Stress can feel oppressive, sometimes causing relentlessly overwhelming anxiety. Unfortunately, our feline friends are susceptible to a similar emotional burden. Despite their outwardly calm and aloof demeanor, your cat—who appears blissfully unaffected by world events and practical problems—is extremely sensitive to stress. Read our Columbia Pike Animal Hospital team’s guide to feline anxiety. 

What causes stress in cats?

Cats prefer a predictable and stable environment and are generally uncomfortable with abrupt changes in their routines or surroundings. As a predator and prey species, cats are constantly attuned to potential dangers, and may mistake benign changes as threats to their safety. Common feline stressors include:

  • Moving or rehoming
  • Being confined to a room or carrier
  • Having their resources (e.g., litter box, food and water bowls) relocated 
  • Traveling
  • Visiting their veterinarian or groomer
  • Bullying by another pet
  • Observing inaccessible stimuli (e.g., a cat outside a window)
  • Being handled or manipulated excessively
  • Changing household dynamics (e.g., new or absent person or pet)

Cats also possess fine-tuned senses that harsh stimuli easily disturb. This sensitivity is clearly demonstrated during stress-inducing situations you may introduce, such as:

  • Switching to litter that is scented or has a different texture
  • Using acrid cleaning products
  • Creating loud or sudden noises
  • Providing a high-sided dish that irritates their whiskers

Stress and health—a vicious cycle in cats

Hidden illness and pain are among the most common causes for chronic (i.e., ongoing) feline stress. Sadly, until the underlying health problem is diagnosed and treated, a cat’s stress will intensify and ultimately worsen their present health issues or contribute to new ones. These stress responses may include anxiety-related urinary issues (e.g., feline idiopathic cystitis [FIC]) or significant behavior changes such as unexplained aggression or wanting to be alone. 

Determining the root cause of your cat’s stress is essential for restoring their inner peace and preventing further health problems. Before attributing your cat’s stress to any particular action or household change, make an appointment with our Columbia Pike Animal Hospital team for your feline friend’s veterinary examination.

7 feline stress signs 

Short-term (i.e., acute) stress in cats is easy to recognize and usually occurs in response to a specific event such as an approaching stranger or a sudden noise. Acutely stressed cats may flee, cower, or attempt to scare off the perceived threat. Unfortunately, chronic feline stress can be more difficult to identify and tends to affect a cat’s overall behavior. If your cat is experiencing chronic anxiety, they may show one or more of these seven common stress signs: 

  • #1. Personality changes — Stress can make cats irritable or frightened, especially if underlying illness and pain are involved. Previously social and friendly cats may hide or intentionally avoid physical interactions, while active and playful cats may become withdrawn and no longer engage with their favorite toys or playmates.
  • #2. Unusual litter box behavior — Stressed cats may eliminate outside the litter box in an attempt to avoid negative experiences (e.g., pain or discomfort during urination or while stepping into a high-sided box if they have an injury or achy joints). Cats may also urinate or defecate outside the box if they feel threatened by other pets or activities in the home, or if they cannot easily locate or reach the box because of a physical condition such as arthritis.
  • #3. Increased or decreased appetite — Stressed cats may eat more or steal food from other cats. Alternatively, some cats will lose their appetite or display finicky behavior about previously favored treats or food. 
  • #4. Territory marking — Cats mark their territory by depositing scent through urine marking, scratching, or facial rubbing. Stressed cats may mark thresholds, such as windows or door frames, if the threat is outside the home, or if they feel stressed by unfamiliar interior items (e.g., new furniture or a visitor’s belongings). 
  • #5. Aggressive behavior — Stress is a confusing emotion for cats and may cause them to be hypervigilant about their surroundings. These cats may overreact to perceived threats and defend themselves by biting or scratching. Stressed cats may also communicate their frustration through redirected aggression, a behavior that occurs when pets target something—or someone—unrelated to the threat (e.g., attacking a fellow house cat after a loud thunder clap). 
  • #6. Excessive grooming Grooming is a naturally soothing activity for cats, which may be why stressed cats frequently over-groom to the point of hair loss and self-trauma. Many owners observe hair loss as the first sign of their cat’s hidden suffering.
  • #7. Attention-seeking behavior — While stress causes some cats to retreat into hiding, others seek comfort with their owner through increased attention-seeking behaviors. These cats may appear overly affectionate, pushy, or clingy in their attempts to find relief and reassurance. 

How to help your stressed cat

A cat’s chronic stress won’t go away on its own—the anxiety’s underlying cause must be determined and addressed. If your cat is experiencing unusual personality or behavior changes, schedule an examination with our Columbia Pike Animal Hospital team. If a medical cause is discovered, our veterinarian can design a treatment plan to address your cat’s physical signs, which may effectively resolve the coinciding stress. If no medical cause can be detected, our team will take a closer look at your cat’s behavior history, home environment, and daily routine to determine an external cause.

Don’t allow chronic stress to compromise your cat’s health. Schedule an appointment with our Columbia Pike Animal Hospital team, and let us help your cat find relief.