Does Stress Affect A Cat?

Knowledgeable cat caretakers will prick up their ears, look bright eyed and bushy tailed and a say, yes, of course stress affects a cat.

On two occasions I have personally seen how stress can affect a cat. However, I have this feeling that not enough focus is placed on minimizing cat stress and its effects on cat health.

Perhaps the average cat caretaker – I am not sure – more or less assumes that if they are looking after their cat well there is no reason why their cat should be stressed.

This is probably true at a basic level but cats have different personalities and are affected by events and circumstances very differently. Also cat’s can’t communicate with us that they are stressed. The first you’ll probably know is when your cat is ill. Stress should be factored into diagnosis and treatments for feline illnesses.

Stressed cat

Stressed cat Baron. Photo by Rocky Mountain Feline Rescue.

The two instances when I have seen stress cause illness in my cats are:

  1. Cystitis brought on by my absence while at work coupled with a dry food diet and
  2. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in the form of overgrooming brought on by the presence of stray cats coming into the home through the cat flap (cat door).

In both instances, removal of the stress factor produced clear benefits. It can take time for the benefits to show. With respect to idiopathic cystitis (cystitis of unknown cause), in a study, stress was found to have an impact on “bladder permeability”.  I am unable to define “bladder permeability” but the point is that bladder function is altered by initial stress.

Cats that have been infected with feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR) caused by the feline herpes virus are usually chronic carriers (long term carriers). During times of stress for whatever reason including emotional stress the immune system breaks down and the virus is shed through secretions from the mouth.

In general, stress lowers a cat’s immunity to disease. The cat is more prone to contract diseases such as feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). Environmental stresses are also a factor in cats being infected by the feline leukemia virus. Environmental stress can take the form of overcrowding and poor sanitation. These are hazards in multi-cat households managed by a person who is not coping well.

The Rocky Mountain Feline Rescue people say the following in relation to one of their cats (Baron) advertised on Flickr

..Because of the stress of living at the shelter, he has chronic eye inflammation…

Stress in people can increase the rate of the spread of cancer. Apparently stress also increases cancer rates in people. It is reasonable to assume that cats can be similarly affected.

It is well known that stress can cause inappropriate urination. Persian cats are quite delicate emotionally, it is said, and have higher incidences of poor litter use.

Feline acne can also be stress-related. Although feline acne can also be due to the sort of feeding bowl being used. Ceramic, glass or metal is best and plastic bowls are the worst.

The important thing about stress is that as it weakens the cat’s immune system the cat is more exposed to infection by all manner of viruses and bacteria. It isn’t just a case of stress causing a certain disease. Stress is a foundation for poorer health.

As mentioned it can be difficult to notice stress in a cat. My personal experiences are good examples of a direct link between stress and illness but often it is much less clear cut.

A concerned cat caretaker should be sensitive to what might be stressful to a cat. I have always felt that a calm, relatively noise free and warm environment that is dominated by routines is a good starting point to minimize stress.

The possibility of generating a stressful environment is heightened in multi-cat households. Cats have adapted to be social animals but they need some personal space and their may be hierarchical problems of a dominant and submissive cat. Submissive cats are likely to feel stressed. Flash points are litter trays and feeding areas.

The bottom-line with regards to cat stress is to ensure that the environment allows the cat to fully express his natural drives and desires.

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Comments

Does Stress Affect A Cat? — 12 Comments

  1. Hi Michael,

    Very comprehensive.

    Stress kills the quality of life. It causes exhaustion and depression. That can lead to hopelessness.

    I agree that a quiet, safe environment with little movement is required to minimize stress in cats.

    This is true even down to the most subtle of things. I’m very careful about how loud and fast I move. I’m careful about sudden movements. I try to keep these things very much under control. Cats need that.

    Skittish cats are especially vulnerable to stress.

    I have a cat right now that has been skittish since I rescued her. She also has some trust issues. For a long time she didn’t like belly rubs or getting picked up to be held.

    She’s slowly getting better at trusting but she still panics easily and runs under the bed. She does let me rub her belly under the right circumstances. She also finally allows me to pick her up but only if it’s for about 10 seconds. She can handle that now without panicking partly because she knows I will put her down within 10 seconds.

    She still jumps at the slightest noise and really reacts to movement. She learns from the other cats though and is getting more trustful and a bit more relaxed.

    Her skittishness is synonymous with stress. She gets tense and jumpy a few times a day though that’s slowly in the decline.

    I’ve seen people break down because they suffered too much stress for too long. They get sick easy and become depressed and hopeless.

    Over time it will completely destroy a person or a cat.

    Stress management is critical for cats and they are even more vulnerable to stress than people.

