There is no short way to answer this question!
There are many potential causes of stress in cats, and the best way to reduce stress and “keep kitty calm” is to provide them with a living environment which minimises stress. This requires some understanding of feline behaviour and how cats differ from dogs (although there will be differences between individual cats as to what they find stressful).
Cats are solitary hunters and rarely form close bonds with cats from outside their family group. Anyone who has ever tried to make two strange cats be friends will know that they don’t react to the idea the way dogs do! Because cats are natural predators and this instinct is strong even in domestic cats, they see other cats as being in competition for valuable resources such as food, water, litter box, and sleep areas, toys, territory and attention from their human slaves. Many stressed cats are simply traumatised by other cats in the home, or by cats in the neighbourhood trespassing into their territory. The way to minimise this is to ensure all cats in the home have equal access to vital resources and that dominant cats are not overtly or subtly controlling other cats. Better still, consider a single-cat home only.
Stress can also result from other pets such as dogs, from visitors to the home, a new baby in the family, rough handling from children, from moving house, travelling to the V-E-T or from unfamiliar noises or smells (Maggie runs for the hills when the vacuum cleaner comes out). This can be minimised with advance planning and consideration given to the cat’s needs. Because cats are masters at hiding illness or other signs of weakness (again, for their own protection as a wild species), it’s not always obvious to us that they’re unhappy. Signs of stress are non-specific and include:
- Urine spraying or toileting in unusual areas
- Increased grooming
- Anorexia (reduced appetite)
- Rapid weight changes
- Pica (eating non-food items)
- “Cat flu” (triggered when carriers of these viruses become stressed)
- Vomiting and/or diarrhoea
- Aggression to other pets or to humans
- Increased sleeping
- Behavioural changes such as increased vocalisation, pacing, flattened ears, slinking, lip-licking, dilated pupils, stand-offs with other cats
If your cat displays any of these signs, you need veterinary advice to rule out medical causes first. The veterinarian or veterinary nurse can ask you about your cat’s environmental and behavioural history, or even make a home visit to see your cat in its own environment and make suggestions on how to alter the environment to minimise stress.
In some cases the use of a pheromone spray or plug-in diffuser such as Feliway are useful, but this needs to be used in conjunction with other strategies because it will rarely be effective as the sole treatment. In severe or complicated cases, the vet might recommend an animal behaviour specialist to help identify and address the problem. While this might appear to be an unnecessary expense or frivolity, these people can be invaluable in helping to improve the environment for a stressed animal (and its effects on the rest of the family).
A huge number of cats and dogs are surrendered to shelters or rehomed to due “unwanted behaviours”, many of which can be successfully addressed with modifications to the home and to family interactions with the pet.
In extreme cases, the vet might prescribe medication such as an antidepressant (for the cat, not for you), but I consider this to be a last resort if all attempts to address the cause of the stress have failed and rehoming the cat (or other dominant pet causing it stress) is not possible.
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