Cats and the Causes of Stress

two Persian kittens walking in step

Cats are creatures of habit and routine. Changes that upset their habits and/or routine can cause a cat to become anxious. A cat that experiences anxiety as a result of changes like this becomes stressed and possibly resentful. The types of stress a cat experiences are usually from one of three basic sources:

  • The surrounding environment (including multi-cat households - no matter how well the cats get along);
  • Physical body (health related stress); or
  • Emotional (fear, resentment, etc.)

Environmental Stress

Typical changes that a cat might experience in its environment are:

  • A move (relocating to a new home or apartment);
  • A change in the household furnishings (rearranging, losing, or adding new things);
  • Addition or loss of a household member (human or animal);
  • Confinement of the cat itself;
  • Daily routine changes (such as at holiday time)
  • Multi-cat households

Physical Stress

Stress can result when a cat experiences physical health issues such as:

  • Obesity;
  • Illness (including fleas, ticks, worms or other parasites);
  • Surgical procedures;
  • Physical trauma

Emotional Stress

Emotional stressors can include:

  • Fear;
  • Jealousy/rivalry towards a human or pet family member;
  • Boredom and/or loneliness;
  • Living in a multi-cat household or shelter

Stress Indicators and Resolutions

Stress or anxiety can manifest in a wide range of behaviors and some can be quite unexpected. Typical behaviors can include excessive grooming (or lack of grooming), change in eating habits (refusal of food or over-eating), aggression, litter box issues, and chewing inedible things (i.e., cloth, plastic, etc.). Resolving the stress depends on the cause and, where practical, eliminating it. Obviously, you cannot get "rid" of a new family member (i.e., new baby, new spouse, etc.).

As a first step in addressing negative stress-related behavior is to make sure that the cause is not a physical illness or injury. After you examine your cat, it may be necessary to make a trip to the veterinarian. During the appointment, tell the vet about the behaviors and discuss possible physical causes such as obesity or parasites.

If the issue is jealousy towards another pet, then a "re-introduction" may be necessary. First, separate the two pets, paying attention to each at different times. With a closed door between the two, place each pet's food dish about a foot or so from the "separating" door so that the door is in between each food dish. Over a week or so (it can even take a few months), gradually move the food bowls closer to the door as the pets get used to each other.  The last step would be to have each food dish right against the door. Getting the two pets to interact under the door through play may help ease the "introduction."

Very often the negative behavior resulting from stress will manifest itself in litter box issues. If improper litter box habits occur, experiment with a new type of litter (Cat Attract is a great product), and possibly adding another litter box. The rule of thumb for how many litter boxes are needed in a multi-cat household is one litter box per cat, plus one extra. Yes, they will share, but each cat needs its "own" box.

If your home is a single cat home, and you have no desire to add a second cat for company to your household, make sure that when you are not at home that the cat has plenty of toys and other things for entertainment. Sometimes, keeping a radio or TV on can be beneficial to a cat when it is left alone. Adding a window perch, or moving a cat tree near a window can provide the cat with "built-in" entertainment as it watches the activity that goes on outside (birds, squirrels, etc.).

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