We think of cats as aloof, self-contained and able to fend for themselves emotionally and physically. But new studies indicate something that many cat owners may already know: cats love their humans and need them for security, they’re just more subtle about their emotions than their canine compatriots.
Cats can get stressed by all sorts of things, just like dogs and other companion animals. Knowing some of the classic cat stress symptoms can help you determine if something is off before it turns into a big health or behavioral problem.
Here are four signs of stress in cats:
- Changes in toilet habits, such as urinating or defecating outside of the litter box.
- Changes in behavior, such as excessive grooming, increased isolation or hiding, increased sleeping or increased aggression.
- Changes in appetite, such as eating more or less than usual, or not eating at all.
- Changes in vocalization patterns, such as persistent meowing or yowling.
Given the range of both triggers and symptoms, how can you figure out what is causing your cat’s stress?
As always, your first step should be a trip to the veterinarian to rule out physical ailments such as injuries, urinary tract infections, allergies, stomach or intestinal upset, or age-related diminishment of senses.
Then, think about what has changed recently in your home. Keep in mind that cats are territorial creatures of habit, and even the smallest change in circumstances, like the following, can cause these signs of stress in cats:
Bringing a new person into the home. A significant other, baby, another pet or even a pet sitter can disrupt your cat’s routine and boundaries, resulting in a host of previously-unobserved behaviors such as marking, aggression and self-soothing behaviors like excessive grooming, gnawing, scratching or hiding.
Switching from one brand of cat food to another. Changing your cat’s food can also cause problems, both emotionally and physically. If you need to change brands, or switch from dry to wet food, do it gradually. This will give your cat time to get used to the new tastes, smells and textures, and also give his digestive tract time to adjust to the new ingredients.
Changing up the litter box. Slacking on litter box hygiene, or even switching to a new litter, is one of the top culprits behind “going outside of the box.” Be sure to scoop your cat’s litter every day, and refresh the contents on a regular schedule (usually once a week). If you can smell the litter box, your cat certainly can, and you can’t really blame your cat for wanting to find a more congenial location to do his business. If you’re a multiple-cat family, the general rule is one litter box per cat, plus one extra. Most cats prefer privacy for toilet activities, so try to find a place where he can eliminate without an audience.
A note about dogs: some dogs (bless their hearts) find cat poop rolled in kitty litter to be the most wonderful, crunchy, tasty treat in the world. If that’s your dog, find a way to keep the litter box off limits behind a baby gate or in an enclosure, and train your pup to keep his snoot out of your cat’s business.
How to Prevent Stress in Cats
The key to figuring out how to calm your cat and keep him as stress free as possible is to introduce changes slowly so that he has time to get used to the new situation. It’s also helpful to keep a written baseline of your cat’s normal behavior so that you can quickly identify any changes over time. This information can be very useful for pet sitters as well and can help them deal with any cat separation anxiety, especially during multi-day or overnight visits. Speak with your veterinarian about these stressors and if additional treatments, like medication or calming supplements, are appropriate if you notice signs of stress in your cat.
Jamie Damato Migdal, CPDT-KA and CEO/Founder of FetchFind, has been innovating within the pet industry for over 25 years. A sought-after consultant and public speaker, Jamie has built four national pet service companies and has wide-ranging industry expertise in education, technology, business development, sales, marketing and management. Her fourth and current company, FetchFind, provides staff training and engagement, as well as digital marketing and other business solutions, to pet care service and pet-friendly companies around the globe.