Identifying and addressing the signs of stress
Stress has been identified as a significant component of (or trigger for) most common cat behaviour problems and some common diseases.
Cats do not show their emotions as overtly as some other species and tend to withdraw and become quiet rather than 'act out' their anxieties. It therefore becomes necessary for owners to appreciate the subtle signs of stress in their own cats in order to provide the best possible care.
Is all stress bad?
Several physiological systems within the cat’s body regulate stress, predominantly the HPA axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) and the sympathetic nervous system, both of which have evolved to deal with the 'normal' short-term stress associated with the natural lifestyle of the species. These systems control the release of hormones that prepare the individual to face a challenge, often referred to as the fight/flight response or acute stress response.
However these systems are less well adapted to dealing with chronic or long term stress and this is the type of stress that plays a significant role in the development of behavioural problems and stress-related disease in cats.
Why are some cats more prone to developing chronic stress than others?
The ability of the individual to cope with challenges depends on both genetic and environmental factors. The development of the physiological systems involved in the stress response starts before a kitten is even born and if the mother is stressed during pregnancy or receives poor nutrition then her litter may be more prone to developing stress, and the non-adaptive coping strategies that form the basis of many of the common behaviour problems.
A lack of early socialization and opportunities to experience the sights, sounds and smells of a typical domestic home environment may also result in life being very challenging later on.
How can I recognise stress?
Acute stress may be caused by an unexpected incident or threat and is relatively easy to recognize in cats.
Many of the following signs may be evident:
- Body – crouched directly on top of all fours, shaking
- Belly – not exposed, rapid breathing
- Legs – bent
- Tail – close to the body
- Head – lower than the body, motionless
- Eyes – fully open
- Pupils – fully dilated
- Ears – fully flattened back on the head
- Whiskers – back
- Vocalisation – plaintive miaow, yowling, growling or silent
- Hissing, growling, shaking, drooling
- Involuntary urination, defecation
- Aggression if approached
Chronic stress is more difficult to recognise as it can develop over a long period of time and the signs may be more subtle; it is more likely to affect patterns of behaviour and routines, such as:
- Inhibition of feeding, grooming, urination & defecation or over-eating (dependent on personality type)
- Increased resting or ‘feigned’ sleep
- Increased dependency or social withdrawal (dependent on personality type)
- Defensive aggression towards people/cats
- Extreme vigilance and heightened startle response (jumping at the slightest noise)
- Lack of play activity
- Changes in general patterns of behaviour e.g. spending significantly more time indoors, irrespective of normal seasonal changes
- Inappropriate urination or defecation
- Urine spraying indoors
- Over-grooming, pica (wool eating)
- Increased facial rubbing, scratching on surfaces
- Displacement activity (repetitive out-of-context behaviour)
- Redirected aggression (onto a target that is not the original source of threat)
- Ambivalent behaviour (approach/withdraw, conflicting signals occurring almost simultaneously)
What stresses cats?
Factors that can potentially cause your cat stress may be found in its interaction with both people and the environment but a significant proportion of the stress experienced by cats relates to their own species.
If your cat is sharing resources with cats it does not get on with, it could be a constant nightmare, as could living in a neighbourhood where the cat population is high.
Unfortunately some owners can inadvertently play a role in increasing their cats’ stress levels. Some owners can be intrusive physically in the way they behave, wanting more contact with their cats than is reciprocated. Some owners may be inconsistent in their approach, leaving their cats uncertain of how to respond at any time.
The environment may well be the last thing you consider when assessing the welfare of your cat, as humans tend to perceive safety and love as being the most important provisions for their pets. However, being confined indoors or bored or having restricted access to hiding places or litter trays, for example, can be very stressful for some cats.
What can I do to help relieve or prevent stress in my cat?
If you can provide care for your cat that respects its needs, both as a species and an individual, you stand the best chance of preventing or reducing chronic stress. Always remember, things that stress your cat could be things that you don’t find worrying at all.
Cats, being responsible for their own survival, are constantly risk assessing, looking for the presence of threat and danger in every new location or social encounter. They are therefore reassured greatly if their lives consist of familiar routines and a degree of predictability as they know, historically, that these are safe. Being predictable in your behaviour and creating daily routines is a great stress buster.
The number of cats you keep should be considered carefully, particularly if the local area already has a significant resident cat population as this can represent additional pressure.
The number of resources you provide for your cat (or cats) within the home (i.e. food bowls, water bowls, litter trays, beds, hiding places, high perches, scratching posts, toys) should always be sufficient to satisfy needs. A good formula to use in order to calculate the appropriate quantity is “one per cat plus one extra, positioned in different locations”. See our information on making your home cat friendly.
Getting the relationship with your cat right is always a challenge, and being sympathetic to its particular emotional requirements as an individual is the key to stress-free living. A confident, social cat will always want more attention than a timid one, or one who didn’t have the appropriate socialization as a kitten. Allowing your cat to initiate contact between you is probably the easiest way to establish the quality and quantity of affection that is wanted.
If your cat is allowed outside then, if possible, the timing of any excursions should be left to the cat rather than you. If the territory is being ‘time-shared’ by a number of cats then there may be very specific times during the day when your cat will feel safe and others when the garden is a much more dangerous place. Cats have a complicated communication system using scent that relays a message about the timings when certain individuals are in the area and, on that basis, your cat will be the best judge of when it’s appropriate to have some fresh air! Click here for more information on cat communication.
If your cat is kept exclusively indoors, a dynamic and challenging environment will provide exercise and entertainment, guarding against boredom and frustration. Cats need to behave like cats for emotional and physical health, so providing your cat with a setting that simulates a natural habitat, with objects to climb for example, will be essential. See our information on making your home cat friendly.
It’s unrealistic to expect a life for your cat that has no potential stress triggers but appreciating what those triggers might be and keeping them to a minimum will reduce the likelihood of any problems developing as a result of chronic stress.