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Pet anxiety - stress in cats

Cats are often deemed as “unpredictable” and “aggressive”. Although this may be true for some cats, it's often a sign of stress and anxiety.
Pet anxiety - stress in cats

What causes stress in cats?

Evolved as a predator and a prey species, cats have a complex relationship with domesticated life. They're a solitary species, adapted to live alone, defend their territory, and rely on only themselves for food. Modern day life often sees cats sharing a home with other animals such as other cats and dogs. This is not a natural environment for all cats and some struggle to cope.

Cats can learn to cope with adaptions to their natural life if exposed to them during the early socialisation period. This period is from the age of about 2 to 7 weeks. During this time exposure to different things can help with their tolerance for each individual situation.

Unfortunately, we don’t always know what our cats have been exposed to before we get them. Often, problems wont present until their environment is changed and all of a sudden the cats behaviour is affected. This is often a sign of stress which leads to a negative welfare state.

Genetics can also have an impact on a cats temperament. Cats with feral parents may have adapted to be a bit more cautious with a lower stress tolerance level. This can be due to early experiences or it could be passed down from their parents in early life. A feral kitten that has not been exposed to humans, other animals and certain situations will be less likely to cope in a home environment after the socialisation period. For numerous reasons, these cats do end up in a homes; and often display many, if not all of the behavioural and stress symptoms mentioned below.

Signs of stress in cats

Cats display stress in many ways. Some can be very subtle and others can be completely out of character. The subtle changes can be harder to pin point and these are the ones that often result in the “unpredictability” that cats are well known for.

The easier cases are often those of cats who were once friendly and playful, suddenly becoming aggressive or fearful, hiding, attacking and displaying signs of irritability. If this behaviour change has coincided with the introduction of a new pet, a change in the home or something going on outside the home, such as a new cat in the area, stress is likely to be the cause. It's always important to rule out any medical issues with a vet first. 

Other signs of stress in cats can be toileting in unusual places (urine and/or faeces), aggression, fear, an increase in scratching of furniture, over grooming and scent marking (face rubbing and or urine spraying).


If your cat is feeling fearful that another cat may take over, urinating can be a sign of stress. It can also be a sign of cystitis or a more serious condition in male cats, so it is important to seek veterinary attention straight away in these cases.

Scratching and face-rubbing

Cats scratch furniture and rub their faces on objects, again, to mark territory. If there is an increase in this behaviour it may indicate your cat is feeling unsettled in their territory.


A cats natural reaction will often be to run from fear. If it can't get away from the cause of the fear, it may present as aggression. In a home environment, there may not be a place to run or get away and this can lead to aggression directed towards anyone who gets in the way.

Withdrawn behaviour

The worst display of a stressed cat is when a normally feisty cat becomes quiet or withdrawn, and doesn’t do anything to scare you away. In this case, your cat may be mistaken for now being settled, when in fact it's more likely your cat has given up or “shut down”. This is a situation we want to avoid at all costs as your cat will be experiencing a negative welfare state. 

All signs of stress mentioned can also be linked to medical conditions. It is always better to have your cat checked by a vet before assuming it’s a stress related issue.

Avoiding stress in cats

Make changes slowly

Cats are creatures of habit. Any change in routine in a cats environment can result in stress and some or all of the stress responses mentioned above.

We must therefore, introduce changes gradually and avoid anything too sudden. This can be when introducing a new pet to the home or a new object.

Avoid resource sharing

If there is more than one pet in your household, make sure there are enough resources so cats that are not bonded don’t have to share. Separate feeding stations, beds and sleeping areas, and cat litter trays can help avoid any competition for resources

Give your cat some space

Allow your cat(s) to have enough space in the home to get away from other pets, people or children. Quiet sleeping areas and areas up high will allow your cat to escape if it feels unsafe.

Try a pheromone plug in or spray

Pheromone plug ins or sprays may help your cat relax. These pheromones will often mimic the smell the mum gives off to her kittens when they are suckling and can be a source of comfort.

Give your cat time to explore

Allow time outdoors to explore and exhibit natural behaviours such as hunting and climbing. If your cat doesn't go outside, this must be provided in the home by offering periods of play and areas to scratch and climb on. This also allows the cat to vent any frustrations that may lead to stress.

For cats, displaying behavioural issues is often a normal way of coping. Learning to understand what your cat is communicating is the best way to deal with stress and always seek help if ever in doubt.

Finally, it's important to understand that stress in any way is having a negative welfare impact on your cat and must not be ignored. We must remember to look at the 5 welfare needs when assessing stress in cats as these help us determine if all needs are being met, if not, negative welfare is likely the outcome.

By Laura McDermott RVN ISFM AdvCertFb

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