Stress in domestic cats: new review discusses causes and management

23 Jun

Pet cats can suffer from stress triggered by a variety of events and situations, including conflicts with other cats and

changes to routine. While cats can adapt, sometimes the stress can be too much, with negative effects on their health.

cat hiding
When stressed, cats may stop exploring and hide away for long periods of time.
Image credit: Marta Amat, Autonomous University of Barcelona

Writing in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, a group of veterinarians from the Autonomous University of

Barcelona, Spain, explains that stress can impoverish the health of pet cats and increase their risk of disease.

The authors say that stress in pet cats can lead to behavior changes that are so difficult to manage that owners end up

relinquishing them or having them euthanized.

In their paper, they discuss the causes and effects of stress in pet cats and strategies on how to prevent and reduce


Some of the main causes of stress that they discuss include: changes to the pets’ environment, a barren environment, poor

relationships with humans, conflicts with other cats and lack of control and predictability.

The authors note that other new changes – such as the arrival of a new member in the household, or a change in the daily routine –

may also be stressful for the family’s feline pet.

Effects of stress in cats

In cats, stress distorts normal behavior – leading to reduction or excess of it. Generally, stress causes a domestic cat to become

less active and playful and engage in markedly fewer positive interactions with other cats and humans.

The authors note that stress can also cause pet cats to eat less – or more, in some circumstances – than usual.

Stress can also trigger compulsive behavior in domestic cats, such as over-grooming, to the point where the animal

loses its fur, showing patches of bare skin. But sometimes, stress can have the opposite effect, causing the cat to be neglectful

about grooming.

Another sign of stress in a pet cat is increased urine spraying and increased vigilance – the animal can also become a lot more

vocal than usual.

Cats are naturally curious and social animals, but when stressed, they may stop exploring and hide away for long periods of time.

They can also become more aggressive.

Often, owners do not realize that stress is the reason their pet is behaving like this, say the authors, especially if there are

no other, more obvious, signs.

Reducing conflict

In their review, the authors cover a range of strategies that owners can use to help reduce stress in their pet cat.

For example, they describe a three-phase method for reducing conflict between cats under the same roof.

It is important that to begin with, the cats are kept in separate parts of the house – each with its own space, litter

tray, food and water bowls, scratching posts, toys, and so on.

Then, the cats are introduced to each other’s territory (without the other cat being present) – primarily so they can get used to

each other’s smell. In this phase, the owner may also take a clean cloth, rub it on the scent gland of one cat, and then rub the

scented cloth on the cheek of the other cat. The authors call this phase “olfactory habituation.”

When the cats appear to be relaxed in each other’s territory (still in the absence of the other), the next phase, called “visual

habituation,” can begin. In this phase, the cats get to see each other through a safe barrier – for example a mesh door – while they

are engaging in pleasant activity.

The duration of these “visual contact” sessions is gradually increased, until the final phase, “direct contact habituation,” when

the mesh or barrier is removed and the animals are allowed to naturally approach each other physically.

Environmental enrichment

Another stress reduction approach that the authors describe is environmental enrichment, where the physical, social and complexity dimensions of

the cat’s life are enriched.

In this approach, the cat is given its own space with its own resources (food and water bowls, toys, etc), where it can feel

comfortable and relaxed, without feeling threatened by other cats and dogs or other pets.

As cats spend a lot of time foraging, their space should be enriched with “puzzle feeders” and by hiding food in different


For cats that spend a lot of time indoors, their toys should be changed frequently to pique their interest and curiosity. Toys

that mimic small, moving, catchable prey are particularly effective for this.

Another way to enrich the pet cat’s environment is to install shelves, cat trees or platforms so the pet can explore its

space vertically as well as horizontally. Cats like using height as a vantage point, and they like to hide in places above the


The authors also mention studies that suggest giving cats places to hide can reduce stress.

Finally, cats, like humans, have different temperaments, and this needs to be considered when deciding strategies for breeding and raising cats, note the authors.

The full text of the study – which details all the strategies and discussion behind them – is available free to view for a short

time at this


Earlier this year, Medical News Today learned of a study by veterinary clinicians from the University of Lisbon, also published in the

Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, that showed how classical music can help cats relax

during surgery.

Veterinarian Dr. Miguel Carreira, the senior study investigator, said he plays classical music when seeing cats in his clinic and

noticed that it made cats calmer, more confident and tolerant, particularly during George Handel compositions.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD