The first step in stress relief for cats is to know how stress works in your cat’s brain and understand your cat’s behaviors as a result of that stress. Anyone who has ever owned a cat for an extensive period can tell you – cats are creatures of routine. They aren’t flexible, so don’t expect them to be.
What you may perceive as a minor adjustment or a temporary circumstance can turn the world of a cat upside-down. Melodramatic much? Yes, but just like babies, cats think the world revolves around them.
Cats know what, when and how they want their day to go (even though the majority of it is spent sleeping). When their expectations aren’t met consistently, you can certainly count on the monkey wrench you threw into their routine creating some serious feline stress.
While some circumstances that cause stress in a cat are avoidable, others are parts of life that every cat will have to face. In general your goal as a responsible cat owner should be to keep stress to a minimum by understanding the causes of your cat’s stress and preemptively addressing them. When stress is unavoidable – be ready to identify and treat the symptoms and have the tools to provide your cat stress relief in the best way.
Let’s focus on looking at the most common physical, emotional and environmental causes of cat stress in closer detail, to learn how to keep these stressors at bay, and how to diffuse them.
1. Let’s Get Physical
Physical symptoms of stress and anxiety in cats may seem like a straightforward idea on its face. Cat gets hurt; cat is stressed. But often these symptoms aren’t as straight forward as you think they will be. Cats are masters at hiding their pain or illness. This goes back to the survival instincts animals have to never show their weakness. So, what exactly are the symptoms you will see from a cat under physical stress?
If a cat has a physical trauma, symptoms can be obvious or subtle. Obviously, if a cat has an open wound, broken bone or bleeding, they have a trauma that should be tended to by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Other less apparent symptoms could include: bruising, limping, inflammation resulting in joint stiffness, or rapid breathing.
No one knows your cat as well as you. If you notice a physical change in your cat’s behavior, even a small one, your cat is counting on you to get them the help they need.
There are many symptoms of stress in a cat that could indicate an internal illness or serious problem. Changes to your cat’s eating habits, straining, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting or extreme lethargy are an indication that something is amiss.
When in doubt, seek out expert advice rather than dismissing symptoms. A brief check in with a veterinarian can save you a good deal of heartbreak and money down the road if you catch an illness early.
The average, healthy weight of a fully grown domestic cat is typically between 8 and 10 lbs (3.6-4.5 kg), but a cat’s weight can vary by breed, sex or other genetic anomalies. Much like people, an overweight cat has more inherent physical stress on their bodies.
Common problems that people face are also prominent in overweight cats. Diabetes, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, hypertension, and bladder or kidney stones can all become concerns for overweight cats. Also, keep in mind that a 1lb. weight change in a 10 lb. cat is a much more significant fluctuation than it would be in a 100 2 lb. person.
Work with your cat’s doctor to find a healthy weight for your particular cat and maintain it with a healthy diet and a generous amount of play.
2. I Get So Emotional, Baby
Emotional stress relief for your cat can be just as important as the physical. Often times, these symptoms are overlooked until they exacerbate an existing physical issue or lead to other more noticeable behavioral problems. Many problems are helped by your direct involvement to address them as they arise, before they escalate to intolerable levels.
BOREDOM & LONELINESS
Having a cat, or any pet for that matter, is a two-way street. The unconditional love and daily joy that cats bring into our lives is so important to our own well-being, emotional growth and sense of responsibility. However, a bored or lonely cat is a stressed cat. Much like young children, your cats want to play with you, but it is your responsibility to engage with them consistently.
If you bring any cat to a home with no mental or physical stimulation, particularly if that cat is alone, you will have a very stressed animal on your hands. Cats love the thrill of the hunt. They love to play with toys or figure out a puzzle to get their treat. Even something as simple as a tummy rub can lower your cats stress levels and your own. Chasing a feather wand or laser pointer for 10-20 minutes a day will give your cat attention and challenges they need for mental and emotional stimulation.
If you can afford to, sometimes the best cure for your cat’s loneliness is a feline counterpart. The easiest way to bring two cats into your home is to adopt animals from the same litter or animals who were raised together, rather than introducing a new animal to one which has already established its territory. If you work long hours or aren’t home to keep your cat company, this could be a smart solution to avoid a lonely cat. Just remember that two cats can also be twice the work, so think about your commitment level before bringing them home.
