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Do Cats Suffer With Stress?

by Angela Tempest

posted in Pets

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In our modern culture, we tend to equate stress with things that don't affect cats - social pressures, work pressures or financial pressures. But stress is far more varied and complicated than that. Stress can even be a good thing in certain circumstances and is certainly something that cats can be affected by.
Good stress
There are a number of systems within a cat's body that are designed to deal with stress. These include the HPA axis, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis as well as the sympathetic nervous system. These are designed to deal with 'ordinary' stress that can affect a cat when it is in the wild and in its natural environment prior to domestication. It uses the release of hormones to cope with this stress and to be ready for the associated challenge, often as part of the fight or flight response.
Where cats can have problems is when facing prolonged or chronic stress. Their bodies aren't designed to cope with this. In the wild, they may face a short period when a predator is stalking them when they feel stressed and frightened. But this wouldn't go on for days or weeks. So a prolonged stressor is something cats have no natural defence against.
Recognising stress
Acute stress can be easy to spot and can be brought on by a single, sharp event. This is anything from the dropping of a glass to the arrival of a new animal. Often the cat will stay very still, with their body crouched and their legs bent. They make shake or tremble and their tail will be wrapped around the body with the head tucked below their body. Pupils will fully dilated and their ears may be flattened against the head. They may be completely silent or they may meow, yowl or growl as well as hissing. They can even urinate or defecate involuntarily and may react with aggression if approached.
Chronic stress over a longer period of time is more subtle and depends on the personality of the cat. For example, they may stop feeding, grooming or using their litter tray correctly. They may sleep more or hide most of the time. They may became withdrawn or overly needy with their humans and can even turn aggressive with people. They will be hyper-vigilant, jumping at the slightest noise and will change behaviour patterns, such as staying indoors when previously enjoying going out. Over grooming, inappropriate urination or increased scratching may all be signs of stress.
Causes of stress
Different factors can cause stress in different cats. One of the top reasons is sharing items with another cat such as food and water bowls or litter boxes. It could be that their owners are intruding on their lives too much, demanding too much attention or not allowing the cat any space or peace. They may be stressed by the number of animals and/or people living in the house. Finally, boredom, feeling unloved or being confined to a small space can all bring on stress reactions.
If you think your cat is stressed, then speak to your vet. They can rule out medical conditions or underlying illnesses that may cause the problem and help you assess what is causing the stress to alleviate the condition.
About the Author: For all things cat from food to litter to toys, please see my articles at
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