Domestic house cats still retain many of their wild ancestors’ characteristics and behaviors, which can make integrating them into a human home difficult. Small changes around the house or failing to meet your cat’s basic needs can make them feel stressed, leading to physical and behavioral problems. The Island Animal Hospital team wants cats to live happy home lives, so we’re sharing how to identify, prevent, and address cat stress.
Basic cat needs
According to the American Academy of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), cats have five basic needs to live a happy, healthy life. The absence of, or difficulty accessing, basic needs from competition with other pets can lead to cat stress. Establish a healthy home for your cat with the following:
- A safe space — Cats need a protected retreat, such as a box, carrier, or cat tree that is enclosed, but has exits on two sides, and fits only one cat. Each cat should have their own safe space.
- Essential resources — Basic resources, including food, water, litter, play areas, scratching materials, and sleep or resting areas, should be spread out so other pets cannot block access. Provide multiple resource stations if you have multiple cats.
- Play and predatory behavior outlets — Rotate interactive toys and food puzzles that allow cats to practice natural hunting behaviors, allowing them to “catch” the toy occasionally, to avoid frustration.
- Predictable human-cat interaction — Respect your cat’s wishes and give them only their preferred amount and type of human interaction. Allow them to initiate and end interactions during predictable times, and keep sessions positive.
- Respect for smells — Strong smells from cleaning chemicals or air fresheners can upset your cat. Also, avoid washing your cat’s bedding too frequently, because they communicate through smell.
Cat stress signs
Cats can be stressed when their needs are unmet, or something changes in or around your home. Moving furniture, construction, guests, new pets, and other cats outdoors can upset your pet. Stress signs in cats can be behavioral or physical and include:
- Urinating outside the litter box — Stress may cause urinary tract inflammation or behavioral changes and lead to urinary accidents around your home.
- Runny eyes or nose — Stress dampens the immune system and can lead to the recurrence of latent upper respiratory infections.
- Hiding or clinginess — Stressed cats may spend more or less time with their family.
- Appetite or sleep schedule changes — Stressed cats may eat, drink, or sleep more or less.
- Constipation or diarrhea — As in people, stress can cause stomach upsets in cats.
- Vocalization — Out-of-character yowling, hissing, or other vocalizations are common in stressed cats.
- Overgrooming — Some stressed cats compulsively groom as a soothing behavior, which can cause bald spots and skin irritation.
- Destructive scratching or urine marking — Scratching and urine marking are scent-marking behaviors that may increase if cats feel stressed because of other cats inside or outside their home.
Cat stress home solutions
In addition to providing cats with their basic daily needs and ensuring they have enough resources to avoid inter-cat household competition, try the following:
- Pheromones — Provide synthetic feline facial pheromones in diffusers or sprays around the house, which are proven to reduce stress in single and multi-cat homes.
- Cleanliness — Keep litter boxes pristinely clean.
- Avoiding disruption — Minimize household disruptions.
- Hiding places — Ensure your cat has a safe, secure hiding place when household disruptions are unavoidable.
- Blocking the outside — Use window clings to block visual access to stray or feral cats outside.
- Catios — Provide an enclosed catio or window seat where indoor cats can experience the outdoors.
Veterinary care for cat stress and stress-related disease
Because stress, pain, and disease signs overlap in cats, we recommend a complete veterinary evaluation if your cat shows chronic stress signs at home. Urinary tract problems, dental disease, endocrine disorders, high blood pressure, skin disease, gastrointestinal disease, or arthritis can lead to behavior changes, and we should rule them out before pursuing further treatments. Our team will recommend blood, urine, and imaging tests to identify and treat medical problems, and once we have diagnosed and treated underlying medical issues, we can prescribe supplements, special foods, or anti-anxiety medications that may help your cat feel better. We may refer you to a veterinary behaviorist or trainer for additional help.
Enjoy living with your feline companion by providing their basic needs and taking steps to reduce household stress. Contact the Island Animal Hospital team if you have questions about cat behavior and anxiety, or to schedule a visit if your cat shows stress or illness signs at home.