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Manifestations of Stress

When a friendly, extroverted cat suddenly becomes nervous and reactive, it is generally obvious to the owners that the cat is stressed. Stress may not be as easily detected in the shy, introverted cat who may be manifesting stress by sitting in a fixed posture, immobile for long periods of time. Cats handle stress in different ways depending on their personalities. Eysenck (1960) who did research on the human manifestations of stress, suggested that the position of neurotic individuals on the introversion/extroversion scale determined the type of the neurotic behaviors they exhibited. He found that introverts tend to suffer from phobias or obsessional symptoms, while extroverts are more likely to engage in hysterical, antisocial, or self-destructive behavior. The same may apply to cats.

Common manifestations of stress in cats:

  • Inappropriate elimination (litterbox problems)
  • Territorial marking behaviors, including spraying
  • Excessive grooming and self-mutilation
  • Immobility (depression) and hiding
  • Redirected aggression (toward people or other pets)
  • Excessive vocalization
  • Loss of appetite
  • Restlessness

All of these behaviors can also be symptoms of illness, so it is important to take the cat to the veterinarian as soon as possible to rule out health problems as being the cause for the aberrant behavior.

Stress-related Housesoiling Problems

One of the most common feline responses to stress is inappropriate elimination. The bladder is the cat's stress target. If the source of stress is the litter or the litterbox itself (too dirty, too perfumed, too confining) then the stool or urine is often deposited right next to the litterbox. (See our recommendations for "The Prevention and Solution of Litterbox Problems".)

If the cat is experiencing territorial anxiety over the sight of cats, dogs, or wildlife outside, then the cat may spray windows, doors, drapes or prominent objects in the room where the windows are located. Blocking the cat's view of the outside may help to eliminate these marking problems.

It may be that the cat is stressed by another cat in the household. Perhaps he is ambushed on his way to the litterbox or he is afraid to pass through the other cat's territory to get to his litterbox. A systematic program of desensitization and counterconditioning is essential to reconcile the cats to each other. (See "The Importance of a Good Introduction".)

When the cat urinates in front of the owner or on beds, furniture, or clothing, the message is clearly that the cat has a severe health problem, or that he is severely stressed by something in the environment. If he selects a particular person's clothing or bedding for his toilet area, it generally means that this person is the source of his anxiety. It can be a positive or negative message. Most likely, the cat is exhibiting separation anxiety, or a status conflict. Having this person give the cat food treats as well as extra attention may solve the problem. It is also necessary to keep clothes and other previous targets away from the cat for awhile.

Some stress-related behavior problems yield more readily to behavior modification strategies when the cat is treated with an anti-anxiety medication. A non-sedative drug, such as Buspirone, relaxes the cat, but unlike Valium, it enables the cat to continue learning so that retraining can steadily proceed.




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