Signs of Stress in a Cat (and What to Do About It)

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One of the most important parts of my human’s job (i.e., being my personal assistant) is monitoring my stress level. She tries to anticipate when I’m becoming fatigued or a situation is starting to get to me so she can take the appropriate measures. That can range from giving me a break to actually removing me from a place. It’s become so second nature to her that when someone asked her this week how she knew when I was stressed, she had a hard time answering. At this point, she knows my signals on an almost subconscious level.


While most of you with cats are in tune with them to a certain extent, it might not be quite that microscopic. Either that, or you see the signs and are not sure whether you are guessing right. So here are some of the signs of stress in a cat. I’ll also tell you what to do to help.

Signs of Feline Stress

Changes in physical condition

When cats are stressed out, they often have physical reactions. Those can include:

  • Over grooming, resulting in bald patches
     
  • A change in appetite, either being less hungry than normal or overeating.
     
  • Sleeping more, or lethargy.
     
  • Pica — chewing plastic, wool or other items that aren’t food
     
  • Urinary tract issues

Any of the above could be caused by a medical condition. So if your cat is displaying any of these symptoms, a visit to the veterinarian is in order.

Behavioral issues

Keep in mind that changes in behavior could also be caused by a medical problem. So once again, consider discussing your cat’s behavior with your vet.

  • Withdrawal from the other cats and human family members
     
  • Conversely, being more clingy than normal
     
  • Extreme nervousness; being jumpy and startling easily
     
  • Not using the litter box (which can be either medical or behavioral — definitely see the vet about this!)
     
  • Scared of things/areas they weren’t scared of before
     
  • Aggressive behavior, either towards human or cat family members
     
  • Spraying or urinating, especially near areas where other cats or animals may have been
     
  • Hiding
     
  • Any other behavior that is outside of what your cat normally does

Short term stress indicators

The above signs of stress tend to build over time. The ones you see below are more likely to show up in a specific stress inducing situation.

  • Hissing or growling (cats don’t do these because they’re mean, it’s stress)
     
  • Crouching up ball-like, as if they’re trying to disappear
     
  • Ears moving backwards or flattening
     
  • Skin twitching
     
  • Frequent swallowing or licking their lips and nose that isn’t a result of eating food
     
  • Trying to escape from a room or environment

How to Reduce Your Cat’s Stress Level

If your cat is showing signs of acute stress, the answer is pretty simple. Either remove them from the situation that is stressing them out, or remove the thing that is stressing them from their presence. Once you have done that, give them some quiet time alone and see if they have returned to their normal selves. It may take a while, and if they were really upset, it may even take a day or two. But if it was something specific (anything from a vet visit to fireworks), it should resolve in a short period of time.

If there are long term physical or behavioral stress symptoms, the problem may be more complex. Here’s what to do.

  • First, try to figure out what changed in your cat’s life about the time they started showing stress. Sometimes this will be easy to know — a move, a new family member, a certain event. Other times, it’ll be harder to pin down. It could have been caused by something that happened when you weren’t around to see, or it could have developed over time. The more you understand the cause, the better you are able to help.
     
  • Next, have your cat checked out by a veterinarian. Yes, this in itself is a stress inducing event, but you need to make sure that your cat isn’t sick. Lots of stress symptoms are caused by illness. Ideally, you could have them examined by a home vet visit. Just make sure there aren’t other medical problems going on.
     
  • Think about what your cat needs, from a cat’s point of view. Many times a cat’s stress is caused by an environment that is disturbing to them. Is the litter box or feeding station near a noisy washing machine? Is the only private space they have under the bed? Do they lack stimulation, like window perches, cat trees, or scratching surfaces? Do they get enough play or social time? Consider what may be lacking in your cat’s life, and give it to them.
     
  • Don’t force affection on them, and don’t try to make them do things they don’t want. A cat that swats at you because you are hugging them against their will is stressed, and it’s not amusing. Expecting your cat to behave like a dog and getting mad when they don’t is stressful. Your cat should have the freedom and ability to do what they do best: cat things. Don’t expect them to be any more or less than that.
     
  • Consider pheromone sprays and wipes. These may help reduce a cat’s stress level.
     
  • If there are outside circumstances, like roaming animals or noise on your street, figure out a way to put a space between your cat and those disturbances. Can you discourage other cats or critters from coming around your house? Is there a way you can dull outside noise with curtains or window treatments? When it comes to noise, lessening it will benefit you too.
     
  • If your cat’s stress is caused by a situation that can’t be changed, like a move or a new baby, think about what you can do to improve their quality of life. Can you create a private space that is all their own? Can you offer some quality time on a regular schedule for play or treat sessions? If another family member in the house (human or animal) is the cause of stress, is there a way to keep them separate without making the cat feel like an outcast? Each cat’s situation is unique and only you can know what will suit your cat the best.
     
  • Hire a cat behaviorist. These guys aren’t used often enough, and they are really helpful! They will talk to you about your cat and your situation, and they have the insight to see what’s going on that you may be missing. Find a behaviorist who has studied and acquired a certification, not just someone with a website and a pitch. You’d be surprised at what you may learn.

I hope you’ve found this helpful! If you have more suggestions or stories of your own, I’d love to hear them! Tell us in the comments below.

Here is more advice to help your cat have their best life:

Signs of Stress in a Cat (and What to Do About It)

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