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What do cats do when they are stressed?

Cats can experience stress just like humans and other animals. While they may not seem to have many responsibilities or worries in their pampered domestic lives, cats can become stressed by changes in their environment, schedules, interactions, and health. Recognizing the signs of feline stress and understanding the common causes can help cat owners minimize anxiety for their furry friends.

What causes stress in cats?

There are many potential triggers that can cause cats to become stressed. Some of the most common include:

  • Changes in environment or routine – Cats tend to thrive on predictability and can become very anxious when their familiar spaces or schedules are disrupted. Things like moving homes, construction noise, visitors, or shift changes for caretakers can induce stress.
  • Conflict with other pets – Cats are often territorial, so introducing a new pet or a lack of harmony among existing ones can create a stressful and hostile environment.
  • Health issues – Physical pain, disease, and even just normal aging can produce discomfort and impact a cat’s quality of life. This frequently causes significant stress.
  • Lack of socialization or stimulation – Cats need mental stimulation and affection just like any other pet. Boredom, isolation, or lack of playtime and interaction with caretakers can lead to anxiety.
  • Abuse or neglect – Any mistreatment, even unintentional, can understandably cause a cat great distress. Things like rough handling, yelling, or insufficient care often create fearful or anxious pets.
  • Loud noises – With their sensitive hearing, cats frequently become stressed by loud sounds like fireworks, thunderstorms, or rowdy gatherings.
  • Car travel – The noise, motion, and confinement of traveling in a car is very unnatural and alarming for most felines.
  • Vet visits – The unfamiliar setting, handling by strangers, and strange procedures often make vet visits the most stressful experiences for cats.

While any cat can become stressed in response to things like these, certain breeds and dispositions may be more prone to anxiety. Skittish, shy, nervous, high-strung, and formerly abused or abandoned cats seem particularly susceptible to stress triggers.

What are the signs of a stressed cat?

Cats communicate stress through a number of behaviors and changes. Catching these warning signs early allows owners to mitigate problems and improve their cat’s wellbeing. Some symptoms of a stressed cat include:

  • Excessive grooming, licking, or scratching – Cats often self-soothe through these behaviors, doing them compulsively when stressed.
  • Urine marking/spraying – Territorial marking, especially outside the litter box, is a sign of insecurity and anxiety.
  • Aggression – Stress often manifests as irritability, anger, and unprovoked attacks on humans or other animals.
  • Hiding and avoidance – Cats will withdraw to “safe spots” when feeling threatened or anxious.
  • Loss of appetite – Anxiety frequently suppresses a cat’s desire to eat.
  • Sleep issues – Stressed cats may have trouble sleeping, wake frequently, or sleep excessively.
  • Dilated pupils, twitching tail – These subtle body language cues convey tension or anxiety.
  • Excessive vocalization – Yowling, howling, and other loud cries can show distress.
  • Destructiveness – Stressed cats may engage in harmful activities like furniture scratching.
  • House soiling – Inappropriate urination or defecation outside the litterbox signals anxiety.
  • Overgrooming hair loss – Compulsive licking and biting at fur can create bald spots.
  • Pacing, restlessness – Inability to get comfortable or relax indicates unease.
  • Changes in sociability – Hiding from human contact or acting clingy/needy can reflect stress.

How can I help my stressed cat?

The good news is there are many supportive things cat owners can do to ease anxiety for a stressed cat. Some tips include:

  • Identify and remove stress triggers whenever possible – Reduce loud noise, construction, arguments, outside cats, etc.
  • Keep routines consistent – Feed, play with, clean litter for, and interact with your cat at regular times.
  • Make time for play and affection daily – Dedicate at least 10-15 minutes per day.
  • Provide enrichment – Cat trees, toys, scratching posts, food puzzles, and other accessories make the environment more engaging and comforting.
  • Give access to hiding spots – Offer enclosed beds, cardboard boxes, crawl spaces, and other retreats.
  • Use calming aids – Pheromone diffusers/sprays, calming treats/supplements, and calming collars can promote relaxation.
  • Try calming music/TV – Soothing music, nature sounds, or even the TV can help mask stressors and unwind cats.
  • Consider anxiety medication – For severe anxiety, prescription medications from a vet may be warranted.
  • Prepare for vet visits – Take your cat in just for treats/pets so check-ups become less scary.
  • Limit major changes – Introduce adjustments like new homes or pets gradually over weeks/months.
  • Provide solo play time for multi-cat households – Give each cat daily one-on-one attention.
  • Clean litterbox frequently – Cats like minimal odor and one box per cat, cleaned at least daily.
  • Use Feliway – This synthetic pheromone can help reduce stress and anxiety triggered by unfamiliar places, pets, people, etc.
  • Try taking your cat outside – Outdoor time in a catio or on a leash and harness provides environmental stimulation.
  • Board anxious cats in familiar places – Leave them with family/friends or in-home boarding when traveling.

When to seek help for a stressed cat

In severe cases of anxiety, or when basic efforts to reduce stress are ineffective, cat owners should consult both a veterinarian and a professional cat behaviorist. This is especially important for adopted cats with unknown histories, cats exhibiting aggressive behavior, cats urinating outside the litter box, and cats engaging in compulsive, self-harming activities like overgrooming.

A vet can rule out any underlying medical issue causing or exacerbating anxiety, provide prescription anti-anxiety medication if needed, and refer you to a qualified behaviorist. Cat behaviorists help identify stress triggers through in-home observations, suggest specialized techniques to change problem behaviors, and create customized treatment plans. Their expertise, combined with a veterinarian’s medical care, offers the best opportunity to dramatically improve a chronically stressed cat’s welfare.


Like most other animals, cats can absolutely experience stress and anxiety from their environments, health, and activities. Astute cat owners should stay alert for symptoms like aggression, inappropriate elimination, hiding, crying, hair loss, and other distressed behaviors. While everyday stressors are unavoidable, identifying and minimizing triggers whenever possible, sticking to routines, providing enrichment, and employing calming aids can help reduce a cat’s anxiety.

For situations like introducing new pets, construction, or chronic anxious behaviors, be patient and gradual in instituting changes. Seek advice from both veterinary and behavior professionals for cats exhibiting dangerous or destructive behaviors, self-harming compulsions, or failing to improve with basic environmental and routine adjustments. With time, effort, and occasional outside help, cat owners can successfully identify stress triggers in their pets and make them feel secure and comfortable again.

Signs of Stress Potential Triggers Ways to Help
Excessive grooming/licking Changes in routine or environment Stick to consistent schedules and routines
Urine marking/spraying Conflict with other pets Provide hiding places and solo play time
Aggression/attacking Health problems Address medical issues
Hiding Lack of stimulation Engaging toys and cat furniture
Loss of appetite Abuse/neglect Affection, playtime every day
Excessive vocalization Loud noises Calming music/TV, hide noise
Destructiveness Car travel Calming aids for transport
Pacing Vet visits Positive practice trips
Overgrooming Try synthetic pheromones