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Emotional Distress


Emotional distress

Cats have feelings, both positive and negative ones, ​a​nd those feelings matter to each and every cat. They also matter to us. ​At iCatCare, we believe to be truly cat friendly, we need to give equal consideration to both the physical health of a cat and also its mental wellbeing. We want to look after cats in a way that ensures they enjoy the life they lead and minimises the chances they may feel fear, anxiety, frustration, and pain. A knowledge of cat friendly behaviour can ensure our interactions with cats are positive, for more information see our infographic page on handling and interactions.

In order to minimise negative emotions in cats, we need to understand the behaviour of the species including what they need to live a fulfilling life as a cat, what the emotions mean for cats and what are the likely causes of them.

Fear and Anxiety

A cat feels anxious when it thinks there is a possible threat to its safety and security and it feels fear when that threat is no longer potential, but real.

Every cat is different due to its genetics and its life experiences but common sources of anxiety and fear for cats include encountering:

  • Unknown animals and people
  • new environments such as a new home, boarding cattery, veterinary clinic,
  • loud noises, strange sensations, sights and smells.


A cat feels frustrated when it is unable to access something it wants and/or when it receives nothing or less reward than it was expecting.

Common sources of frustration for cats include the cat perceiving it:

  • cannot access certain parts of the home,
  • it is unable to go outside when it is used to
  • cannot obtain food or the food it desires
  • is unable to actively defend its territory from intruders
  • has inadequate toileting facilities
  • is restrained and unable to free itself.

We also need to be able to read their behaviour and body language to recognise how they are feeling at any particular time. If our cat detective skills tell us a cat is experiencing emotional distress, we need to activate that feline behaviour knowledge, and act. Such action may involve changes to the environment, changes to the way we interact with the cat and/or a trip to the vets to investigate any possible pain or illness.

How do we maintain positive emotional states and promote mental wellbeing?

Understanding that cats use their behaviour and body language to maintain safety and to communicate, allows us to engage in mutual interactions with them, advocate for them and prevent distress.

Recognition of what a calm, relaxed and content cat looks like, and allowing cats to make choices is ideal (see our handling page). Contented cats choose to approach a person or situation or are calm in its presence. They have:

  • soft facial expressions
  • Loose relaxed body movements
  • The tail may be upright, with a gentle “question mark” curve at the top
  • The eyes may have a soft almond shape, with small slit-like pupils, and the cat may slowly blink
  • Calm cats’ ears are usually neutral or slightly forward, as are the whiskers.
  • They may purr
  • Knead with their paws
  • Offer “social rolls” (this doesn’t mean they want belly rubs!)
  • Rub their heads or bodies against people, surfaces, cats (in their social group) or other animals.
  • If settled, the paws are often away from the body, and with the claws withdrawn, signifying relaxation.

Cats may be described as “high frequency, low intensity interactors”, so little and often is what they generally appreciate – whether that is play, social contact or handling.

As a small organisation with a large impact on the lives of cats everywhere, we are bigger than the sum of our parts, and this is thanks to the people that share our vision of improving feline welfare. If you’d like to help us continue our work which touches the lives of an estimated 25 million cats around the world each year, please consider donating using the form below.

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If you’re interested in learning more about your cat, we have several courses that can help you understand and look after them, and strengthen the human-cat bond.

Are you planning to add a new addition to your current cat or cats? Are you wondering whether your cat will accept another cat? Our ‘Cat Friendly Introductions: Cats, dogs and babies’ course looks in greater detail at how we can assess whether a cat is likely to accept another cat and gives you in-depth advice on how to introduce your cat to other animals and small children with step by step plans to maximise success. Click here for more information.

As owners and cat professionals, caring for our cats and keeping them healthy is a huge part of our lives. Our ‘Cat Care for Life: An Introduction to Feline Health’ online course will give you an introduction into how we can work alongside veterinary professionals to keep cats healthy by helping to prevent disease throughout their lifetimes, knowing the signs and symptoms of diseases that can make our cats sick and knowing how best to look after them to ensure they receive the best care possible. Click here for more information.

Have you ever wondered how well you really know your cat? Then our ‘Getting to know your cat: An introduction to feline behaviour’ course is for you! Aimed at cat owners and feline enthusiasts, this course will give you an introduction into the reasons cats behave in the way they do and how we as owners can best provide for their behavioural needs. Click here for more information.