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Stress in Cats

31 March 2012
Stress in Cats

Continuing my feedback on talks I’ve attended, this is my third note, which is about Stress in Cats. This was given by Amber Batson, a vet and an animal behaviourist, at Priory Vets Reigate (Tel: 01737 242190 and Website www.prioryvets.co.uk). Amber’s presentation was informative and interesting (with photos and video clips); I can only give a flavour of the subject here. If you get an opportunity to attend any of her talks, it is well worth it.

Types of Stress

Stress can be positive or negative, positive could be a reaction to play or hunting, and negative could be in response to fear, frustration or social isolation. Here, we are looking at the effects of negative stress.

Stress can be acute or chronic:

  • acute stress is an immediate reaction which lasts seconds or minutes;
  • chronic stress is a reaction which happens within minutes but can last hours, days or longer.

The side effects of stress can be reduced health because of a weakened immune system, shorter lifespan, decrease in fertility and abnormal behaviour. Reduced health could be recurrent infections, allergies, diarrhoea, constipation, recurrent vomiting or cystitis. Abnormal behaviour could be irritability/aggression, indoor marking of urine and/or faeces, over-grooming or withdrawal. However, any of these symptoms could be due to a medical problem, so veterinary advice should always be sought.

Signs of Stress

Physical signs of acute stress can be shaking/trembling, sweaty paws, raised hackles, dilated pupils, intense staring, staying still (freezing), running away or fighting. Behavioural signs of chronic stress can be irritability/aggression, increased withdrawal from any contact, changed sleep pattern (either increased or decreased sleep – but you as the owner, will know what is a change in your cat), picky eating or bolting food, weight loss/gain, repeated/regular displacement activity (e.g. grooming in odd situations) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) - which could be hair plucking/over-grooming, wool sucking and eating non-food items (Pica).

Again, I must note that some of these signs could be due to a medical problem, so veterinary advice should always be sought.

Causes of Stress

Stress can be caused by a number of factors, including: repeated/ongoing fear, frustration, social isolation, and confinement/lack of stimulation or an unpredictable environment. 

What cats need

As a result of their evolution, cats prefer to be up high (in trees), particularly if frightened or stressed - does your cat have somewhere raised to sit e.g. a shelf, back of sofa, window ledge, tree etc.

Cats are highly territorial and are programmed to carry out daily patrols of their area; if they are prevented from doing this, they may become frustrated which could lead to stress. One example of this would be where a cat stops going out because they are afraid of a new cat in the area.

Cats need to be able to eat, drink, groom and sleep in safety – safety is the priority – without this, they will not be able to carry out these functions. If a cat feels unsafe, they may stop eating or grooming, or they may not be able to sleep enough – this will eventually affect their health.

How to deal with Stress

Initially, and as a temporary measure, identify and remove the cause of stress - then consider your options.If your cat is afraid of going outside because of a neighbouring cat, keep your cat inside for a few days to allow them time to calm down and feel safe. Can you identify when the neighbouring cat visits your area, and then let your cat out at different times? Easier said than done – but could be worth a try.

If you have an intruder cat, can you remove any signs/smells of them such as urine (use biological washing powder followed by surgical spirit) – then install a secure access cat flap (magnetic collar or microchip).

Finally, if you think your cat may be stressed – speak to your vet, and if needed, ask for a referral to cat behaviourist.