Anyone who has suffered stress and anxiety knows the debilitating effects it can have on your health. Stress in cats acts much the same way, and not only can it exacerbate existing physical conditions, but it can lead to a number of problems often considered behavioral, such as litter box avoidance, aggressive behavior, or depression and withdrawal. When behavioral problems suddenly appear, savvy cat owners soon learn to look first for signs of health problems (such as urinary tract infections with litter box avoidance), and next for stress factors, such as changes in the environment.
Although humans relate stress to emotional factors, and those are also seen in feline stress, stress and anxiety in cats can come from other sources, including environmental changes and physical stress. You will find that many of these areas overlap as we explore further. We will look at some of the causes of stress in cats, the symptoms, and how we can help our cat get back on an even keel, for better physical and emotional health.
External Causes of Stress in Cats
Cats do not deal well with change. Even subtle changes in a cat’s environment can lead to stress; substantial changes, such as moving, introduction of a new baby, spouse, or other animal to the household, can have devastating effects.
•New Family Members, Human or Animal: Cats may react in a number of ways to new family members, including aggression, withdrawal, or sudden litter box avoidance, to name a few. By understanding this and planning ahead, the concerned caregiver can help her cat avoid the stress of a sudden introduction, while letting the cat know that he is still “number one” in the family tree. Introducing a new spouse or human roommate calls for understanding and patience. The newcomer needs to allow the cat to come around at his own pace, and to avoid trying to rush the relationship.
•Moving to a New Residence: Moving calls for care in seeing that your cat’s life is disrupted as little as possible. During a local move, it helps to keep him closed off in a separate room with his favorite “blankie,” toys, litter box, food and bed, while the rest of the house is moved. Last, bring kitty and all his belongings to the new house or apartment, where you will put him in his own “safe room” while you unpack and rearrange the rest of the household. Having his own things around him will help him understand that he is home. A long distance move is better handled with help. Have one person go ahead to the new residence and set up kitty’s safe room. The other will accompany the cat in a carrier with his favorite toy or “blankie,” whether by plane, train, or automobile.
•A New Job: A new job or other change in daily routine should also be handled by planning ahead. A week before starting work, start leaving for the day, for gradually increasing periods of time. Before leaving, hold your cat and tell her, “I’m going to be away for awhile, but I promise to come back to you. I love you and I’ll miss you, but we’ll have fun together when I return.” Upon your return, make a big deal over your cat. Tell her how much you missed her and how good it is to be back home. Carry her around, pet her, and ask her how her day was. By the time your job starts, your kitty will be quite accustomed to your absence during the day, and the two of you will look forward to new bonding experience each night upon your return.
•Loud Parties and Noises: Holidays are particularly stressful for cats, especially those which focus on fireworks, such as the 4th of July. Large parties with the doorbell constantly ringing, accompanied by loud music, talking, and laughing, will usually send even the most sanguine cat running for cover.
•The View Through the Window: A discussion of external stressors would not be complete without mentioning re-directed aggression, a sudden and often inexplicable phenomenon which is more common than realized, Re-directed aggression often happens when a household cat is sitting on his favorite perch, gazing out the window. Suddenly he sees a strange cat stroll through his yard. Frustrated because he can’t get outside to defend his territory, the cat will suddenly attack the closest being, whether it is another resident cat or a hapless human. Dealing with this form of aggression calls for creative thinking, which includes keeping your cat away from that window or somehow barring his view, while taking steps to discourage the strange cat from further exploration in your yard.