What's Stressing Out Your Cat?

True Nature Series

At home in the wild, the African Wildcat deals primarily with four causes of stress: the daily search and competition for food; weather and its effects on habitat; the threat of predation; and as humanity extends its reach further and further into the wild, human contact.

For the cats in our homes, these sources of stress don't apply. That's not to say our cats live 100% stress free.

Some acute stressors can be good if they're introduced without overwhelming the cat.  A session of purposeful play, for example, can help to introduce new smells, a variety of new textures or new toys and foster instinctual behaviors. In addition, providing safe access to the sights, sounds and smells of the outdoors may stimulate a cat in a positive way.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is something to avoid. It is a constant, excessive stress that can lead to health issues. Because of its ongoing nature, cats tend to react or withdraw and internalize the stress, making it difficult to identify the source. Bad chronic stressors include boredom, improper introduction of new animals, an obstructed path to food or litter box, unwanted contact or unclean or uncomfortable environments.

What should you look for?

First off, it's important to know and recognize the signs of stress. On the mild end, you may notice:

  • a drop in energy or activity level
  • changes to her sleep habits
  • a change in appetite
  • or withdrawal

If stress is allowed to build over time, signs of escalation may include:

  • aggression
  • inappropriate elimination or spraying
  • trembling
  • excessive grooming leading to loss of fur and excessive meowing

Left unchecked, stress can contribute to health problems like obesity. As always, if you already recognize any of these symptoms, it's best to talk with your veterinarian to eliminate any medical cause.

Here's a series of Stress Reduction Lessons with plenty of ways you can make potentially stressful situations far less taxing on your cat.

Stressor 1 

COMMON CAUSES OF STRESS:
  • Clutter and untidiness
  • New or rearranged furniture
  • Home repairs or remodeling
  • Holiday decorations

Have you made any recent changes to your home environment? Anything from rearranging or buying new furniture to remodeling a kitchen or installing new carpet changes the dynamic within your space. Holiday season brings decorations, lights and often times a tree into the home. Each of these examples can be overwhelming to some cats.

However, small changes also have an effect. Something as simple as hindering access to or relocating a feeding dish, water bowl or litter box can be enough to trigger stress. Just imagine if someone moved your bathroom to a different location in your house.

TRUE NATURE TIP:

Construction and remodeling creates upheaval, so it's important to keep as much "normal" as possible. And rearranging furniture can have a similar effect. But don't overlook the regular day-to-day of keeping an orderly home. Make sure she has free and unobstructed access to food, fresh water, her litter box and safe places to hide at all times while your home environment is in flux. This will help your cat keep feeling in control.

Stressor 2

COMMON CAUSES OF STRESS:
  • Moving or relocating
  • Bringing a new cat home for the first time

If moving ranks as one of the most stressful times for people, imagine what's going through the mind of your cat. Whether you're moving across town or across the country, or you're bringing a cat home for the first time, this period of transition can be rife with stress.

TRUE NATURE TIP:

If you're moving, be sure as much of the home is settled as possible - boxes are unpacked, furniture is in place, and the movers or helpers are gone before introducing you cat to the new space.

If your cat is entering a home for the first time, allow your cat to familiarize herself with her new surroundings on her terms. You can do this by gradually expanding the amount of "territory" she can explore. Start with one room. As she gets comfortable, let her move into additional spaces in your home. This makes it less overwhelming than exploring the entire space at once. Finally, try to give her as much attention as possible to ease the transition.

Stressor 3 

COMMON CAUSES OF STRESS:
  • Improper introduction to another pet
  • Baby, houseguests or new significant others

Cats have a refined sense of smell and use scent as a means of communication. So the introduction of an unfamiliar scent may be enough to trigger stress. Introducing a new cat or dog, the birth or adoption of a child, entertaining houseguests or changes to your personal relationships can all contribute to stress and bring about some territorial tendencies.

TRUE NATURE TIP:

The key here is patience. The first thing to do is introduce the scent either with a blanket or a piece of clothing that the respective pet or person has used or worn. This way, your cat is able to get acquainted on her terms.

Then, it's important to ease into the introduction - first, limit the initial meeting. Assuming everything goes well, gradually add more and more time as the people and pets get more comfortable with each other.

Since cats can feel overwhelmed, make sure there are plenty of clear routes to escape to a place in the home she feels safe.  

Stressor 4

COMMON CAUSES OF STRESS:
  • A family member passes away
  • A fellow pet passes away
  • A child heads off to college

 Changes to your cat's social circle are bound to have an effect on her, just as it would with a person.

TRUE NATURE TIP:

To help your cat with this adjustment, one way is to dial up the activity. Work in some extra play, even if it's a short burst. If you haven't introduced leash walking, now would be an ideal time. Getting your cat out of the house lets her safely explore her surroundings, and as with people, a change of scenery may help.   

Stressor 5

COMMON CAUSES OF STRESS:
  • Too hot or too cold in the home
  • Daylight Savings Time
  • Boredom

When you think about the changing seasons, your mind may first go to temperature. A study has shown that some indoor/outdoor cats eat more when temperatures drop.

But keep in mind that cats are highly in tune with the sun. Daylight is longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. So when time adjusts to account for day light savings time, a cat's clock gets all out of whack.

In northern climates, boredom can be brought on by something as simple as having fewer things to watch out the window because birds have migrated for the winter. Some cats may eat more when they are bored.

TRUE NATURE TIP:

When dealing with hotter days, make sure your cat has plenty of water and cool places to rest. Just keep in mind that while fans may be welcome to people, some cats may not like both the noise and the stimulating effects of the breeze on their fur.

During the winter, make sure your cat has blankets to snuggle in her favorite places to hang out. And try increasing the frequency of purposeful play or introduce new toys in order to break up the monotony.

As for Daylight Savings Time, just know that one-hour shift can feel like an eternity to a cat, especially if she's used to eating at sunrise. Adjust feeding times accordingly to limit the potential stress and stay in tune with your cat's behaviors.

Stressor 6

COMMON CAUSES OF STRESS:
  • Loud music or television
  • Dog barking or people shouting 
  • Excessive contact

Cats have sensitive hearing and skin. Excessive noise, such as loud music or television or incessant dog barking can wear on your cat. The same can be said for too much touching.

TRUE NATURE TIP:

Cats are open to tactile stimulation. However, it's important to stay in tune with your cat's body language - she'll tell you when she's had enough. When she's receptive, massaging her by making circular motions with your fingertips on her skin can help relax your cat, and you as well.

As for noise, be mindful of barking dogs, as well as the volume of your activities, whether it's while playing the stereo, watching a movie, or interacting with others.