If you love your cat, you’ll keep an eye out for signs that he is stressed.
Cats can display a wide variety of physical and verbal cues to indicate stress and anxiety.
Many common situations can trigger these emotions, including car rides, veterinary visits or the arrival of new guests to the household, both human and animal.
Your cat may display behaviors that indicate feelings of unease and stress. Understanding your cat’s emotional state is the first step to avoid problems.
• Excessive shedding: Cats in stressful situations will often have a normal physiologic response of excessive shedding. A cats muscles tense during times of stress and the follicles of some hairs, referred to as telogen hairs, are released. This is a natural reaction and cannot be prevented when a feline experiences high anxiety.
• Excessive grooming: Stressed cats often lick excessively, scratch and bite at their bodies. Rule out any underlying medical issues first, including allergies to food, fleas or environmental components. Over-grooming can lead to skin irritation or infection, so it is important to monitor this behavior closely.
• Tail position: The tail is a very expressive part of the cat’s anatomy. Many anxious, nervous or stressed cats will hold their tail in a low position and flick it quickly back and forth. If a cat displays this type of tail movement, be on guard for any possible aggressive or defensive activity.
• Gastrointestinal upset: Stress may be the underlying culprit for issues such vomiting, diarrhea or constipation. It is best to have your veterinarian rule out illness first before blaming it solely on stress.
• Hiding: Cats experiencing a great deal of stress and anxiety will run away and attempt to hide in a location where they feel safer. Many fearful cats will hide under a bed, behind couches or even in the shower or bathtub to try to reduce the stress they are feeling.
• Aggression: In contrast to those animals that react to anxious or stressful situations by hiding, some cats react by being aggressive toward other animals or humans in the household. Cats will use their claws and teeth when they feel threatened. This is one of the reasons many veterinarians prefer to have pets restrained by trained veterinary technicians instead of by their owners; it’s the best way to prevent misdirected aggression.
• Urinary accidents: When a cat urinates outside the litter box, this can be secondary to an underlying medication issue, such as a urinary tract infection, bladder stones, kidney disease or diabetes. If a veterinarian rules out a medical issue, then the cat is likely displaying a behavioral issue, usually related to a change in environment, such as a new family member, a change in the location of the litter box or type of litter material.
Maintaining good litter box hygiene and keeping the litter box in an easily accessible area of the house are two ways to lessen your cat’s desire to urinate outside the litter box while investigating whether stress is the underlying culprit for their inappropriate urination.
• Ears and eyes: Stressed cats will often pin their ears back flat on their head as a warning to those nearby. In addition, their eyes will widen and their pupils will dilate in stressful situations. This pupil dilation is secondary to the hormonal response, often referred to as the flight/fight response, initiated in the body during these situations. Pet owners looking to attune to their cat’s emotions should closely observe ear position and pupil dilation throughout different situations.
• Vocalizing: Cats in stressful situations will often vocalize to display displeasure. This can be meowing, growling, hissing or a high-pitched yowling. During these times of distress it’s best to give your cat space and avoid intense handling or interaction. These can be warnings of aggressive behaviors, including scratching or biting. Silent cats may also be anxious and expectantly lash out on a person handling them in times of stress, so it is best to always take into account your cat’s entire body language.
• Breathing: An extremely stressed cat will display increased respiratory effort. This often correlates to an increase in heart rate and pulse.
A normal cat takes an average 20-30 breaths per minute. Open-mouthed breathing with panting is alarming and should be considered an emergency. So, if your cat displays this behavior, contact your veterinarian immediately.
If you are concerned about high levels of stress in your feline companion, the safest option is to consult your vet to rule out underlying medical issues and decide on the proper approach to alleviate these feelings. A mobile veterinary visit may be a good option to research in your area if your cat has great difficulty traveling and being in a veterinary office.
Create a safe zone in your home, establish a consistent routine of feeding and playtime, feed a quality diet and try feline pheromone diffusers in your household.
Over time, you’ll gain a better understanding of which cues your cat displays in times of anxiety, so you can better anticipate and handle these situations. A stress-free cat is a happy cat!