, and feed cats at the same times every day. Additionally, owners need to put aside time every day to play and cuddle with their cats.
Cats don’t all respond to situations the same way. Every cat is an individual — each with her own personality, history and genetics. The levels of stress vary — some sensitive kitties may become highly anxious during an event, whereas others may have higher tolerance levels.
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Do you have 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 and Skype consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, 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 positive reinforcement 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.