What stresses cats

Stressed cat
Stressed cat. A funny picture but this is a serious and important subject
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

This is a list of the things that can stress a cat (can you add to it?). I like it because rather than delving too deeply into the reasons why certain things stress cats, I present a list as the main focus. However, you’ll see that a main reason for cat stress is change of any sort. Stress affects health so, for example, stressful events or emotional upsets can activate dormant hookworm larvae in the cat’s tissues leading to the appearance of eggs in the stool. One sign of stress is rapid breathing. Another is overgrooming (see also signs of stress) or cystitis (FLUTD) or spraying urine (for self-reassurance due to anxiety) or hiding (a coping strategy). A cat with heart failure should avoid stress as much as possible.

“Keeping cats in socially incompatible groups can be very stressful” (S.E. Heath – Behavior Problems and Welfare – The Welfare of Cats)

Stress can increase the likelihood of an individual developing signs of an infectious disease…(K. Sturgess – Disease and Welfare – as above)

Individual cats vary a lot in their response to stress. The differences are along the lines of timid to confident personalities. Confident cats may approach novel situations whereas timid cats withdraw. The degree of socialisation of a cat has a bearing on his stress levels. Play behavior is inhibited by chronic stress. Absence of play may indicate the presence of stress. There is such a thing as the Cat-Stress-Score (CSS).


  • A visit to the vet or being hospitalized at the veterinary clinic. This is always apparent in behavior.
  • Being ill
  • Physical trauma (i.e. being injured in anyway).
  • Parasites
  • Flea treatments
  • De-clawing. A cat can be stressed for a long time after declaw surgery because she might be in pain for a lot longer than the owner is aware of. Pain obviously stresses a cat.
  • Chronic or acute pain
  • Surgery
  • New medication (physiological effects)
  • Vision & hearing loss. Also geriatric cats can become confused through dementia and the confusion can stress a cat.
  • De-worming. Deworming medications are poisons. They are more poisonous to the parasite than the host. Kittens should only be dewormed once stressful conditions have been removed. Stressful conditions refers to e.g. sudden change in diet, close confinement, chilling and overfeeding.
  • Wearing an E-collar (the “cone”) after treatment.
  • Going into heat (estrus, oestrus)
  • Pregnancy
  • Lactating
  • Being medicated (aversion to being given pills and medication)
  • Having a bath. Cat owners should only bathe their cat for specific medical reasons.
  • Having a haircut – lion cuts are quite common. I don’t think every cat becomes stressed by a haircut but it is unnatural and unnaturalness is liable to be stressful.


  • Change in type of food. This should be done slowly and with patience.
  • Limiting the amount of food causing weight loss  – diet perhaps.
  • Nutritional deficiencies or a diet that is unbalanced.
  • Thirst or hunger.
  • Not enough food and drinking bowls in multicat households (competition for food). Each cat should have their own bowls to avoid dominance/subservient antagonism.

Litter boxes/trays

  • Not enough litter boxes (competition for toileting locations). This applies to multicat households where some cats will be more timid than others and have to wait inline.
  • Dirty litter box. Litter should be cleaned up at least once daily.
  • A change in type of litter. This might not alway cause stress because a cat might prefer the new litter but change is liable to cause some stress.
  • A change in the type of litter box i.e. open to covered.
  • A change in the location of the litter box. They should be moved incrementally and well-sited (not near food for example).


  • Relocating to a new home. This is stressful for everyone including a cat. Cats are territorial as we are all aware. It is highly confusing and fear inducing to move for a cat.
  • Renovating the home, including decorating the home means changing things and change means stress for a while. Even small changes can take some adjusting to.
  • Loud noises like thunderstorms, fireworks, construction, dogs barking. Cats are particularly sensitive to noises. Some cats are not bothered by noises made by fireworks. This is probably because they become accustomed to it.
  • Strong smells.
  • Starting to wear a collar or harness.
  • Being adopted. This equates to a big, multi-change in the cat’s life and change is stressful.
  • Living in a shelter is full of stressful circumstances such as strange people, strange noises, change, confinement, poor environment etc..
  • Travelling is a well known cause of stress. Some cats are better than others.
  • Being in a boarding cattery. Once again the stress is caused by a dramatic change and strange stimuli.
  • Getting lost
  • Change in daily routine
  • Limiting access to rooms in the house. This depends on the size of the house and whether the cat has access to the outside.
  • Confinement to a single room or crates and carriers.
  • House too cold or too hot.
  • Loud music or television.
  • Surprises and “booby traps”. This might be some sort of punishment. Spraying water as a form of punishment is non-productive, does not work and alienates the cat.
  • Scary cat toys. It is hard to fathom but manufacturers do sometimes make toys which are overly fancy and which are frightening. The best toys are the simplest.
  • Earthquakes. There is evidence that cats can sense earthquakes. Perhaps they sense danger when they sense an earthquake.
  • Extreme weather conditions.
  • A lack of physical activity.
  • Sudden change in levels of physical activity.
  • Boredom and lack of stimuli.
  • Not enough options to climb. Cats like vertical movement. This is inherited from the wild ancestor who likes climbing trees. Vertical spaces are important.
  • Lack of places to hide.
  • Harassment and/or attacks by a dog or another pet.
  • New cat joins the home. This can go wrong when cats don’t ever get on. There may be a perpetual state of underlying stress.
  • Being at a cat show because they are rather noisy and frightening places!