DEATH OF A CLOSE FAMILY MEMBER OR CARETAKER
Just like people, cats grow attached to their family and the loss of a family member can cause serious grief and depression for your cat. They may withdraw or refuse to eat. The loss of a loved one is a serious change of routine for any animal, especially one as attached to routine as your cat, so treat it as such. Be empathetic and sensitive to your cats needs. That may mean more time and attention from you or less depending upon what your cat wants.
Fear is a basic primal stress reaction for all animals. The drive to survive is innate, and “fight or flight” can cause all the physical symptoms off stress (such as fast breathing, racing heart) that they cause in humans. Other noticeable signs of fear in cats are crouching or hiding, pulling their ears back, hissing, scratching, biting or growling, dilated pupils, an arched back and excessive vocalizations.
When your cat is reacting this way, approach with caution or ignore them until they calm down. If you can, remove the source of their anxiety or interrupt their aggressive behavior. Let your cat come to you and provide incentive by offering food or treats.
Just like people, cats can be competitive or display jealousy. Sibling rivalry is just as common in feline siblings as human ones. If you have more than one cat, they are likely to compete for your attention at times and if one feels slighted they may act out by chasing, wrestling, swatting, growling or hissing at one another. Sometimes, jealousy may cause a cat to withdraw or stop eating.
The best way to counteract this feeling is to give your slighted cat a bit more attention and re-assure them. Make sure that you do not reinforce bad behavior by reserving your extra attention until the jealous cat is calm and submissive.
3. What a Wonderful World?
As discussed earlier, cats love their routines. Once you have created their environment by establishing their home setup, companions or freedom to move about – changes to those expectations can create unwanted stress for your cat.
CHANGES AT HOME
This is a topic I hope to expand upon in a future article, but there are a couple questions to keep in mind to maintain your cat’s consistency at home and minimize their stress –
1) What spaces of your home will be accessible to your cat? Decide where your cat will be allowed within your home and stick with it. For example, in my house, the kitchen is “floor only” for my cats. You may be at your wits end trying to keep your cats on track, but don’t give up. Cats are checking you on the boundaries you set. Be consistent. For example, if they sense that you may or may not take them off the counter, they will always give it a try. Not knowing how you will react will only create more stress in you and your cat’s life.
2) Does your cat have designated areas within accessible rooms and what do those spaces look like? Giving a cat their own play areas, toys, scratching post or cat tree gives them a sense of ownership and comfort in within their space. Encourage your cats by placing them in these areas until they realize this is a special place just for them. This can also help tremendously with issues of rivalry or jealousy that may arise between pets. That isn’t to say that cats won’t claim other spots throughout your home, but by designating spots that are clearly meant for your cats, they are less likely to exhibit negative behaviors, such as destroying your furniture or acting out with one another.
ADDITION/REMOVAL OF OTHER ANIMALS
As mentioned earlier in the article, having more than one animal to avoid loneliness or boredom can be a very smart idea, but stress can be a factor in adding a new animal to your family. Understand that adding an unfamiliar animal to your cat’s environment once they have established their routine and their territory can be a threatening prospect for your cat.
Be smart about how you introduce a new animal to your home. Keep a new animal separated in their own area and gradually expose them to your more established pet. Don’t expect unfamiliar animals to share. Separate litter boxes, food bowls and play spaces are a good idea, at least until your cats are comfortable with one another. By the same token, the removal of a cat’s companion can cause an equal amount of stress. Be thoughtful about how you introduce or remove other animals into your family so as not to cause excessive stress.
Every cat has times that require them to be confined. Trips in a travel carrier to the vet or to visit family may be the most common time this stress occurs. While unavoidable, there are things you can do to reduce stress for your cat. Many of the symptoms described in the “FEAR” section above are also expressed when a cat is confined. Experiment with expandable carriers that provide your animal more space and the freedom to move around on road trips. Talk to your vet about herbal remedies or other supplements that may help calm your cat prior to your need to confine them. Serious anxiety in your cat may even warrant prescription medication. Cats like to be in control and be on their own terms. You have already upset their day by taking them out of their routine, so make the confined experience as comfortable as it can be.
The idea that your cat will never encounter severe stress is unrealistic, but with your watchful eye and attention to detail you will add comfort to your cat’s worst days. Remember to never underestimate the negative effects stress can have on the well-being of your cat. Physical, emotional and environmental factors all play a considerable role and often times interact with one another. By knowing your cat’s stressors and how to best respond to them, your cat will have a healthier life and happier bond with other people and animals in their life.