Does any pet seem more perpetually satisfied than the American house cat? Sleeping on the couch, eating when they want to, appearing to take everything in stride—on the surface, cats seem to live the lives we’d all love to have.
And yet, says Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant and co-founder of Feline Minds in Berkeley, CA, “They’re very delicate creatures!” Bred for generations to be vermin hunters, cats are blessed with some of the sharpest senses in the animal kingdom. They are sponges for stimuli—both good and bad—which means that even subtle differences in their world (and yours) can stress them out.
Beware of the Signs of Cat Stress
According to Delgado, there are a few clear cat behavior warning signs to look for when a cat is feeling upset or anxious. Signs include:
- Changes in cat behavior
- Hiding or being more fearful than usual
- Elimination outside of the cat litter box
- Changes in vocalization
- Changes in relationships with humans in the house
- Lashing out physically at you or others
And the more of these signs you see, says Delgado, the higher the likelihood that your kitty is feeling some stress.
The important thing, says Dr. Tony Buffington, Clinical Professor at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, is to keep an open mind when talking to a professional about the change in cat behavior. When he comes across stressed-out cats, very often their owners have brought them in for something else entirely. As he puts it, “Most people come in thinking that the cats have a urinary tract infection, and they want an antibiotic. The clinical challenge is to have a conversation with the owner, find out what’s going on, and see what can be repaired [in the cat’s environment].”
Stress might not be caused by one looming problem, such as moving, another cat inhabiting the area, a new child in the home, or construction next door. These and other fairly obvious life changes can certainly increase a cat’s anxiety and make her question her security within your home.
But very often, the culprits are smaller and more incremental. For example, not having an outlet for their natural impulses to scratch and hunt could be a factor. Anything that might affect their feeding times or play areas, such as changes in your work schedule or excessive clutter, could make a difference too. Even something as simple as sharing a cat food bowl or litter box could upset them. As Delgado notes, “that’s forcing them to compete for resources, even if it’s very subtle.”
Calming Your Kitty
So, what is there to do if your cat is stressed out? Delgado says to start by looking for changes in your cat’s routine. “They’re very much creatures of habit—they want things to happen at the same time every day. They want to know when they’re going to get cat food and when they’re going to have their litter box cleaned.” Dr. Buffington agrees: “It depends on changes in behaviors more than specific behaviors. What I try to get across to owners of cats is that they want to get a good idea of the baseline of their cat’s behavior—what their normal is.”
Dr. Buffington explains that cats’ “weird” but very normal activities, such as pouncing, bouncing, climbing, cramming, stalking, clawing, chattering and purring, are primal impulses that are vital to your cat’s well-being, and they should be allowed to act on them. So that’s one factor to keep in mind. The other type falls more in line with what Delgado is describing—the ways that a pet parent provides safety, predictability and novelty for their cat.
Improving your pet’s health along these two lines really boils down to adding, adjusting or removing elements of your cat’s world to fine-tune their happiness. And Dr. Buffington notes that it shouldn’t stop once a cat’s behavior improves. “I want clients to be doing that from the moment [the cat] enters the house until it dies of old age.”
Of course, every cat is different, so it’s important for both cat and pet parent to find solutions that fit into their lives and habits. That might mean finding an automatic feeder to make up for your unpredictable schedule, or a scratcher, cat puzzle toy or a cat perch to appeal to a cat’s primal instincts. Or, if you have more than one cat, be sure to get them each separate feeding bowls and litter boxes.
Pet parents also report success with a number of products created to specifically treat stress. For example, adding Pet Naturals of Vermont calming cat chews to your cat’s treat schedule might be a tasty way to reward good behavior and even out the occasional rough patch.
Many pet parents rave about pheromone therapies for their cats, which mimic biological chemicals that are soothing to cats. If that sounds interesting, try the Sentry HC Good Behavior pheromone calming cat collar, which is clinically proven to reduce or eliminate stress-related cat behavior for up to 30 days. Or try the highly rated Feliway Plug-In diffuser and refill for specific areas of your home.
Finally, if you know your cat responds well to the hands-on approach of gentle, calming hugging, ThunderShirt anxiety and calming aid for cats may be worth a look, particularly if you’re aware of some upcoming event that you know may set them off (a party, for example, or a move).
However you choose to approach your cat’s stress, remember that the best approach is holistic.