Signs Of A Stressed Cat

How can you tell if your cat is stressed? This page provides some answers. It can be a tricky problem because cats tend to hide their emotions. They are essentially solitary creatures and have not developed a form of communication that indicates stress (although the domestic cat has adapted to communal living). Also it is sensible for a cat to not show stress from the standpoint of survival.

Stressed Cat? Maybe
Stressed Cat? Maybe
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Stress can compromise the cat’s immune system which might lead to more frequent illness. Picking up bugs is easier. A classic illness that is said to be caused by stress is cystitis (bacterial infection in bladder). The signs are small, bloody drops of urine dotted around the home. The cat has a strong, uncontrollable urge to have a pee.

Something as simple as being left in an apartment all day while the person goes to work can cause enough stress to result in cystitis. Although the reason why a cat is stressed probably won’t be obvious. Assume changes in the environment will or might cause stress. Even changing the carpet can!

Another classic illness or medical condition that can be caused by stress is overgrooming or psychogenic alopecia as a result of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). If your cat is overgrooming ask whether he is stressed. Then I guess you have to ask why he is stressed. That can be another tricky one too. Another version of overgrooming is overeating causing obesity. Is the high level of obesity in cats in the USA partly caused by the high level of indoor cats in the USA? No idea. Just asking. Eating and grooming makes a cat feel better which counteracts the feeling of being stressed. They are coping mechanisms.

Other signs of a stressed cat are:

Hiding – A cat hides for protection and to feel safe. A person should leave places in the home where a cat can hide as it will obviously reduce the stress. The sort of classic stressful environment for a cat is living in someone’s garage or basement without any cat furniture. I have read about this sort of thing on several occasions on the internet. Even wild cats can be kept in basements. You don’t have to look for signs of stress or ask the question; your cat is bound to be stressed under these horrible conditions. A home should be cat friendly as well as suitable for the person who lives there.

Static but Alert – Cats that are static for long periods but not really resting or asleep may be stressed. I think this is a cat being in defensive mode and ready to take action but fearful to explore and move around normally.

Bengal in a high perch position. Stressed cat? No
Bengal in a high perch position. Stressed cat? No. The cat is SunDog a truly special Bengal cat.

Retreat to High Positions – Cats remaining in high perches may be stressed. These sorts of places are good defensive positions against other animals that might harm a cat. This sort of sign of cat stress indicates to me that the stress is caused by another cat, possibly in the household. Or even a person living in the same place.

This would be a multi-cat household where the owner has introduced cats which don’t get along with existing cats. However this is not always a sign of a stressed cat as cats just like it. Perhaps it is a question of how much they do it? Bengal cats do it for fun (see SunDog).

Unprovoked aggression – a stressed cat – stressed because of another cat  – might show aggression towards the cat’s owner. A sort of transferred or redirected aggression. Humans do this sort of thing too.

Urine Spraying or Increased Scratching – this is a way a cat reinforces the feel good factor in his own environment. It is scent marking and also tells other cats of his presence. It is reassuring for a cat. Cat scratching posts will help as well as isolating the cause of the stress and removing it.

Signs of stressed cat sleeping in her litter tray
Signs of stressed cat sleeping in her litter tray

Resting or Sleeping is his litter tray – cats will go to areas where they feel safer and more comfortable. Places that smell of themselves are those places. Litter trays smell very strongly of themselves. This is stress caused by the presence of another cat usually. I know about this one because I have seen show cats in their cages in show halls curled up in their little litter trays (see picture above – the cat is a British Shorthair silver tabby in the UK) and/or under a blanket put there by the breeder to hide under.

Things to do to reduce stress:

  • Be around
  • Be nice to your cat – play etc. Relate to your cat.
  • Make sure the home is cat friendly – hiding places, scratching posts
  • Don’t introduce new cats willy-nilly into the house
  • Don’t introduce people into the house without checking with your cat first!
  • Check for things happening outside that might cause stress  – noise and other cats
  • Are there enough food bowls and litter trays in multicat households?
  • Use the synthetic feline facial pheromone (Feliway) to help make a cat feel more secure. The cat produces this scent from glands in his cheeks.

There are other things but the underlying objective is to create an environment that is suitable in every way for a domestic cat.

