Black and white cat on a window seal

Signs of chronic stress in a cat include being easily startled.

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What are the signs of stress in cats?

By Dr Hester Mulhall MA, VetMB, MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

Are signs of stress in cats difficult to detect? Will you need outside assistance to help your feline?

The signs of stress in cats can often be very subtle, if they are experiencing long-term or chronic stress. There are many different behaviours to look out for, as you'll see discussed in this article. However, every cat has their own unique personality and will respond to stress triggers differently. This means that seeking advice from a vet or behaviourist can be very useful to identify and manage stress in your cat.

How do I know if my cat is stressed or sick?

Stress is regulated by several mechanisms within the body. These have evolved to benefit your cat in handling short-term threats through the fight or flight response. However, these same processes can be unhelpful if they are triggered over a longer-term period. This is where chronic stress comes in. Chronic stress can lead to underlying health problems, but equally your pet may be showings signs of stress if they are already unwell. This means that it is useful to get advice from a vet early on to help rule out illness.

Signs of chronic stress include heightened sensitivity to noise, being easily startled, over-grooming or lack of grooming, urination outside of the litter box, changes in behavioural patterns, lack of interest, lethargy and displaced behaviours that are inappropriate to the context. However, there are plenty of other signs that your cat might be stressed, so if your cat is acting out of the ordinary, seek advice.

How can I help my stressed cat?

There are some great resources available with tips on how to destress your cat or make their environment more positive for them. This includes providing cat-friendly hiding spots, ideally up high so they can see their surroundings. This could be on a shelf or with a cat climbing tree.

Multi-cat households can also be the cause of a lot of conflict and stress. Even if cats appear to get on well, there can be complex social interactions particularly around feeding. Make sure that you have enough resources such as water bowls and food bowls, and with litter trays that there is one for every cat plus a spare.

Stress triggers will vary between individuals, particularly depending on their personalities. Some cats really benefit from being able to go outside freely through a cat flap. This is particularly the case if there are lots of cats in the neighbourhood and they have time-limited turns patrolling the local area.

Can stress in cats lead to urinary problems?

Your cat may show signs of feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD) when they are stressed, which is often referred to interchangeably as feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC). There is evidence that stress signals from the brain can lead to local bladder inflammation, particularly in cats who have an abnormality with this reaction. Symptoms may include urinating outside of the litter box, increased frequency of urination, painful urination and overgrooming around their back end.

If your cat is showing urinary symptoms, you should take them to a vet to check for other underlying causes. You can discuss with a vet whether your cat is showing any signs of chronic stress and whether there are any recent triggers that you are aware of, such as a new addition to the family. The vet will be able to advise if any diagnostics are necessary and what treatment plan is suitable.

What treatment is there for stressed cats?

There is no one treatment that works for every individual. Adapting your cat’s environment will help them, but contacting a vet or behaviourist is also an excellent idea as they will be able to point you towards useful resources. If your cat has a specific stress-related illness, there may be additional treatments or management factors that your vet recommends, such as a therapeutic diet.

Is my cat vomiting because it's stressed?

Your cat may be showing gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting if they are stressed, however this is a very non-specific sign and can indicate many other health concerns. Contact a vet so they can look at your cat and provide advice appropriate for the individual case.

When should I talk to a vet about the best diet for my stressed cat?

It is helpful to see a vet, if your cat is showing signs of stress, as they can investigate for other underlying health problems or pain. Many of the symptoms associated with stress are not specific and can indicate that your pet is unwell. A vet will also be able to advise appropriate resources to help manage stress in your cat. If you have any questions about diet, you can raise these at the appointment. Some pets will need a special therapeutic diet, if chronic stress has triggered a health problem. For example, cats with urinary disease may need a specific food. These should only be fed under veterinary guidance.

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