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How can I reduce stress-related illnesses in my cat?

Grey cat looking up at the camera advice

Cats enjoy perching up high so that they can observe

© Shutterstock

A cat can be stressed and you may never even know it, but if you learn to detect the signs you'll be able to keep your pet healthy.

By Dr Hester Mulhall MA, VetMB, MRCVS

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Stress in cats is not uncommon but they can be very good at hiding it, so it can be difficult to pick up on the signs. The stress response forms a part of a cat’s natural ability to react appropriately to their environment, such as with the fight/flight response. Yet if these systems are stimulated over a longer-term period, this can lead to chronic stress, which can cause problems.

Can stress in cats lead to physical problems?

As well as leading to behavioural issues, stress in cats can be an underlying cause of physical health problems too. A well-documented example of this is feline idiopathic cystitis – inflammation of the bladder in the absence of an infection. There is evidence that brain signals in response to stress could cause the release of pro-inflammatories within the bladder. These conditions may also be more common in cats that do not handle stress in the ‘normal’ way, for example by producing lower levels of certain hormones such as ‘stress hormone’ cortisol.

It is helpful to learn to identify subtle signs of stress in your cat, as there are things you can do to help.

What are the symptoms of a stressed cat?

If your cat is stressed by a specific event that is happening right now or has just occurred, this would be termed acute stress. Signs include wide eyes with fully dilated pupils, flattened ears, a crouched position with low tail and head, and vocalisation (hissing, growing, yowling etc). Your cat may also pass faeces or urine.

Signs of chronic stress are likely to be more subtle and can be very variable between individuals. These could include over-grooming, changes to behaviour (e.g. sleeping more or less, spending more time outside), being easily startled, increased hiding behaviours, changes in appetite, urine spraying and many more.

How can I reduce my cat's stress?

You might be wondering why you have a stressed cat and how to fix it, and there are specific triggers to consider. This could include a significant change, such as a new addition to the family or a new pet. Another common cause of stress is the complex social interactions between pets in a multi-cat household. It is also worth considering personality differences between cats, and socialisation as a kitten can have a large impact on this. Some individuals felines really enjoy lots of human company, whereas others like to be have plenty of alone time.

If you are unsure what is causing your cat’s stress response, seeking advice from a vet or behaviourist can help. Whether or not you are able to get to the bottom of specific causes or stress triggers for your cat, there are proactive changes you can make to their environment to help.

How to create a stress-free home for you cat

Tips for coming up with a stress-free environment for your pet include providing suitable places for them to relax un-bothered. Cats have a much more three-dimensional perspective of their surroundings, and really enjoy perching up high so that they can observe. It can work well to clear a shelf on a book case or to provide a specially designed cat tree. If you have a multi-cat household, it is essential to have plenty of resources (litter trays, food bowls, water bowls, etc.) spaced around the house. Even if you think your cats get on very well, there can be a lot of stress caused by sharing these. Ideally you need one of everything per cat, plus a spare!

Other considerations include trying to keep to a familiar routine where possible, providing free access to the outdoors by installing a cat flap, if safe to do so, and providing mental enrichment.

Can a cat die from stress?

Chronic stress can lead to long-term health complications in your pet that could be life-limiting. If your cat is showing signs of stress, try to make positive changes to their environment to help. It is also worth talking to a vet and behaviourist for more tips tailored to your pet.

When should I see a vet to talk about a good diet for my stressed cat?

If your cat is showing signs of stress, seeking veterinary advice early on is a good idea. This is because your cat may be stressed due to pain or an underlying health problem, and the vet will be able to give them a health check and advise whether any tests are necessary.

Ask the vet whether your cat needs to be on a specific diet. If your pet is prone to urinary symptoms, for example, they may benefit from being on a special therapeutic diet.

Some links in this article will redirect you to My Family Pet website.

Ask for advice

Worried about your pet?

Speak to a qualified vet online, from the comfort of your home