14 thoughts on “Signs Of A Stressed Cat”

  1. Before we moved here we visited this neighbourhood a few times daily for a week, at different times of the day and night, it’s a wonder we didn’t get arrested for loitering lol
    When we decided it was cat friendly and the garden fence would keep them securely in our own garden until they settled in, we then knocked at the door of the house joined to this one to make sure they liked cats, they did, they had one too!
    We already knew the people the other side of us and that they were animal lovers.
    We’d not have moved here if it hadn’t been safe for our cats. We are very lucky as behind our houses we have an embankment with trees etc where our boyz can go a’hunting, so they don’t go far from home.
    I hope we never have to move again as we’d be lucky to find somewhere as ideal as this for cats.

  2. Monty has an enclosed garden with high walls, plus I supervise him pretty carefully. If it isn’t bee and baby bird season he can be out without me for short periods. Also in winter the leaves are gone so I can see him better from the back door. In winter he tends to hang out by the fence in the sun, so I can watch him from inside with no difficulty. In winter I was often sitting by the back glass patio door and practicing my guitar while keeping an eye on Monty. He could climb the wall, but he never has. Our back yard or garden– in UK terms we have both– is his territory. He stays in there, but he definitely marks and defends it against other critters. It’s important for him to get out there every day and make the rounds. He has a pattern he follows and gets very upset if you bring him in before he’s checked out his whole territory. I’d never move because i couldn’t take Monty from his world. But we already decided never to move again, because moving is the closest thing to hell a living being can experience on this earth. I have a pastor friend who claims hell is the check out line at the supermarket, but I think it’s got to be the whole experience of packing and moving.
    You could give your cats outside time, Marc, if it is supervised outside time. But it’s true that the days of just letting a cat roam are probably gone unless you live on a farm. There is too much danger from traffic and nasty neighbors in most places today.

    • I think moving just beats check out as hell on earth! Check out is pretty bad though. And for a cat, moving is about as bad because they love their routines. I may have to move though! Arghhhh.

      • He was referring to check out at 10 p.m. People always have their kids out at that hour with them while they are doing their shopping, and the kids are tired out of their minds, so there’s lots of screaming and crying. If you add his caveat of “check out line at 10 p.m.” it’s a pretty close call.

  3. It’s amazing what an extra half hour or extra regular moments of undivided attention can do to make your cat feel good. What’s the point of having a cat otherwise anyway. You must give your cat attention and he/she will know if you enjoy it or not too. One would hope that people like to play a bit or spend some quality time with their cat everyday. I do, and sometimes there are days when I feel less inclined to but I do anyway. We have a habit going. They are young so they need alot of playtime so we have 3 playtimes in a day. Each lasting about 45mins. We have other time spent together not playing too. I was away for 4 days and had somebody stay over and although she is nice to them and gives them attention, one of them peed on my bed right in front of me when I got home. I guess she was annoyed with me 🙂 – they need their playtime and they anticipate it. Cat’s, especially indoor only cats, need human attention to avoid becoming stressed and unwell. If they can go outdoors whenever they want, then they almost dont need it, depending exactly where you live. But even so, I have found they come running and want to play or spend time with you regardless that they have access to the whole world outside. More so in winter when it’s cold out. But a cat who is free to go out will generally be healthy in mind and body whether you are there or not in my experience. But I have been very close with my cat even though she enjoyed her world outside alot too. The stress often comes from being stuck inside. Thats when its down to the caretaker to do a good job of keep the cat happy. If you dont want to let your cat out because you are scared for it’s life, then you must take responsibility for its quality of indoor life since it did not choose to live in an artificially safe environment to begin with. It’s our own fears that can ultimately lead to a stressed out and unwell cat. I would personally rather my cat live a shorter but happy life. I have 3 indoor cats right now, and we are happy. But I am ready to let them out if I have to. It’s something I am having trouble coming to terms with after the loss of one to the outdoors. The stress and over grooming and health problems associated with general unhappiness come mostly from being locked up inside. All my outdoor cats have been happy and relaxed without much help from me.

    • Marc, you are the best cat daddy ever! I wish I could say I give Monty that much playtime. I do feel outside time can take the place of some inside playtime, but it’s not really a substitute for attention from me. Sometimes we do play together outside, though.

