Cat looking at camera

Stress in cats

It’s normal for your cat to feel stressed from time to time. It helps them stay safe – like running or hiding from something they find scary. But too much stress can lead to longer term problems with your cat’s mental and physical health.  

Spotting the signs of stress is also more difficult in cats. Unlike dogs, they don’t have the range of facial expressions to tell us how they’re feeling and many of the signs can be easily missed as they’re extremely subtle. 

How to spot the signs of stress in cats

Cats will often display a combination of signs to show they’re stressed, including changes to their behaviour, body language, and habits. Sometimes their health will also suffer, and they might develop a health problem as a result.

Changes in your cat’s behaviour include:

  • Avoiding situations or people more than usual eg not wanting to interact with you anymore
  • Hiding away for long periods of time
  • Toileting or spraying in the home
  • Increased vigilance (state of awareness)
  • Irritability or agitation 
  • Aggressive behaviour towards people or other pets 
  • Over grooming
  • Increased vocalisation
  • Not wanting to go outside anymore
  • Scratching furniture – although many cats do this, an increase or scratching in a new place could suggest a rise in stress

Changes in your cat’s body language include:

  • Tense, hunched up body
  • Flattened ears
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased swallowing or lip licking
  • Skin twitching or ‘rippling’

Changes to your cat’s health include:

  • Urinary tract issues or cystitis
  • Diarrhoea
  • Skin issues
  • Digestive problems
  • General decline in physical condition
  • A lack of appetite

Not all these health issues are caused by stress, but long-term stress can be a significant factor in contributing towards them. 

Important: Speak to your vet urgently if you suspect your male cat is struggling to go the toilet as this can be very serious.

What causes stress in cats?

Most cats are very adaptable, but they’re also a very sensitive species, so changes to their life, owners and environment can affect their stress levels. Some common causes include a threat to their territory, such as another cat, or being stroked more than they would like.

Cats also have an incredible sense of smell which is much more powerful than ours. Significant changes to the smell of their home can be a real concern to them, but it would not be obvious to us.

Threats to a cat’s territory

Cats are very attached to their territory and this is where they should feel safe. If they feel threatened, they might become stressed. Perceived threats might include:

  • Introducing a new dog or a new cat in the home
  • A new baby in the home
  • Moving house
  • Building work or decorating
  • Unfamiliar cats coming into the garden or breaking into their home

Living with other cats

Although cats can form friendships with their other cats, many prefer their own company and do not enjoy living with fellow felines. If an introduction is rushed, or there is not enough space or food for them to live together easily, then it can unfortunately become very stressful for some cats. 

Over handling of cats

Cats can enjoy being stroked, but every cat is different. Some like being stroked a lot. For others it will be strictly on their terms only! 

Being stroked or picked up when it’s not wanted or enjoyed is stressful for them. And although many cats will enjoy the company of younger members of the household, some very young children can be overly enthusiastic when it comes to stroking cats and this persistent attention can be very stressful.

How can I reduce my cat’s stress?

Seeing a vet

If you think your cat is suffering with stress, the first thing to do is contact your vet. 

Certain medical issues may cause changes to your cat’s behaviour but long term stress for a cat can make them ill, so it’s important they’re checked out.

Take a look at our advice

If you think you know why your cat is experiencing stress, then we have a range of advice available.

When to see an animal behaviourist 

If you feel you need additional help with your cat’s behaviour then, once your cat has seen the vet, contact the Animal Behaviour and Training Council to find a qualified feline behaviour expert. They will be able to assess your cat’s individual situation and give you specific advice tailored to you and your cat to help resolve the problems your cat is experiencing. 

What if I don't think I can keep my cat any longer? 

We know that sometimes people’s circumstances change. Giving up your cat is a really difficult decision and it can help to speak to someone about it. If you can no longer look after your pet, our Rehoming Team is always happy to talk to you about your circumstances. Contact your nearest Blue Cross rehoming centre to talk to one of the team or find out more about giving up a pet.

— Page last updated 27/05/2021

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