Relationship with People

  • New baby in the house. The initial interruption to a cat’s routine can lead to a nice friendship between cat and baby. There is quite a lot written about cats and babies.
  • A death in the family
  • House guests
  • New roomates or roomates leaving
  • Owner starting a new job and staying away from home for long hours.
  • New spouse/partner
  • Member of the family leaving the home (going to college etc.)
  • Physical abuse by children or adults. This is creating the wrong environment for a cat which can lead to cat abandonment for behavioral problems.
  • Yelling at your cat
  • Punishing your cat
  • Aggressive play with a person
  • The presence of stressed caretaker/guardian
  • Training of any kind if done inappropriately
  • Excessive petting, attention or handling
  • Ignoring your cat

Relationship with other Cats

  • Introduction to new cat (especially when not done in the correct way)
  • General rivalry with other cats in same household in part due to an insufficient number of feeding stations, toilets and sleeping locations causing harassment and attacks by another cat or cats
  • Sounds of cat fighting and/or howling. A cat might show concern.
  • Stranger cats showing up near or inside the house.
  • Smell of another cat’s urine marking. This may also be seen as interesting rather than stressful.


  • My thanks to Sandy for finding this.
  • Major source: www.CatSite.com
  • Other sources: The Welfare of Cats ISBN 978-1-4020-6143-1
  • Cat Owners Home Veterinary Handbook 3rd Ed. ISBN 978-0-470-09530-0
Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

7 thoughts on “What stresses cats”

  1. Ruth (Monty's Mom)

    My in laws visiting is the single most stressful event in Monty’s life. He hates them. I don’t know why. He has accepted our friend Melanieas one of his people now and she comes around less than Jeff’s parents. The past two times when they came over Monty was happily playing outside. He asked to come in, saw them, and literally threatened to run away from home like a sulking teenager.

    He did run away. To the old metal shed in the back corner of the yard. It’s been home to possums and raccoons on occasion but is empty now. I found Monty huddled inside it. He looked miserable and would not let me pick him up. I called my husband out. Monty listens to him. He dutifully left the confines of the shed, but then went behind it. As I approached him he howled mournfully as he crouched on the ground. Attempting to pick him up resulted in hissing and snarling. Jeff told him to “get in his house” so he began walking toward the house. However, the moment he saw I was following him he crouched again and made yowling sounds. Jeff just picked him up and took him in. Monty was definitely putting on a show for my benefit. He was saying: “Thanks to you letting those horrible people in I now have to live outside like a wild kitty even though I’m very cold and sad.”

    He pulled the same stunt last weekend. He’d been on the porch rail sunning himself and asked to come in as it was cold outside. The moment he saw THEM he took off down the porch steps and through the deep snow. He hates deep snow and this was up to his belly with a thin ice crust on top that a lesser cat might not have broken through, but Monty likes his vittles. Every step dropped his paws deep into the cold snow. I took off after him, getting snow in my shoes with every step. He was sitting by the back fence and hissed, snarled and showed me his claws as I approached. His fur was all on end, probably both from cold and fear. I did manage to pick him up and bring him in, because he was so cold. His little body shivered against mine as I carried him in. He would snuggle against me for warmth and then remember he was mad at me and growl. Once inside he hissed at Jeff’s parents and then hid under our bed. He would snuggle with me under the covers in bed.

    I think he is deathly afraid of Jeff’s parents. To them it looks like aggression, but when he is alone with me in another room I see a very scared kitty. We have no idea why. They have never done anything to him. The only thing we can figure out is Jeff’s mom is a bit hard of hearing and sometimes her voice is louder than she realizes, probably because she can’t hear herself. We think maybe her voice scares him. Once I was talking on the phone with her and Monty heard her voice through the phone and started growling.

    1. Gabriel is terrified of all people except me who is loves and can’t do without 😉 . But seriously, a cat’s natural instinct is to be very cautious, at least, around strange people. Bolder more experienced cats are more forward but the default behavior is to run or hide. That says something about the human’s relationship with the domestic cat.

      1. Ruth (Monty's Mom)

        Monty, like Gabriel, was feral during that early time of life so critical for socializing kittens. Monty does well with quite a few people now. I have had several friends for whom he came out and sat calmly looking at them as if to say hello. The number of people he accepts is growing daily, but even as it does he gets more insistent on his refusal to accept Jeff’s parents.

        1. You are spot on Ruth. Both Monty and Gabriel were feral or semi-feral and therefore lack complete socialisation making them more wary of strangers. I guess he is gradually being socialised in his adulthood.

  2. Wow that is an extensive list, but all of them are true.

    Sophie was a wreck after spending a week at a boarding cattery 🙁 She was hyperventilating the entire journey home, took hours to calm down and never left my side for days. I’d never previously had any problems getting her in her carrier for a trip to the vets, but after that stay at the cattery, she put up a fight every time. I feel guilty when I think of how stressful the experience must have been for her, that she remembered it whenever she saw the carrier.

    Charley started over-grooming his belly and I believe that was because he felt intimidated by Sophie. There was never any fighting, but she would often hiss at him or try to deny him access to certain rooms in the home. Since her death, I’ve noticed the fur on his belly is growing back. Much as I still miss her, I can appreciate that he doesn’t feel the same.

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