    Their natural defense instincts make them very sensitive to their environment. That means that they can get stressed out from relatively subtle things.

    They need a calm house to keep stress to a manageable level.

    =^..^= Hairless Cat Girl =^..^=

    • We think exactly the same on cats and on cat stress. This is because we have watched cats for a long time and can tell what a cat likes and what makes a cat nervous. Thank you very much for adding one or two nice points that add to the page.

  2. I totally agree with Michael and Hairless Cat Girl. Funnily enough the timing of this article is very appropriate. Last night my little girl Gigi became stressed for the first time ever. She has always been quite the opposite, not sensitive like Molly and generally outgoing and curious and playful. But my ex has been here for a week now and although I am playing a lot with them because I am not working it is not at regular intervals and each time it is not for as long although it might be more times.

    Slowly but surely Gigi has started to have this look in her face of being a bit confused and sometimes bored and in need of play. I am very sensitive to this and have been trying hard to resolve the issue. But because I am not alone here and we are going out and doing things at very different times I think poor Gigi is a bit worried and not feeling good sometimes.

    Tomorrow evening all will go back to normal and absolute routine and I think this will solve the issue. Last night was new years eve. There were of course fireworks going off, some nearby and quite loud. By this point Gigi was noticeably very unhappy and she crawled into the back of my couch and stayed in there for hours. She was clearly stressed out by the final addition of loud explosions all around. But I think if the week had been normal ’til now it would not have been so bad. But instead she has gone from having her world all mixed up and not knowing when to expect what because I have no normal schedule to that being compounded by something a bit scary when she is already feeling a bit down and weakened.

    To be honest I was probably more worried than her 🙂 I was worried she might be sick and I was just very sad to see her so unhappy that she disappeared into a tiny tiny space and would not respond to me or anything the other 2 were doing for quite a number of hours. I was so relieved to see her playing when I woke up. She is back to herself and I am sure she will be very happy when my ex leaves and things go back to normal with the added plus that I am not working until next week so will be around almost 100% for her whenever she needs me.

    I will feel better too. I feel pretty bad about it. Its just there is no schedule so our activities and play times are not necessarily aligned. There is nothing more worrying than playing with the cats and one of them looks like they have given up and doesn’t want to play when you know she normally would be the most active. Its very worrying for me because I keep them indoors and therefore feel entirely responsible for their happiness. If they are not happy I will have to in all good conscience let them out and accept the risks. I hope its all going to be fine.

    I can clearly see the effects of stress on my most easy going kitten and its pretty devastating and I have no doubt at all that her health could suffer quite easily from this if it went on too long if not just from a lack of healthy and fun activities. They are used to having my attention 100% when I am here and this is the first time they haven’t for longer than just a few days. I will be more careful in future to keep visits shorter for their sake. Like I said I have locked them inside because I am scared of them dying – its quite selfish really, so their quality of life and happiness is totally my responsibility and job to take care of.

    If they are unhappy it makes me very unhappy too so I am not worried I will not notice or be insensitive to their well being. I would say stress is a killer in humans and animals. Its the worst. I can’t stand being told by stressed people that I should be like them and over achieve. Surely if what you are achieving involves large amounts of stress then its not anymore a real achievement but an addiction with unhealthy side effects.

    • Wonderfully full comment and educational. Noise is a major factor to stress. Any change of routine is a big factor too. It is amazing how cats are rooted to routine. In the wild, wild cats must have their favorite paths and areas to search for prey etc. Routine and quiet are probably the big two factors to de-stress a cat.

      Charlie was on my bed last night when the fireworks went off. He was right next to me and I had my hand on him and his whole body shook for the entire time as if he was shivering. People who like fireworks don’t think about how it affects animals and people who don’t like fireworks.

      The truth is humans are the same when it comes to routine and quiet ;). Moving home (a break in routine) and divorce (total break in routine) are the 2 most stressful events for humans. And I hate noise…meow…hiss..

