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Worried about your cat’s unusual behaviour? Take a look at our guide on spotting signs of stress in your cat.

Stress in cats

Felines are subtle animals, and it can be tricky to tell if you’ve got a stressed cat in your home. Their behaviour might change slightly, or they might begin to do things that you perceive as ‘being naughty’. In fact, the domestic cat can be great at hiding signs of stress or signs that they’re in pain – it’s in their nature. In the wild, this would help them avoid becoming an easy target for predators

Perhaps your moggy has started scratching the furniture when they didn’t before, or spending all their time hiding in the airing cupboard? If they were a confident cat previously, the likelihood is that something is making them feel stressed.

Like humans, there are many reasons cats get stressed. Stress is an immediate response to a threat that activates the cat’s ‘flight or fight’ response. It is important you spot the signs of stress in cats and try to reduce that stress as much as possible to ensure your cat stays healthy. If your cat is stressed, they can become emotionally and physically unwell, resulting in problem behaviours and a worrying time for both cat and owner.

From an emotional perspective, cats can feel fearful, anxious, frustrated, or even depressed. They can also have an emotional response to pain (eg being in pain is stressful and tiring). Additionally, being bored can cause stress. It’s a common misconception that cats feel jealousy, spite, or want to get revenge. As far as science can tell us, cats don’t feel these things. It’s important to understand your cat’s underlying emotions as this can help you to understand the cause and how to address it.

What are the signs of stress in a cat?

There are numerous cat stress signs to spot – although they’re not always obvious. Signs of stressed cats can include:

  • becoming more withdrawn or hiding more than usual
  • becoming less tolerant of people
  • hesitating or becoming reluctant to use the litter tray, go through the cat flap or sit on your lap
  • eating or drinking less
  • overeating
  • scratching the furniture
  • excessive meowing
  • hissing or growling
  • crouching and looking tense
  • exaggerated swallowing or licking their nose
  • vomiting or diarrhoea

Take a look at our visual guide to find out more about your cat’s facial expressions and how you can tell if they’re stressed.

Enlarge visual guide

How to help a stressed cat

Worried about your cat’s symptoms or change in behaviour? While there are a lot of things you can do at home to calm a stressed cat, planning in a visit to the vet should be top of your list.

If you’ve found a problem with your cat’s physical health, such as weight loss or issues toileting, it is even more important to get them seen quickly.

Your vet may suggest things you can do at home to keep your cat calm, such as altering their environment or changing their routine.

Helping a stressed cat

If you’re concerned about your cat’s behaviour and are struggling to reduce stress, you might be referred to a qualified behaviourist who can identify the underlying cause of the stress and design a tailored behavioural plan for your cat. Make sure the behaviourist belongs to a regulated body like the Animal Behaviour and Training Council. They’ll be able to focus on the issue with your cat’s behaviour and help them (and you) to manage.

One way to help reduce stress is a plug-in pheromone diffuser like Feliway. You simply plug it in the room where your cat spends most of their time (the living room, for example) and it can help them to reduce their anxiety. However, it should be used in combination with medical and behavioural advice as it is one piece of the puzzle to help. It may not be that effective when used as a stand-alone treatment (which is the same for most advice).

What is causing my cat’s stress and how can I manage it?

There are many reasons cats can become stressed. Some cats are more sensitive than others and what affects one may not bother another cat. Circumstances that cause stress might include:

  • cats living with other cats. This is one of the most common reasons that can cause stress in cats. They’re not naturally inclined to live with other cats, so they’ll need careful introductions if they are to get along. Find out more about introducing cats to other cats or if you’ve had your cats for a while, find out our top tips on how to help cats live together happily. If you’re adopting cats, try to pick a sibling pair rather than two unfamiliar cats as they are more likely to get on
  • unfamiliar cats intruding into the home. Perhaps a neighbour’s cat likes to visit your home, or they’re keen to spend time in your garden? If you feel your cat is being ‘bullied’ by another, there are plenty of things you can do to deter them. It’s important to note that cats being ‘bullied’ by cats in the neighbourhood can affect the relationships within the home too
  • not having the right ‘resources’ or placing all your cat’s possessions such as food bowls and beds in the wrong area. For example, if a litter tray isn’t kept clean or food and water bowls are kept in busy areas. You can find out more about setting up your cat’s space in our guide
  • moving home might be a stress to some cats as they like to stay in a familiar environment to feel secure. Prepare for your move in advance and make sure you’ve thought about where your cat will be during the move – whether that’s at a cattery or at a friend or neighbour’s home
  • building works, or even having your house decorated can leave you with a stressed cat. Cats thrive on routine and aren’t keen on excessive noise, so having builders in is likely to make them feel unsettled. Take a look at our tips on keeping a cat calm during construction
  • the arrival of other pets may make a cat feel anxious. While cats and dogs can generally get along, don’t be surprised if your cat is stressed out by a new puppy in the house. A gradual introduction can help with this – you can find out more about introducing a cat to a dog in our guide
  • inappropriate or unsuitable handling. While many cats like to be fussed or stroked, some cats might find it overwhelming and stressful – and while some cats are quick to let you know they’re not happy (by pawing you to stop stroking them or biting you as a warning), other cats may not. Pay attention to your cat’s body language and make sure they always have the option to remove themselves from the interaction – that means never restraining your cat when you’re stroking them and giving them plenty of room
  • a new baby. While cats and babies can get along (with a bit of patience!), a new baby brings with it strange smells and sounds that can be confusing to your cat. There are plenty of things you can do to prepare your cat for your new arrival, such as introducing them to sounds of a baby crying or letting them explore new items like pushchairs and nursery furniture. Find out more in our guide and download our pregnancy planner
  • guests visiting. Whether your friends are staying for the weekend or you’ve got the family over for Christmas, having people over can cause some cats stress. Providing a hiding place where they can escape the chaos, or ideally a quiet room to themselves, will go a long way to reducing their anxiety
  • fireworks season creates a period of unpredictable, scary loud bangs and bright lights which many animals including cats find frightening. Check out our advice to help reduce stress during fireworks season.

Five tips for reducing your cat’s stress

Looking for some quick tips to help your stressed cat? Take a look at our blog for five ways to help them keep calm.

Find out more

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