Do you have a scaredy-cat on your hands? Many things can trigger stress in a cat — a new environment, strange people or animals, a negative experience, a scary noise, health issues, etc. And sometimes those triggers are not so simple to pinpoint, which is why it’s important to be able to recognize when a cat is anxious. Here are eight subtle signs your cat is stressed — as well as how to help them feel better.
1. Accidents outside of the litter box
There are several reasons a cat might eliminate outside of their litter box. Maybe the box isn’t clean or has the “wrong” sort of litter (according to the cat’s particular preferences). The cat also might have territorial issues, a medical condition or even a past event that created a negative association with the box. And a major cause of litter box trouble is stress. “Changes in things that even indirectly affect the cat, like moving, adding new animals or family members to your household — even changing your daily routine — can make your cat feel anxious,” according to the ASPCA. So take note of any potential stressors in your cat’s life to share with your veterinarian as you work to resolve litter box issues.
2. A lack of appetite
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Digestive issues or a lack of appetite are telltale signs of stress. “Cats eat less when they are stressed, and sometimes stop eating altogether,” according to Best Friends Animal Society. This often happens when you bring home a new cat or experience a major life change. If that’s the case, it’s important to continue feeding your cat the same diet they’re used to (such as what they were eating in the animal shelter) — potentially with some tastier food mixed in to entice them to eat. But if your longtime cat suddenly experiences a change in appetite, contact your vet immediately to pinpoint the underlying cause.
3. Flattened whiskers
Cats constantly express their emotions through body language, but sometimes the signs are too subtle for some people to read. For instance, a cat’s whiskers can say a lot about their mood. According to VetStreet, a relaxed cat’s whiskers typically sit away from their face. And if the cat is interested in something, their whiskers might stiffen and move slightly forward. But a nervous cat might hold their whiskers flat against their face. At the same time, they also might lick their lips — a sign they’re feeling pretty uneasy.
4. Abnormal grooming
Stress can lead to some changes in a cat’s grooming habits. “A nervous cat may start licking or scratching her body or grooming herself excessively,” VetStreet says. This might become a compulsive behavior to the point where the cat creates bald patches and skin irritation. But on the other hand, a cat under stress also might decrease their grooming or quit altogether. There are underlying medical conditions that can cause this, as well, so it’s important to take action if your cat’s hygiene habits suddenly seem off.
5. Disinterest in normal activities
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If your cat has become more reserved and disinterested in normal activities, they might be under some stress. “A stressed cat may be more quiet than usual, which can be difficult to notice,” Best Friends says. “Very stressed cats are more likely to behave aggressively or fearfully.” The cat might play less or walk away when you try to pet them. Stressed cats also tend to sleep more, and you might find them resting in isolated locations. If this is the case, a vet consult is in order.
6. Unusual vocalization
Although a stressed cat might generally be more quiet, they also sometimes start vocalizing more than normal or make noises you don’t typically hear. “Be wary of unusually long or recurring bouts of panicked meows — especially if your cat is not the typical ‘talker,’” PetMD says. Sometimes a cat does this while pacing. Or they might try “talking” to you as though they’re asking for help. Regardless, try to find the source of any unusual vocalization.
7. Quickly pivoting ears
Most people tend to look at a cat’s eyes and tail to decode what they’re feeling. But the ears can be just as informative. The ears of a relaxed cat are typically pointed forward and slightly to the sides. If the cat is interested in something, their ears prick farther forward or turn as they follow a noise. But an anxious cat’s ears might be quickly pivoting and twitching. “Fast-twitching ears may be indicative of nervousness and uncertainty,” VetStreet says. “A cat who is fearful or agitated may move her ears back toward her neck and pin them tightly against her head or move them out to the sides so that they resemble airplane wings.”
8. Tense posture
A stressed cat probably will carry itself in a tense manner. Even when they’re apparently resting, they still might breathe rapidly. They also might lean away from you when you’re holding or petting them. And they might avoid eye contact or look like they’re searching for an escape route. Plus, stress often makes a cat hold their tail low, tucked between their legs or wrapped around their body when they’re lying down. (If the tail is rapidly whipping back and forth or stiffly bristling, that means they’re very agitated or fearful.) Furthermore, some stressed cats become aggressive to people or animals they typically get along with. So note whether the tension passes or it’s an ongoing issue to determine your course of action.
How to help a stressed cat
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If your cat is exhibiting signs of stress, it’s critical to rule out any physical health issues. And then you can turn your attention to their emotional wellbeing. PetMD offers some tips for making a cat’s environment as stress-free as possible.
- “Catify” the space: Cats need spaces to, well, be cats inside your home. Provide them with perches where they feel safe to survey their environment, as well as hiding places where they can go if they feel overwhelmed. Offer vertical and horizontal scratching areas to fulfill their natural desire to sharpen their nails and mark their territory. And, of course, supply toys to keep them mentally and physically stimulated.
- Feed a healthy diet: A cat receiving the proper nutrition should feel healthier and happier. If you have multiple cats, make sure each is getting the right amount of food — and that meal time doesn’t come with any territorial issues. Furthermore, pay attention to your cat’s hydration. Some don’t drink enough water, so you might have to entice them with a fountain or add some wet food to their diets.
- Provide the perfect litter box: Stress can cause litter box issues, and ill-suited litter boxes can cause stress. “Consideration needs to be given to the size of the litter box, the location, the type of litter used, and the daily care of the litter box,” PetMD says. If you have multiple cats, supply a litter box for each plus one extra.
- Play with your cat: Your cat needs quality playtime to stay physically and mentally healthy. PetMD recommends playing with cats for at least 20 to 30 minutes twice a day. Try rotating toys to keep your cat mentally stimulated. Plus, don’t underestimate the importance of some quiet cuddling time. Not all cats are snugglers, but most do appreciate undivided attention from their humans.
- Avoid sudden changes: Cats typically don’t like change. And sudden or extreme changes can be very stressful for them. “Keeping your cat’s daily routine constant can be useful in preventing or alleviating stress and anxiety,” PetMD says. If you must make a change, attempt to do so gradually, maintaining as much normalcy as possible.
- See your veterinarian: A veterinarian or behaviorist is always a good resource to help you create the best environment for your cat. They’ll assist you in pinpointing stressors and offer solutions. For instance, they might recommend feline pheromone products, which send chemical signals that can help relieve stress. So if your cat just doesn’t seem like their normal self, it’s always best to seek a professional opinion.
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