      Monty sits at alert attention like that for hours. He does not sleep much. Is that stress, or is he just like that? If I’m gone a lot he has a stuffed dog that is almost like a companion to him. I’ll find it in all parts of the house. Once in awhile I’ll catch him biting its neck and prancing over it like he’s asserting dominance over another cat. But he interacts with it much more when I’m not there, so I do think it helps him to feel less lonely. Today I got home and found it on the bathroom floor, so he took it in there with him, because it was nowhere to be found when I left for work.

      Monty hides under our bed during thunderstorms. He gets quite upset, even by rain hitting the windows, and hides. Sometimes he’ll run into the basement if he’s frightened by the weather. Otherwise, he seems a pretty confident cat and comes out to tell visitors exactly what he thinks about them, and it’s not always positive.

      • I like the sound of Monty. He sounds like a well adjusted cat. I think its good he tells visitors what he thinks of them 🙂

        I am sure trying my best with my cats. One is older, the black cat, Lilly. The other two are younger, still kittens really. I will take them for their spay surgery very soon. One is 6 months and the other is 5 months old. Thats why we have so much playtime, which lilly likes too because she grew up with alot of playtime. I might well not be able to move soon enough to save them from having difficulties with being locked inside. No matter that I play alot with them I do have a day job and I know the day is coming where I will have to give them outside time. I hate the risk. Lilly was out before until Red died in June and then I closed her in. The kittens were in anyway. I can’t wait for the day that I live someshere safer. The criteria I will choose the place I move to will be almost entirely based on whether or not its a safe area for my cats. I anyway like some nature around me and no busy roads, or many roads for that matter so if the cats like it I probably will too. I will be very happy when they can safely have their freedom.

        • Your comment reminds me of my predicament. If and when I move, the most important factor will be whether it suits my cat Charlie! To a lot of people that sounds mad. It sounds mad to me sometimes. Living in London I have to buy an enclosed garden flat to suit Charlie. That is a fairly tough criteria and it puts the price up quite a lot (the price of a hotel in the country!). In fact it makes the whole thing almost impossible. I think the ideal home for a cat is one where there is a nice sized garden that is completely enclosed – a walled garden. South facing. The wall would have to be high though. Or an almighty sized cat enclosure/conservatory. Just dreaming. There are two parties to a cat that is stressed. The stressed cat and the stressed person looking after the stressed cat 🙂

          • I used to live in london, and I think if you want to stay there then you are absolutely right. The only solution is an enclosed garden. It’s not that there’s a lack of suitable places for it, it’s that the price gets absurdly high. Of course that depends where you want to be. Personally I prefer south west. I lived in west london, close the Shepherds Bush and Hammersmith. Its too expensive there now. I think further south west is nicer, more trees and lower buildings, so more sky. Richmond or further. I had a friend in near Southfields tube. Lots of houses around there. 2 floors and joined or semi attached with little square gardens. You could do a bit of work and enclose the garden safely. Plus you wouldnt have a tall house behind you overlooking your garden and taking all the light away. And anyway, it’s still going to take you an hour to go wherever your going in London, lets face it! But I will say that 15 years ago the tube and buses were intolerable. I remember arriving on the platform and reading 21mins wait til my next train. Buses too. Long waits. Its WAY better now 🙂 I dont think its crazy if seing your cat happy and satisfied gives you great joy. Then you need it just as much as your cat. Hence the other way round being as you said – stressed cat, stressed human.

          • Choosing a property to suit Charlie isn’t mad at all. Better make sure it’s good for you too because cats do puck-up stress from humans. So, stressed cat owners can add guilt to the stress! Oh dear.

  4. Another great article Michael.You have a deep understanding of cats.
    One of the horrible consequences of declawing which declaw vets won’t admit is true is stress related illness. It stands to reason a cat must be stressed to wake up and find his claws are gone, I don’t believe they can ever recover from that.
    Some people don’t believe cats feel stress yet their brains are very similiar to ours, so why not? They can’t cry or talk to a counsellor like we can and many people don’t even notice that their cat is doing those things you listed above because he is stressed.
    I hope your articles are read by many and that more cats will be understood better because of your wisdom.

    • A good point, Ruth. Yes, declawed cats are likely to be more stressed. Even just the loss of claws could make a cat more stressed as her defenses are reduced. Then in stressful situations the lack of claws might exacerbate any stresses already felt.


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