Cats: Noise Stress

In writing about how noise can stress captive wild cats we can gain an insight into how noise can affect domestic cats.

Captive wild cats don’t do well in captivity. This is evidenced, in part, in their inability to breed, which leads to management problems and ultimately inbreeding. Some experts predict the gradual extinguishment of all captive wild cats.

Wild cats in cages have to put up with “provocative sights, unpredictable sounds, and unfamiliar smells”1.  The biggest problem and stressor for a captive cat is strange, unpredictable things happening coupled with the inability to do anything about it because they are in a confined area. This is a classic stress situation.

I am reminded of factory workers who have to do repetitive tasks all day. They have to work in an environment that is stressful because they have no control over it.

Cats and noise stress

Photo of captive tiger by Candie_N (Will organize photostream eventually). Photo of tiger in reserve by Koshyk.

One of the worst stressors is noise (“acoustic stressors”). We are told¹ that there has been little research on how noise affects captive cats, which prompts me, as an animal lover, to ask, “why?”. Regrettably, I have to conclude that not enough respect has been given to the captive wild cat. Actually, we can extend that to all wild cats. I am sorry if that sounds annoying to some people. The gradual and consistent decline across the board of wild cat populations indicates that at heart we don’t care enough about them. Or at least not enough people care who have the authority and means to change things.

Because we don’t know how significant acoustic stressors are to wild cat welfare in zoos we can’t assess it that well and then take proper action to alleviate it. One blanket way of reducing stress in a wild cat is to tame the cat. That sounds a bit crude to me but I see the argument. Taming a wild cat is considered by some to be a “useful husbandry management technique”. A tame wild cat is better able to deal with human activities including sounds. That is, they will have reduced “severe stress reactions” to events in their artificial environment.

Zoos are environments where lots of human generated sounds and noises are produced. These are called “anthropogenic noises” – human generated sounds that affect nature. The sounds range from visitor conversations, air-conditioning, to cleaning equipment and audio systems. These sounds are magnified by the hard, easy to clean surfaces found in zoos. Noise levels can reach 90 decibels we are told¹.

A lot of these sounds can alarm a captive cat and make them more vigilant. The impact of acoustic stressors in zoos on a cat can be profound enough to cause the cat to be active nocturnally when it is quieter. It seems that smaller wild cats, who are naturally more wary as they are preyed upon, are more susceptible to reactive, distress response, behavior caused by unpredictable noise.

Prolonged exposure of wild cats to intense noise results in high blood pressure, increased metabolism, production of adrenaline, all of which can compromise the immune system making cats more susceptible to disease.

Lastly, the larger cats can detect infrasound – low frequency sound below 20 Hz. These sounds can be produced by engines. People don’t know how these sounds affect captive cats.


  1. Stressors for Captive Exotic Felines by Chris T Tromborg PhD.
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Cats: Noise Stress — 7 Comments

  1. It is possible that humans have not considered the affect of noise stress on captive animals is because they simply have not thought about it. They perhaps assume that because the animal is strong and fierce it can just shrug off all kinds of discomfort and abuse. A closer study will reveal that they are in fact extremely sensitive to sound, sight, small, and their environment. High sensitivity is a key survival skill.

  2. Yes absolutely right, it must stress captive big cats a lot and I think noise is part of what causes stress to pet cats going to the vets surgery, the noise from the car engine, slamming doors, the noise from other animals and from people at the vets. It must sound such a loud cacaphony to a cat trapped in a cat carrier with no escape as their ears are so sensitive.

  3. I get stressed out when surrounded by lots of sound and activity – it makes we very uncomforable. If I am standing in a huge crowd of people slowly trying to get through it and a dog suddenly starts barking right next to me – it’s the sort of situation that makes me really not good. Thats something I can’t stand about christmas time and shopping and all the thousands of people wandering around – consumerism at it’s all time highest every year apparently.

    I think being a tiger in a zoo might be 10 times worse then being a prisoner on death row in a high security prison. At least the prisoner has contact with other people and understands his situation – the tiger not so. Especially some of those zoos in asia where there are next to no standards on quality of life for the captured animals. I would think it’s worse than being alive to be stuck in a tiny space being looked at by stupid human beings – I would never subject a child to the horrors of a zoo. There may be zoos that are better, but no zoo can really be good can it. Perhaps some kind of wildlife park is the best solution, and one where people are restricted to driving through or something like that. No animal or human – no living thing – should be subject to the consuming eyes of thousands of people everyday. This would break any creatures spirit. If it were me, I’d say shoot me now.

    Berne is famous for it’s bears which are kept in this rather large ‘pit’. They recently gave them more space along the side of the river. What is it with people. Those poor animals probably feel like mars bars sitting there being photographed by gorpy tourists. In this day and age there must be more people who don’t like this sort of thing. But in the western world, as long as there is street culture, these things will take forever to change. Otherwise I would say the rest of western society is improving a bit – I know alot of people who feel the same way about zoo animals and circus animals and marineland.
    A zoo is a very sad place. I can’t believe parent still want to take their kids to marineland like its some kind of normal form of entertainment. It’s completely f****d up and wrong in my opinion. Furthermore zoos give people the wrong idea about animals since the animals have no oportunity to really be themselves one would have to assume. It’s known that many animals become depressed in captivity. Why on earth is it still now, in the 21st century, normal to take kids to the zoo or to marine land (at least the circus is being given a bit of a miss) – it brings up kids either with nightmares or totally warped values. They just grow up thinking ‘yay, the zoo is so great’ because they were ‘entertained’ by it because their stooopid parents took them there and showed them a bunch of depressed animals in pits and glass boxes and cages.

    Once again I apologize for again being so anti the mechanics of the culture/nature debacle. I am a grumpy guy 🙂

  4. Marc the more of your comments I read the more I like you!
    You are not a grumpy guy, you are a caring thoughtful guy, just like Michael here on PoC, keep up the good work your deep and meaningful comments might hit home one day and make some ignorant people stop and think!

  5. Wonder if the Feliway Diffuser or spray would work as it seems to work for the house cat. Its synthetic copy of the feline facial pheromone, used by cats to mark their territory as safe and secure.

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