White and ginger stressed cat

Provide a cat with safe spaces, so they feel more secure.

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Immunity and stress in cats

By Dr. Liz Barton MA, VetMB, MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

Cats can be upset easily by change, which leads to stress, which can damage their immune system. So how can you help your pet with this?

From there being a new cat on the block to you moving home or evening having a baby, cats can become stressed for all sorts of reasons. So how do you minimise your cat's stress levels? Here you'll find lots of information to help your pet cope better.

Why is my cat stressed?

Cats are solitary, independent animals. Domestic cats tend to only enjoy the company of cats they are related to – for example, cats in stray colonies all tend to be related. Your cat may tolerate the company of another cat, but the presence of an unrelated cat is still likely to cause them stress, even if they don’t show obvious signs of stress.

Cats are also highly territorial. Any disturbance to their territory – for example, decorating or building work in the home – can cause them stress. A new cat in the neighbourhood can also lead to stress and often cat-fights, as they figure out boundaries. Even if your cat comes out on top, they will still be stressed by an unfamiliar presence.

How does stress impact a cat’s immunity?

Stress causes cortisol release (in cats as well as people). This is the body’s way of preparing for the fight-flight response, which is helpful in the short term to escape from or fight a threat. But it’s unhelpful in the long term, as it suppresses the immune system, making it less able to fight infection. This can increase the risk of infections and also other problems, such as overgrooming and urinary conditions in cats.  

How can I strengthen my cat’s immune system?

Your cat’s immune system is a function of their own body. While you cannot specifically strengthen it, there are many ways to support a healthy, effective immune system for your cat.

Reducing the stress response is the best way to help your cat’s immunity stay strong. Provide them with safe spaces, such as boxes to hide or high places to watch, so they feel more secure and have somewhere to escape to. Put their food and water in safe, quiet spaces (for example on an elevated surface such as a worktop), and feed combative cats separately to reduce stress around feeding. Feeding a cat a healthy, balanced diet will ensure they have the nutrition needed to produce antibodies as part of a normal immune response.

Try not to disturb your cat’s favourite places to sleep and rest, and keep items that smell familiar nearby if you do need to move them.

More water, more litter trays

If your cat has urinary problems related to stress, then encouraging them to drink more water (e.g. from water fountains) will reduce the risk of recurrence. Ensuring they have access to several, clean litter trays in safe spaces will also help them to urinate normally. You should have at least one litter tray per cat in the household, plus one additional spare tray.

Other things that can be useful include diet supplements or prescription diets for stress, and pheromone plug-ins, sprays or diffusers. In severe cases, vets can prescribe medication to reduce stress.

When should I talk to a vet?

The most common reason stressed cats visit the vets is when they have urinary problems, such as difficulty urinating, blood in their urine or a blocked bladder. The commonest reasons for this are stress-related Feline Idiopathic Cystitis or FIC, or over-grooming and hair loss. Behavioural problems, such as urine spraying, withdrawal or aggression, may also occur due to stress. If you are worried your cat is stressed, it is best to speak to a vet as soon as possible, as the longer the period of stress the greater the risk of associated problems.

It is best to speak to your vet in advance if you are concerned how your cat may react to change such as the arrival of a new cat, puppy or baby; or a home move or renovation work. Some stress-busting measures can be put in place in advance, for example some supplements need to be given for a few weeks before having the maximum effect.

How should I discuss cat immunity and stress with a vet? 

Stress is very common in cats, and it’s a good idea to discuss the effects with a vet at your next appointment – for example when you're there for your cat’s annual booster or check-up. Even a trip to the vet can be stressful for your cat, so it is always a valid question. The effect on their immunity can be very hard to quantify, but we know that in many species – including cats – chronic stress has a detrimental effect both on the ability to fight infections and many other normal metabolic functions.

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