Symptoms and solutions for stressed cats

It may be hard to imagine that your cat dozing in the sun is suffering from stress, but living in a human world puts all sorts of pressures on our animals of which we may not be aware. Believe it or not, being at home with your cat can cause her some stress.

While it may be easy to spot acute stress – think of your cat’s behaviour at the vet or when faced with a boisterous dog – long-term stress can be more subtle. In the case of acute stress, the solutions are simple: get the cat out of the situation as quickly as possible, reassure them, and consider what you can do to help them in future. Chronic stress often requires a bit more effort.


Cats are extremely sensitive animals in many ways, and so stress can result from a variety of factors. Auditory stress can be caused by frequent loud music, dogs barking or a noisy household. Tactile stress may result by something as seemingly benign as laying down carpeting. A highly developed sense of smell means that spraying pesticides in the garden, painting a room or using strong-smelling detergents or air fresheners could upset your cat.

Cats are very susceptible to stress due to environmental changes, such as moving to new a home, getting new furniture, renovations, people moving into or out of the home, or the arrival of a new animal. Being denied access to a favourite sleeping or hiding spot can cause distress, as can major weather events or even regular visitors.

Health issues, a dirty litterbox, changes in food brands, or insufficient resources in a multi-cat household can all cause stress. We can directly cause stress in our cats too, via inconsistent training, too much or too little affection, inadequate mental stimulation or forcing our cats into situations with which they cannot cope.


Every cat is unique, with varying coping abilities, so responses may differ. However, any change in your cat’s behaviour should be taken seriously, whether rapid or gradual. Common signs of stress include withdrawal or hiding, changes in toileting behaviour or litterbox usage, changes in eating habits, excessive grooming, changes in interaction with people or other animals in the home, and aggressive behaviour.

What you can do

The first step in helping your cat is ensuring that her health is not a contributing factor. Have your cat checked by your veterinarian and ensure that any conditions are being treated appropriately. Then try to view the world from your cat’s perspective and see if you can spot what could be bothering her. This can be difficult as a cat’s heightened sensitivity means that we aren’t always aware of the problem.

Make sure that your cat has access to safe places, ideally raised surfaces, as this will help her feel secure. She should always have the option of getting away from people, other animals or any activity in the home.

Make sure the litterbox situation is suitably private and hygienic, and that your cat likes the litter on offer. In a multi-cat household, there should be ample resources in different locations, including litterboxes, water and food bowls, and sleeping areas: the general rule is one resource per cat plus one. If possible, prepare your cat for upcoming events or changes – the more gradual you can make the change, the better. Pheromone products can be wonderful in reducing stress during a change.

When to call a behaviourist

There are certain instances when it may be necessary to consult with a professional cat behaviourist. Stress that persists despite attempting the more simple solutions outlined above may require a more thorough assessment, and approaches such as counter-conditioning, for which a professional will be required. Aggressive behaviours, whether directed at humans or other animals, extreme anxiety, and any behavioural patterns that actively inhibit a cat’s normal functioning are also included in this category.

Bottom line

Stress causes suffering, both psychologically and physically, and not just to the cat themselves – it can also affect the animals and people around them. Before assuming your cat is naughty, spiteful or stupid, consider that what you are perceiving is actually the manifestation of some type of stress.

Stress can range from severe to mild; some is even beneficial in the form of so-called eustress, or good stress. This would apply to activities such as playing and positive reinforcement training. But largely, stress burdens a cat’s ability to cope.

Fortunately, there is plenty we can do to help our cats, whether in the form or prevention, management, treatment or therapy. And even more fortuitous is the fact that we don’t have to use any form of punishment, aversive or negative response at all with modern behaviour modification methods. Should you need assistance, please contact the Animal Behaviour Consultants of South Africa.


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