Decode Stress in Cats


Dr Dhananjay Pandit
It’s unrealistic to expect that life for your cat who 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. Let’s decode stress in cats.
Stress has been identified as a significant component of (or trigger for) most common cat behavioural problems and some common diseases. Cats do not show their emotions overtly and tend to withdraw and become quiet rather than ‘act out’ their anxieties. It therefore, becomes necessary for pet parents to take notice of the subtlesigns of stress in pets to provide 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 adapted to deal with chronic or long-term stress. This is the type of stress that plays a significant role in the development of behavioural problems and stress-related diseases in cats.
Sorting the mess of stress
The ability of an 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. Lack of early socialisation 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?
There are two kinds of stress – acute and chronic.
Acute stress may be caused by an unexpected incident or threat and is relatively easy to recognise in cats. These signs and symptoms indicate your pet might have acute stress.

  • Immobility
  •  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 meow, 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
  •  Hiding
  •  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
  •  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)

Unlock the mystery: what stresses cats?
Factors that can potentially cause stress may be found in 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 other cats,and does not get alongwith could be a constant nightmare, as could living in a neighbourhood where the cat population is high.
Unfortunately, some pet parents can inadvertently play a role in increasing their cats’ stress levels. They can be physically intrusive in the way they behave, wanting more contact with their cats than is reciprocated. Some pet parents 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 indoor or bored or having restricted access to hiding places or litter trays, for example, can be very stressful for some cats.
Less stress –don’t let the load weight your cat down
If you can provide care for your cat who 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 for cats!
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 their needs. A good formula to use in order to calculate the appropriate quantity is “one per cat plus one extra, positioned in different locations”.
Getting the relationship with your cat right is always a challenge, and being sympathetic to their 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 socialisation 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!
If your cat is kept exclusively indoor, 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.It’s the small things that matter. Let them be and their individuality never be subdued. Identify the signs, be alert but not intrusive, and you’ll be able to manage stress in a balanced way and be a responsible pet parent!
(Dr Dhananjay Pandit is National Vet Affair Manager at Scientific Remedies Pvt Ltd. He is a vet with more than 20 years experience in food, hygiene, animal nutrition and pet care)