Cats are especially sensitive to stress. Like people, cats who suffer from persistent stress are vulnerable harmful psychological and physical effects. Recognizing common stress triggers and clinical signs can help you safeguard your cat’s emotional and physical health. Read our Town and Country Animal Hospital team’s guide to feline stress to learn how to recognize and help mitigate your cat’s anxiety. 

Stress and its negative effect on feline health

Stress is a naturally occuring physiological state that, when functioning correctly, protects your cat from harm by activating their fight-or-flight response. After the initial threat subsides, your cat’s physiologic responses return to baseline. During chronic stress, a cat’s sympathetic nervous system is repeatedly stimulated on a lower—but equally harmful—level. Persistent stress-related physical and mental changes can aggravate present health conditions or trigger new ones, including:

  • Feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC)
  • Behavior issues (e.g., house soiling, urine marking, destructive scratching)
  • Personality change (e.g., aggression, anxiety, withdrawal)

Stress causes in cats

Cats naturally prefer order, routine, and familiarity in their surroundings and activities, so any variation from their typical schedule can cause anxiety. Upsetting changes may be internal (e.g., health-related) or external (e.g., a cat outside your window). The most widely known feline stress causes include:

  • Pain
  • Illness
  • Travel  
  • Confinement 
  • Veterinary visits
  • Inappropriate handling or overbearing physical interactions
  • Loss or addition to the family
  • Bullying
  • Boredom
  • Unusual odors
  • Restricted access to or change in location of resources such as food or litter box
  • External stimuli (e.g., observing a perceived threat through a window)
  • Environmental changes (e.g., relocation, new furniture)
  • Unusual activity (e.g., loud or abnormally busy household)

As with stress in our own lives, your cat’s anxiety is unavoidable at times, such as during their routine wellness visits to Town and Country Animal Hospital. To help prevent or minimize stress’s negative effects on your cat, learn how to monitor your feline friend’s behavior, so you can identify and address their anxiety signs.

My cat doesn’t look stressed—7 anxiety signs in cats

Cats are experts at hiding their innermost thoughts and feelings—including chronic stress. Unlike acute (i.e., sudden) anxiety responses, such as fleeing, crouching, or vocalizing, chronic stress is expressed in persistent behavior or personality changes. Keep an eye out for these seven common signs of chronic stress:

  • #1. Appetite change — Your cat’s food bowl can be a powerful stress indicator. When cats are stressed, they may stop eating, eat less, or eat at unusual times. Alternatively, some cats may respond to stress by becoming voracious eaters. Free-fed cats may experience stress-related weight gain.
  • #2. Hiding or increased sleeping — Stressed cats may intentionally withdraw from social interactions. Unfortunately, you may mistake this behavior as your cat’s need for increased rest or incorrectly attribute their reclusion to aging. By retreating to a secure and quiet place, your cat may be avoiding their stressor or attempting to self-soothe. 
  • #3. Excessive grooming — Licking is a natural endorphin-releasing activity that can be a healthy coping mechanism when performed in moderation. However, chronically stressed cats may become compulsive groomers, resulting in patchy hair loss and in severe cases, skin irritation and trauma.  
  • #4. House soiling or changes in litter box routine — Stress is a known contributor to FIC—a painful bladder inflammation that can cause cats to urinate outside the box. Anxious cats may also defecate outside the box or exhibit pica (i.e., coprophagia), a condition in which they eat their own feces or other nonfood materials. 
  • #5. Increased territory marking (e.g, urine spraying, scratching, facial rubbing) — These seemingly unrelated behaviors each involve a cat depositing their scent signature on specific structures throughout the home. Stressed cats generally have an increased desire to claim territory in response to perceived threats. One common example involves a cat spraying or scratching near a window where they observe an outdoor cat. 
  • #6. Reduced playfulness — Stressed cats are often disinterested in activities they previously enjoyed such as interacting with their owner, fellow pets, or toys.
  • #7. Uncharacteristic aggression and hypervigilance — Previously social or friendly cats may display defensive aggression or be overly attentive to changes in their surroundings. To avoid unexpected bites and scratches, owners must be cautious around aggressive or wary cats. Until your cat’s anxiety is resolved, limit their contact with children and other pets. 

How to help your stressed cat

Cats’ stress can have many underlying causes, many of which are serious. If your cat is displaying stress-related behavior, schedule an appointment with our Town and Country Animal Hospital veterinary team who will ask you key questions about your cat’s recent behavior, routine, home environment, and physical signs. We will also perform a nose-to-tail examination to look for physical stress causes. We may recommend testing, such as blood work and a urinalysis, to accurately diagnose your cat’s potential hidden disease. Only after medical causes have been ruled out will our Town and Country Animal Hospital veterinarian recommend stress-reducing strategies.

Strategies for preventing or reducing feline stress

Confident and low-stress cats typically enjoy a predictable, stimulating, and low-stress home life. To create a calm environment for your cat, follow these tips:

  • Provide positive early life socialization
  • Ensure their resources are easily accessible 
  • Keep a consistent daily routine
  • Gradually introduce unavoidable change
  • Learn how to provide positive interactions
  • Create an enriching environment 

If your cat is experiencing behavior or personality changes, don’t wait to schedule their veterinary examination. Unchecked feline stress only leads to more stress. Get to the root of your cat’s problem by scheduling an appointment with our Town and Country Animal Hospital team.