  3. Many cats are stressed because of household noise, some people don’t realise how sensitive their hearing is, a high pitched noise like a knife scraping on a plate which irritates us, must be agony to their ears.
    Most cats like classical music but a high pitched violin can upset them a lot and blaring TVs and stereos make me shudder with pity for their sensitive ears too. I think cats do well to adjust to this noisy world as it is now, as it must be very stressful at times.
    Yet some vets don’t understand cats emotional feelings, for example we always see a lady vet if possible as our cats aren’t used to men around and a man touching them would surely be unbearably stressful on top of the journey there. One (who we won’t be seeing again) just dismissed that, probably thought we were being too fussy.
    Many declawed cats develop stress related illnesses, of course USA vets won’t admit it.
    Marc I think you do right to let your cats have their freedom if they want it, yes accidents can happen and once you’ve had a cat run over you must live in dread of it happening again, but if a cat could choose a fulfilled life with its risks or being shut away safely but frustrated and stressed, I think I know which they would choose.
    Most cats here in the UK go out, ourselves we are lucky to live in a quiet cul de sac but even people living by roads let their cats have some freedom. Accidents can happen indoors too, one of the Cats Protection foster cats hurt her leg so badly she may have to have it amputated, the fosterer is in bits of course but it wasn’t her fault, the cat was running and jumping, obviously wanting to burn off energy in the exciting outdoors but was trapped indoors.
    Sometimes it’s hard to stay calm but we try to ‘think cat’ in all we do in our home.

    • The problem is I live right next to a very busy road which is where I found Red. As long as they seem satisfied I won’t let them out. I will probably build something secure so they can go on my balcony to be outside when I have enough money. And finally I will move out of the town to the fields and forest and live hopefully at the end of my own quiet road. Sometimes I think even that a few years of less than perfect life is worth it if at the end they can get total freedom and safe environment for many years after. It’s hard but my tolerance for them being unhappy is ridiculously low. I can’t let them suffer. I don’t even want to take them to the vet to remove their stitches.

      • I may have to move and live in a flat without a garden attached. I am with Charlie 24/7. That must make it easier on him if he has to be a full-time indoor cat. I hope so. It is not ideal, far from it. I may not have a choice.

        • Michael, I am guessing because in London a garden is not an easy thing to have since real estate there is insanely expensive. I don’t mean to pry, but have you ever thought about getting away a bit. I lived for a couple years in Winchester and London was just under an hour away. I didn’t miss it and really enjoyed the greenery and fresh air without feeling like I was cut off from civilisation. I was quite worried I would feel cut off being from London and having my whole life and friends there but in the end it was totally fine. Very nice actually. If I were to move back to the UK I would probably do the same again – be near London somewhere interesting in of itself and be able to afford a much nicer place and have more of the lovely outdoors – presumebly to the benefit of my cats too.

          • Yes, a house that is half decent where I am (with a garden) cost £600,000 minimum. I fully understand your argument. I am considering exactly what you are saying, in fact. I am not sure at the moment. It is about routine and comfort zone (for me), just like cats 😉 I know London and the area where I live. And I am a member of a club here and have friends here and so on. But….as you say, property is expensive.

            • Michael, I understand that it would have an effect on being at your usual club and thats gotta be a hard choice to make – especially if you have been there for years and know everyone quite well. But personally I feel there is no price you can put on a bit of nature in your own backyard. Mist in the morning and nothing but the sound of birds, along with a lovely outdoor space you can call your own to sit back and enjoy it. Everybody in London has a problem with the idea of moving and I would imagine you have been there for a long time so its not an easy prospect. But let me also tell you over the years I have many friends who have made the leap either to nearby or some to New Zealand and nobody has even a tiny bit of regret about it. You find everything you need where you end up, invariably and London, if you are near, is by no means lost. Consider that you might be a short trip on the train away. You can still be very near.

              But what happens is you end up liking it so much that you are not particularly worried about the ease of getting up there. I guess I am just saying that it’s a pattern that I see in people that I know who have been in your situation. Now everybody is different so I can’t speak for you but what I can say is that I think having a touch of nature in your own home is an extremely valuable thing. The quiet of a winters night with a little fire going and the sound of pheasants outside is actually an incredibly peaceful and freeing sensation which I for one value very highly in this day and age. It’s quite lovely not to have an orange sky at night and, as I remember from many late nights in London, birds tweeting at 4 in the morning because there is so much light they think its day time or something. I really think if you do decide to try it out you will be so very happy you did. It does wonderful things to your thoughts and state of mind and I imagine a person like yourself would really get that alot more than others. I hope you dont mind me being so forward about it but I feel strongly about it actually. London is a huge massive part of me which I of course will never lose, but boy is it nice to be a little closer to nature as well. It affords you a freedom both outside and inside you can’t get any other way – nor from a holiday. I hope you don’t mind my little rant 🙂

              • Great comment …and very nice of you to offer your advice. Thank you very much. I am working out what to do. I am a bit of a tired old geezer these days who lacks the motivation of past years. I find it hard to simply look for a home that is 100 miles from London! That simple fact is a barrier in itself.

    • The best cat caretakers are highly sensitive to a cat’s sensitivities. They empathise with a cat and are aware of a cat’s senses. Some vets aren’t. Many cat owners aren’t. More work needs to be done on educating people about avoiding cat stress.

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